Category: News

Why Climate Change is an Environmental Justice Issue

BY  |Originally published SEPTEMBER 22, 2020 for State of the Planet – The Earth Institute’s blog at Columbia University

 

September 21-27 is Climate Week in New York City. Join us for a series of online events and blog posts covering the climate crisis and pointing us towards action.

 

While COVID-19 has killed 200,000 Americans so far, communities of color have borne disproportionately greater impacts of the pandemic. Black, Indigenous and LatinX Americans are at least three times more likely to die of COVID than whites. In 23 states, there were 3.5 times more cases among American Indian and Alaskan Native communities than in white communities. Many of the reasons these communities of color are falling victim to the pandemic are the same reasons why they are hardest hit by the impacts of climate change.

How communities of color are affected by climate change

Climate change is a threat to everyone’s physical health, mental health, air, water, food and shelter, but some groups—socially and economically disadvantaged ones—face the greatest risks. This is because of where they live, their health, income, language barriers, and limited access to resources. In the U.S., these more vulnerable communities are largely the communities of color, immigrants, low-income communities and people for whom English is not their native language. As time goes on, they will suffer the worst impacts of climate change, unless we recognize that fighting climate change and environmental justice are inextricably linked.

Heat

The U.S. is facing warming temperatures and more intense and frequent heat waves as the climate changes. Higher temperatures lead to more deaths and illness, hospital and emergency room visits, and birth defects. Extreme heat can cause heat cramps, heat stroke, heat exhaustion, hyperthermia, and dehydration.

patient in hospital bed

A heat stroke patient in the ER (Photo: Janine Rivera)

Disadvantaged communities have higher rates of health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Heat stress can exacerbate heart disease and diabetes, and warming temperatures result in more pollen and smog, which can worsen asthma and COPD. Heat waves also affect birth outcomes. A study of the impact of California heat waves from 1999 to 2011 on infants found that mortality rates were highest for Black infants. Moreover, disadvantaged communities often lack access to good medical care and health insurance.

African Americans are three times more likely than whites to live in old, crowded or inferior housing; residents of homes with poor insulation and no air conditioning are particularly susceptible to the effects of increased heat. In addition, low-income areas in cities have been found to be five to 12 degrees hotter than higher income neighborhoods because they have fewer trees and parks, and more asphalt that retains heat.

Extreme weather events

While climate change cannot be definitively linked to any particular extreme weather event, incidents of heat waves, droughts, wildfires, heavy downpours, winter storms, floods and hurricanes have increased and climate change is expected to make them more frequent and intense.

Extreme weather events can cause injury, illness, and death. Changes in precipitation patterns and warming water temperatures enable bacteria, viruses, parasites and toxic algae to flourish; heavy rains and flooding can pollute drinking water and increase water contamination, potentially causing gastrointestinal illnesses like diarrhea and damaging livers and kidneys.

buildings destroyed by hurricane katrina

Hurricane Katrina caused extensive damage. Photo: FEMA/Mark Wolfe

Extreme weather events also disrupt electrical power, water systems and transportation, as well as the communication networks needed to access emergency services and health care. Disadvantaged communities are particularly at risk because subpar housing with old infrastructure may be more vulnerable to power outages, water issues and damage. Residents of these communities may lack adequate health care, medicines, health insurance, and access to public health warnings in a language they can understand. In addition, they may not have access to transportation to escape the impacts of extreme weather, or home insurance and other resources to relocate or rebuild after a disaster. Communities of color are also less likely to receive adequate protection against disasters or a prompt response in case of emergencies. In addition to physical hardships, the stress and anxiety of dealing with these impacts of extreme weather can end up exacerbating mental health problems such as depression, post-traumatic stress and suicide.

Poor air quality

While climate change does not cause poor air quality, burning fossil fuels does; and climate change can worsen air quality. Heat waves cause air masses to remain stagnant and prevent air pollution from moving away. Warmer temperatures lead to the creation of more smog, particularly during summer. And wildfires, fueled by heat waves and drought, produce smoke that contains toxic pollutants.

