For the past six years, Women Who Shape the State has honored women from a broad spectrum of backgrounds, including politics, enterprise, social work and more, with one thing in common — a positive impact on Alabama.
Whether it’s by advocating for equality, leading the charge in advancing technology, ensuring care for communities that are often overlooked or working to improve the lives of those around them, honorees are women who are fighting to push Alabama forward.
With the recent announcement of the Class of 2020, we took a look back at some notable past honorees whose work continues to change the state for the better.
Catherine Coleman Flowers is an environmental advocate and founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, which works to eliminate environmental disparities that limit access to clean water, air and sanitation in rural and marginalized communities.
The 2017 Women Who Shape the State honoree has also served as the rural development manager at the Race and Poverty Initiative of the Equal Justice Initiative since 2008.
Flowers is a McArthur Foundation “genius grant” fellow for the class of 2020 and her first book, “Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret,” was published in November.
Catherine Coleman Flowers offers a response to the Boston Review Forum on ‘How to Fix the Climate’.
“The people least responsible for climate change are the most impacted. We must prioritize exposed, fence-line, frontline, and vulnerable communities.”
Living in Alabama, a state bordered by the Gulf Coast, it is hard not to reflect on climate change and the environmental justice calamities that have been at the forefront of 2020. The pandemic has brought death to every corner of the world—and, as anticipated, vulnerable and marginalized communities have faced the highest death and infection rates. Next came the wildfires. So much of the world and the United States have been burning that adequate description conjures apocalyptic visions. Now we are in the midst of a historic hurricane season, battering the Gulf Coast over and again. There have been so many named storms this year that the twenty-five alphabetical names have been used up and we’re now on to using Greek letters to designate them. As I write, we anxiously await the arrival of Zeta.
“Communities of color, low-income families, and indigenous communities have long suffered disproportionate and cumulative harm from air pollution, water pollution, and toxic sites.”
This year Mother Nature has previewed the destruction that is to come if climate change worsens and we continue to act as if humans are not its cause. Denial of climate change is not dissimilar to the denialism that causes so many to refuse to wear a mask and social distance to contain the spread of COVID-19. Denial doesn’t prevent bad things from happening, and ignoring reality has caused traumatic consequences around the world. Lack of action will cause all of us to have the blood of future generations on our hands. And people are suffering now.
People living in communities plagued by environmental and climate injustice are already experiencing the effects of climate change—on the heels, for many, of having been traumatized by industrial pollution that has sickened them with cancers and other illnesses. Many in these communities are already doing what Charles Sabel and David G. Victor advise and are pursuing local climate activism and action. At the same time, many are also running up against the limits of what it is possible to achieve locally when global actions by states and moneyed corporations are stacked against them.
In Lowndes County, Alabama, climate change and a lack of adequate sanitation have intersected catastrophically. Read on…
This forum response is featured in Boston Review’s new book, Climate Action. ORDER A COPY TODAY
In a Video Recorded for FÉ NO CLIMA, Center for Earth Ethics director Karenna Gore comments on the approximation between Faith and the Climate Crisis in the Biden Administration.
The founder and director of the Center for Earth Ethics at the Union’s Theological Seminary in New York, Karenna Gore, believes that the rapprochement between “religion” and “climate crisis” will be an important aspect of Joe Biden’s policies, president elected from the USA. The inauguration of Biden and deputy Kamala Harris on Wednesday, January 20, is considered a historic day for the climate agenda.
In a statement recorded especially for the IV Fé no Clima Meeting, at the end of last year, she affirms that, during the elections, Biden “made it clear that the climate is a priority” and stressed the importance of the appointment of the former Secretary of State, John Kerry, for the role of Special Representative on Climate Change for the new government. The message to the event’s participants is now available on Fé no Clima’s YouTube channel .
“President Joe Biden will trust God and will also rely on science to guide our work on Earth to protect God’s creation,” said Kerry last November, at the event that announced part of the new presidential office.
In the opinion of Karenna Gore, the new climate representative’s speech “signals and implies that involving religion will be crucial to the approach that the Biden administration will take in climate action”.
According to her, the work at the center she runs is focused on seeking solutions to the ecological crisis of the faith and traditions of indigenous peoples. “We work through education, convening, public speaking and movement building,” he explained. Recently, Fé no Clima, an Iser project, started a dialogue to deepen relations with the Center for Earth Ethics.
Regarding the link between beliefs and discussions about the environment, the activist says that “religion can create a sense of belonging that goes beyond political or partisan alignment and guides us to be the best version of ourselves”.