Living with polluted air can lead to heart and lung diseases, aggravate allergies and asthma and cause premature death. People who live in urban areas with air pollution, or who have medical conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, asthma or COPD, are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of air pollution.

child in hospital bed

Air pollution exacerbates asthma. Photo: Dani

Black people are three times more likely to die from air pollution than white people. This is in part because they are 70 percent more likely to live in counties that are in violation of federal air pollution standards. A University of Minnesota study found that, on average, people of color are exposed to 38 percent higher levels of nitrogen dioxide outdoor air pollution than white people. One reason for the high COVID-19 death rate among African Americans is that cumulative exposure to air pollution leads to a significant increase in the COVID death rate, according to a new peer-reviewed study.

Pollution

More people of color live in places that are polluted with toxic waste, which can lead to illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure and asthma. These pre-existing conditions put people at higher risk for the more severe effects of COVID-19.

The fact that disadvantaged communities are in some of the most polluted environments in the U.S. is no coincidence. Communities of color are often chosen as sites for landfills, chemical plants, bus terminals and other dirty businesses because corporations know it’s harder for these residents to object. They usually lack the connections to lawmakers who could protect them and can’t afford to hire technical or legal help to put up a fight. They may not understand how they will be impacted, perhaps because the information is not in their native language. A 1987 reportshowed that race was the single most important factor in determining where to locate a toxic waste facility in the U.S. It found that “Communities with the greatest number of commercial hazardous waste facilities had the highest composition of racial and ethnic residents.”

For example, while Blacks make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population, 68 percent live within 30 miles of a coal plant. LatinX people are 17 percent of the population, but 39 percent of them live near coal plants. A new report found that about 2,000 official and potential highly contaminated Superfund sites are at risk of flooding due to sea level rise; the areas around these sites are mainly communities of color and low-income communities.

The link between climate change and environmental justice

Mary Annaïse Heglar, a climate justice essayist and former writer-in-residence at the Earth Institute, asserts that climate change is actually the product of racism. “It started with conquest, genocides, slavery, and colonialism,” she wrote. “That is the moment when White men’s relationship with living things became extractive and disharmonious. Everything was for the taking; everything was for sale. The fossil fuel industry was literally built on the backs and over the graves of Indigenous people around the globe, as they were forced off their land and either slaughtered or subjugated — from the Arab world to Africa, from Asia to the Americas. Again, it was no accident.”

The harmful impacts of climate change are linked to historical neglect and racism. When Black people migrated North from the South in the early 20th century, many did not have jobs or money; consequently they were forced to live in substandard housing. Jim Crow laws in the South reinforced racial segregation, prohibiting Blacks from moving into white neighborhoods. In the 1930s through the 1960s, the federal government’s “redlining” policy denied federally backed mortgages and credit to minority neighborhoods. As a result, African Americans had limited access to better homes and all the advantages that went with them—a healthy environment, better schools and healthcare, and more food options.

Prime examples of environmental injustice

Poor sanitation in the U.S.

Catherine Flowers, founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice and a senior fellow for the Center for Earth Ethics, which is affiliated with the Earth Institute, is from Lowndes County, Alabama. As a child growing up in a poor, mostly Black rural area with less than 10,000 residents, she used an outhouse before her family installed indoor plumbing. After leaving to get an education, Flowers returned to Alabama in 2002 and still saw extreme disparities in rural wastewater treatment. She visited many homes with sewage backing up into their homes or pooling in their yards, as many residents couldn’t afford onsite wastewater treatment. She is still advocating for proper sanitation in Lowndes. As a result of her work, Baylor College’s National School of Tropical Medicine conducted a peer-reviewed study which showed that over 30 percent of Lowndes County residents had hookworm and other tropical parasites due to poor sanitation.

”We’re also seeing that there is a relationship between [wastewater and] COVID infections,” added Flowers. “We don’t know exactly what it is yet—but you can actually measure wastewater to determine the level of infections in the community before people start showing up with the illness.” In Lowndes, one of every 18 residents has COVID-19; it is one of the highest infection rates in the U.S.

Today, Flowers works at the intersection between climate change and wastewater throughout the U.S. “The more we see sea level rise, the more we’re going to have wastewater problems,” she said. Her new book, Waste, One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret, due out in November, shows how proper sanitation is essential as climate change will likely bring sewage to more backyards everywhere, not just in poor communities.

Cancer Alley

An 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana, hosts the densest concentration of petrochemical companies in the U.S. There have been so many cases of cancer and death in the area that it became known as “Cancer Alley.”

industries next to communities

Cancer Alley (Photo: Gines A. Sanchez)

Most of these petrochemical plants are situated near towns that are largely poor and Black. There are 30 large plants within 10 miles of mostly Black St. Gabriel, with 13 within three miles. St. James Parish, whose population is roughly half Black and half white, has over 30 petrochemical plants, but the majority are located in the district that is 80 percent Black.