And he highlighted the importance of religion in social transformations. “Archbishop Desmond Tutu said that the teaching of the scriptures had a role in ending apartheid in South Africa,” he said, also celebrating the influence of Martin Luther King Jr, pastor of the Baptist Church, in the fight for civil rights in his country.
US returns to Paris Agreement
“I am also very excited to be speaking to you at a time when my country, the United States, announced that we will again participate in the Paris Agreement, a very important 2015 treaty in which all countries in the world have come together to create a plan to really face this serious existential crisis and overcome it,” said the director.
Biden made a commitment to return to the Paris climate change agreement on the first day of governing. The measure is part of a package of actions that will revert, on the day of inauguration, several measures of the Trump administration for this and other topics.
In the video recorded for the event participants, Karenna Gore also pays homage to the environmentalist Alfredo Sirkis, who died last year. In addition to being a friend of the Gore family, Sirkis was director of Centro Brasil no Clima, a Brazilian partner of the Climate Reality Project, an organization created by former US vice president, Al Gore.
Climate change raises the risk from failing sewage systems. So Catherine Coleman Flowers is working for a new way to deal with waste.
Originally publishedDECEMBER 17, 2020 by Sarah Kaplan for the Washington Post – Climate Solutions.
LOWNDES COUNTY, Ala. — To Catherine Coleman Flowers, this is “holy ground”: the place where her ancestors were enslaved and her parents fought for civil rights and she came of age. Here, amid the rich, dark earth and emerald farm fields, she is home.
Yet this ground also harbors a threat, one made worse by climate change.
Untreated sewage is coursing through this rural community, a consequence of historic government disinvestment, basic geology and recent changes in the soil. On rainy days, foul effluent burbles up into bathtubs and sinks, and pools in yards. Some residents have hookworm, an illness rarely seen in developed nations.
It’s America’s “dirty secret,” Flowers said, a problem stretches beyond one county in central Alabama. Heavier rainfall caused by climate change is saturating soil and raising water tables – confounding septic systems. From the flooded coasts of Florida to thawing Alaska towns, an estimated half-million U.S. households lack adequate sanitation.
Now Flowers, a MacArthur Foundation “genius”, is partnering with environmental engineers at Columbia University on a solution. They are working on a new kind of toilet that will act as a mini sewage treatment facility. Instead of flushing waste, the system they’re working to build will filter, clean and recycle waste on site. Instead of sending raw sewage into the soil, it will turn it into water for use in washing machines, and into nutrients for fertilizer, and perhaps even energy for homes.
The new Wastewater Innovation and Environmental Justice Lab at Columbia will serve as a hub for research on sanitation policy, an incubator for rural activism, and — advocates hope — a birthplace for a better, greener way of managing waste.
What was once a problem can become a solution, Flowers said. And the change will start in Lowndes County, as it has before.
Originally published December 18th by Brian Lowe for Earthbeat: a project of National Catholic Reporter at NCR Online.
By now it’s well understood that climate change leads to rising seas and rising temperatures. It is also increasingly linked to rising conflicts.
In 2014, the Pentagon issued a major report that referred to climate change as both posing “immediate risks to U.S. national security” and being “a ‘threat multiplier’ because it has the potential to exacerbate many of the challenges we are dealing with today — from infectious disease to terrorism.”
Last year, Stanford University convened a group of top climate scientists, political scientists, economists and historians to examine the degree to which climate change has exacerbated conflicts in the past century. While it concluded that climate has had a limited effect on conflicts to date — less than factors like low socioeconomic development, weak governments and social inequalities — their study projected that warming of 2 degrees Celsius and beyond will substantially increase the risk of armed conflict.
“War is the negation of all rights and a dramatic assault on the environment,” Pope Francis tweeted on Nov. 6, the United Nations-designated International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict. He added that true integral human development must work to avoid all wars.
Tweet from Pope Francis, @Pontifex account, Nov. 20, 2020
Religious communities have a critical role to play in mitigating and resolving violent conflict stemming from rising global temperatures, says Karenna Gore, founder and director of the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, in New York City.
In October, Gore received the 2020 Faith-in-Action Award from the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy (ICRD) for her work on how faith communities can both promote stewardship and preempt violent outbreaks.
EarthBeat recently spoke with Gore and James Patton, ICRD president and CEO, about the role of religion in mitigating and resolving violent conflicts fueled by climate change.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. (The full interview is available in the video at the top of the page or by clicking here.)
EarthBeat: The U.S. Pentagon calls climate change a “threat multiplier.” What does that mean with regard to violent conflicts?
Patton: It’s not really just about sea level rise and different temperatures in different places in the world. If the sea does rise a meter, it will put a billion people on the move, and those people go to places that are already economically stressed. And oftentimes, that causes clashes [over resources] between groups of migrants and the host communities that they land in.
Then you add to that changes in rainfall patterns, seasonal glacial melt and how that affects fresh water availability, crop viability, high heat, increased winds, drier conditions contributing to wildfires. All of these things have an incredible impact on water and food availability, on livelihoods, on infrastructure. And that pushes people — usually people who are already economically disadvantaged — to struggle with one another over scarce resources.
When they do that, it very easily manifests in the kind of identity conflict that ICRD works on. People start to scapegoat one another around things like their tribes, their ethnicity, their faith. You see this oftentimes with migrant groups, particularly if they’re moving across borders from the global south to the north, or underdeveloped to more developed countries that have better resources. … The host communities then react to these immigrant groups negatively. And we’ve seen spikes in xenophobia across the world, particularly in the west and in Europe, that are all connected to some of these issues.
The fighting in Syria is a great example of the impact of drought. Rainfall patterns changed, food availability was impacted, and then people started to contest the leadership, and that was not accepted of course by [Syrian President] Bashar Al Assad. And it led to rebellion that led to incredible violence that has led to death and displacement throughout the region that has had significant ancillary effects and impacts, all grounded in what might be one of the most important climate-driven conflicts of recent times.
Excerpt from The New York Times online. Originally published Nov 17, 2020. Read the complete review here.
Flowers brings an invigorating sense of purpose to the page. “Waste” is written with warmth, grace and clarity. Its straightforward faith in the possibility of building a better world, from the ground up, is contagious.
As eye-opening as it is as a chronicle of the rural sanitation crisis, “Waste” is at least as much the autobiography of an environmental justice advocate. Flowers shares the extraordinary story of her own life, in all its detours, leaps of faith, luck, strange turns, hard work and her ever-rising social consciousness.
Flowers’s parents were activists, and her childhood home in Lowndes County was a haven for civil rights leaders. She eavesdropped on front-porch strategy sessions with the likes of Stokely Carmichael and Bob Mants of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. “At the time, I did not realize I was not among common men,” she writes.
Her own organizing skills were first put to use when she campaigned against terrible educators at her high school, leading to the removal of her principal and superintendent. In college, she learned to mobilize large groups, especially in the fight to protect Alabama State University, a historically Black college, from a merger. She left school for the Air Force, and then returned to her studies as a newlywed at Fort Sill. On her first day of class, her husband of two months was injured in a freak accident during field training. His head injury resulted in amnesia, which pushed Flowers into her next great battle: agitating for health care and occupational rights on behalf of her husband, while simultaneously reintroducing herself to him. This proved taxing.
She finished her studies while advocating and caring for her husband in the hospital. “I had finished my degree program,” Flowers writes. “I also had learned an unforgettable lesson about the audacity needed to challenge structural racism no matter where it appears.” As she moves through Washington, D.C., Fayetteville, Detroit and finally returns to rural Alabama, Flowers has far more adventures than can be described here. But her growing vision for a more just future is always rooted in history, from her attunement to the ghosts in place names to the annual march from Selma to Montgomery that becomes a recurring site of connection and mobilization for her.
Mold, Possums and Pools of Sewage: No One Should Have to Live Like This
Before she died of Covid-19, Pamela Rush opened her home to show the world what poverty looks like.
Ms. Flowers is the author of the forthcoming “Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret,” from which this essay is adapted.
My story starts in Lowndes County, Ala., a place that’s been called Bloody Lowndes because of its violent, racist history. It’s part of Alabama’s Black Belt, a broad strip of rich, dark soil worked and inhabited largely by poor Black people who, like me, are descendants of slaves. Our ancestors were ripped from their homes and brought here to pick the cotton that thrived in the fertile earth.
I grew up here, left to get an education and followed a range of professional opportunities. But something about that soil gets in your blood. I came back hoping to help good, hard-working people rise up out of the poverty that bogs them down like Alabama mud.
A big part of my work now is educating people about rural poverty and environmental injustice — about how poor people around the United States are trapped in conditions no one else would put up with. Those conditions — polluted air, tainted water, untreated sewage — make people sick.
I take activists, donors and politicians to see such conditions for themselves. We visit families crowded into run-down homes that lack heat in the winter and plumbing in all seasons. We visit homes with no means of wastewater treatment, because septic systems cost more than most people earn in a year and tend to fail anyway in the impervious clay soil. Families cope the best they can, mainly by jury-rigging PVC pipe to drain their toilet’s sewage into cesspools in the woods or yard outside, where they breed parasites and disease right by where children and pets play.