These plants not only emit greenhouse gases that are exacerbating climate change, but the particulate matter they expel can contain hundreds of different chemicals. Chronic exposure to this air pollution can lead to heart and respiratory illnesses and diabetes. As such, it is no surprise that St. James Parish is among the 20 U.S. counties with the highest per-capita death rates from COVID-19.

Despite efforts of the residents to fight back, seven new petrochemical plants have been approved since 2015; five more are awaiting approval.

Hurricane Katrina

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina, a Category 3 storm, caused extensive destruction in New Orleans and its environs. More than half of the 1,200 people who died were Black and 80 percent of the homes that were destroyed belonged to Black residents. The mostly Black neighborhoods of New Orleans East and the Lower Ninth Ward were hit hardest by Katrina because while the levees in white areas had been shored up after earlier hurricanes, these poorer neighborhoods had received less government funding for flood protection. After the hurricane, when initial plans for rebuilding were in process, white neighborhoods again got priority, even if they had experienced less flooding. Eventually federal funds were directed toward the rebuilding of parts of the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East and the strengthening of their levees.

Flint, MI

In 2014, the city of Flint, MI, whose population is 56.6 percent Black, decided to draw its drinking water from the polluted Flint River in order to save money until a new pipeline from Lake Huron could be built. Previously the city had brought in treated drinking water from Detroit. Because the river had been used by industry as an illegal waste dump for many years, the water was corrosive, but officials failed to treat it. As a result, the water leached lead from the city’s aging pipelines. Officials claimed the water was safe, but more than 40 percent of the homes had elevated lead levels. As almost 100,000 residents — including 9,000 children — drank lead-laced water, lead levels in the children’s blood doubled and tripled in some neighborhoods, putting them at high risk for neurological damage.

In October, 2015, the city began importing water from Detroit again. An ongoing project to replace lead service pipes is expected to be complete by the end of November. And just recently, Flint victims were awarded a settlement of $600 million, with 80 percent of it designated for the affected children.

Steps to achieve environmental justice

As the founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, Catherine Flowers works to implement the best practices to reduce environmental injustice. Here are some key strategies she prescribes.

  • Acknowledge the damage and try to repair it.
  • Clean up sites where environmental damage has been done.
  • Create an equitable system for decision-making so there is not an undue burden placed on disadvantaged communities. “Lobbyists that represent these [polluting] companies shouldn’t have more influence than the people who live in the area that are impacted by it,” said Flowers. “We need to make sure that the people that live in the community are sitting at the table when decisions are being made about what’s located in their community.”
  • Call out the officials who are making decisions that are not in the best interest of the people they represent.
  • Vote to put in place representatives that listen to their constituents rather than the people and companies that donate to them.
  • Provide climate training to help people become more engaged. For example, the Climate Reality Project (Flowers sits on its board of directors) trains everyday people to fight for solutions and change in their communities.
  • Partner with universities to conduct peer-reviewed studies of health impacts to help validate and draw attention to the experiences of disadvantaged communities.
  • Build cleaner and greener. “We cannot discount the impact this could have on communities around the world,” said Flowers. “If we don’t pollute and we have a Green New Deal to build better, cleaner, and greener, then we won’t have these environmental justice issues.”

‘We Need to Focus On People As Well’ – Kate B. Little Boy interviews Catherine Flowers

Catherine Coleman Flowers grew up in rural Lowndes County, Alabama — which is often called “Bloody Lowndes” for its violent, racist past — where her ancestors worked the land as slaves. This legacy has left its mark on her and on the county in the form of low wage jobs, lack of sanitation infrastructure, and enduring poverty.

In 2019, Coleman Flowers founded the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice to address the health and environmental conditions of rural Americans. From her time outside of Alabama she brings access to new partnerships and a willingness to cross race, class, and party lines to fight for poor, rural communities. She is a senior fellow at the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, a board member at Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project, and rural development manager for the Equal Justice Initiative.

Speaking about her love for Alabama, Coleman Flowers once said, “There is something about that black dirt that gets into your soul.” With its searing legacy of slavery and the Civil War, her Southern roots are crucial to understanding Coleman Flowers’ love of community and the fight for rural environmental injustice that is her life’s work.