An estimated 90 percent of Lowndes households have failing or inadequate wastewater systems, although no one took the time to count until my organization, the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, conducted a door-to-door survey in 2011 and 2012.
The head of one of those households for years was Pamela Rush. Pam, who was a 42-year-old mother with a cautious smile when I met her in 2018, greeted visitors at the door of the faded blue, single-wide trailer she shared with her two children. Senator Bernie Sanders, as well as famous activists like Jane Fonda and the Rev. Dr. William Barber II of the Poor People’s Campaign, traveled down the dusty road to Pam’s home, where they saw a picture that was hard to shake.
Doctors couldn’t diagnose the rash spreading across Catherine Flowers’ legs and body. But the activist thought it had to do with the day she wore a dress during a visit to a family whose yard featured “a hole in the ground full of raw sewage.” “I began to wonder if third-world conditions might be bringing third-world diseases to our region,” Flowers writes in her new book, Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret.
She was right. That rash led to research that found that hookworm, a parasite thought to be pretty much dead in the US, was actually alive and well in the rural Alabama county where she grew up. Without working septic systems, residents were getting sick from raw sewage. Flowers has been on a mission to change things for her community ever since. She is now a recent MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” awardee, and she founded the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice (CREEJ).
With her latest book, available on November 17th, Flowers is expanding that fight to places across the US which lack the basic infrastructure that many city-dwellers take for granted. Two million Americans lack access to indoor plumbing, a 2019 report found, and that has huge implications for their health. The Verge spoke with Flowers about what she’s seen and how COVID-19 and climate change are piling on top of what’s already a shitty situation.
The MacArthur grant–winning “Erin Brockovich of Sewage” tells the riveting story of the environmental justice movement that is firing up rural America, with a foreword by the renowned author of Just Mercy
“Catherine [Flowers] is a shining example of the power individuals have to make a measurable difference by educating, advocating, and acting on environmental issues . . . [and a] firm advocate for the poor, who recognizes that the climate crisis disproportionately affects the least wealthy and powerful among us.” —Al Gore
MacArthur “genius” Catherine Coleman Flowers grew up in Lowndes County, Alabama, a place that’s been called “Bloody Lowndes” because of its violent, racist history. Once the epicenter of the voting rights struggle, today it’s Ground Zero for a new movement that is Flowers’s life’s work. It’s a fight to ensure human dignity through a right most Americans take for granted: basic sanitation. Too many people, especially the rural poor, lack an affordable means of disposing cleanly of the waste from their toilets, and, as a consequence, live amid filth.
Flowers calls this America’s dirty secret. In this powerful book she tells the story of systemic class, racial, and geographic prejudice that foster Third World conditions, not just in Alabama, but across America, in Appalachia, Central California, coastal Florida, Alaska, the urban Midwest, and on Native American reservations in the West.
Flowers’s book is the inspiring story of the evolution of an activist, from country girl to student civil rights organizer to environmental justice champion at Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative. It shows how sanitation is becoming too big a problem to ignore as climate change brings sewage to more backyards, and not only those of poor minorities.
Calling for an end to public financing of fossil fuels and a shift to investing in sustainable, renewable energy to provide energy access for all
World Bank provides assistance and finance for fossils despite climate pledge
Energy transition too slow to avert climate crisis
Ongoing fossil fuel investments push world past 1.5°C global warming
Berlin, Washington D.C. | October 12th 2020
As the World Bank conducts its digital Annual Meeting, civil society groups criticize the bank’s ongoing investments in the fossil fuel industry. Research conducted by Urgewald reveals that the World Bank Group has invested over $12 billion in fossil fuels since the Paris Agreement, $10.5 billion of which were new direct fossil fuel project finance.
In order to arrest the escalating climate crisis, the world needs an urgent and just transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Data shows that the energy transition is happening far too slowly. Researchers from several expert organizations, including the UN Environment Program, determined the world is currently on track to produce 120% more fossil fuels by 2030 than is compatible with a 1.5°C pathway.  Thus, we are already on track to miss the Paris Climate Agreement goal. In addition, according to the Economist, annual investments in wind and solar capacity need to reach about $750 billion, which requires a tripling of current investment levels. 
Simply put, there is far too much invested in fossil fuel production and not enough in renewable energy. Actions that slow down the energy transition result in more destabilizing climate-related consequences. The World Bank states that without urgent action, climate change will push more than 100 million people into poverty by 2030. 
The Big Shift Global is a multi-stakeholder, global campaign coordinated by organisations from the Global North and South. Together, we aim to make the people’s views on energy finance known to Multilateral Development Banks (MDBs), their Executive Directors, as well as the Heads of State and Finance Ministers of the members countries. Learn More…