Coleman Flowers is the author of a forthcoming memoir, Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret, winner of the Studs and Ida Terkel Prize for a first book in the public interest. She lives in Montgomery, Alabama. In a recent Zoom conversation, Coleman Flowers shared with me her thoughts on rural poverty, race, and the environmental movement.

Read On…

Environmental Justice for All Act

The Center for Earth Ethics has been participating in the Climate Crisis Policy review of climate bills and legislation for 2021.  This week, CCP discussed the Environmental Justice for All Act.  If you missed the CCP call and would like to learn more about this legislation, you can join the

Environmental Justice for All Act – Improving Lives of Marginalized Communities

Facebook Live Online Tour – Next Stop: Tuesday, Sept. 15 from Los Angeles 1:00 – 2:30 pm ET

Sponsored by Rep. Raul Grijlav (D-AZ) House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rep. Raul Grijalva is leading forums on Facebook Live to promote the “Environmental Justice for All Act,” which he and Rep. A. Donald McEachin (D-VA.) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) introduced. See fact sheet

Grijalva and Rep. McEachin will discuss the impacts that decades of neglect have had on Cancer Alley and how the Environmental Justice for All Act would give community members long-sought legal powers to protect themselves from polluter abuses. The bill was written after a collaborative process with impacted communities lasting more than a year, and has been praised as a new model for preparing legislation.

Event details and links will be made available on Rep. Grijalva’s website HERE.


Join us for the upcoming Climate Crisis Policy review sessions:

Wednesday, September 23, 2020
Wednesday, October 7, 2020
Wednesday, October 21, 2020

What Can You Do to Fight the Climate Crisis?

With 60 Days to Save the Earth…

Catherine Flowers among experts interviewed for the Guardian.

Individual acts alone won’t stop the climate crisis, but there are things we can do. We asked experts what they do in their daily lives to make a difference.

in Washington, Published:

As the climate crisis intensifies, scientists and experts agree that systemic change is critical. But while individual efforts alone aren’t enough to reverse global heating, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do. We asked several climate scientists and advocates about individual actions that can make a difference.

What’s one thing you do in your day-to-day life to combat the climate crisis?

Katharine Hayhoe, atmospheric scientist: I have transitioned over 80% of the talks I give to virtual online events (100% these days!), and when I do travel, I bundle my requests and commitments such that I am doing anywhere from 4-5 to as many as 15-25 events in each location that I fly to, in order to minimize the carbon footprint of each individual event.

Adrienne Hollis, climate justice and health scientist: I am being mindful about the water shortage. I like to plant around my deck, and I use my rain barrel to water my plants. It’s a small thing, and it’s a big thing. I get up at about 6 to water my plants, and I grow my herbs and peppers. It makes me feel like I am making a difference. And feeling like you’re making a difference is important. It’s finding your way of contributing. It makes you feel like you’re a part of the fight.

Sonia Aggarwal, energy policy expert: I recently found a great deal on a gently used electric car, and I have been loving it for those essential trips when I can’t walk, bike or use public transit. One thing I didn’t expect: this electric car is the most fun to drive! It’s peppy and quiet and it just feels so good to breeze right past the gas station without a second thought.

Michael Mann, climatologist: I speak out about the climate crisis, and the importance of taking action, using every medium, vehicle, forum or platform that is available to me.

What can I do in my personal life to address the climate crisis?

Catherine Flowers, environmental justice leader: Use less plastic or no plastic, recycle, eat less meat, reduce our own carbon footprint, build better – there are lots of things we can do. Don’t buy unsustainable products, choose something else. That’s the quickest way to get people to change is to make another choice, then of course the market will adjust.

Aggarwal: Home energy use is responsible for 20% of US greenhouse gas emissions, between the electricity we use and the fuels we burn on site. There are some cool new technologies out there that can support the same or better service at home, while reducing energy use and emissions. Those include super-efficient heat pumps and new induction stoves that are safer than gas and offer the same or better temperature control. Many utilities and states offer rebates for appliances like these.

Klaus Jacob, geophysicist: It’s fine to put solar panels on our roofs and take only a three-minute shower instead of a 10-minute shower. But what is really needed is that the individuals participate and communicate in neighborhood actions where you have the best chance to make a difference.

I live in a small village on the Hudson river. As sea level rises, so does the Hudson. Over the last two decades, I have made sure that our village is one of the most aware that it is losing a good portion of its housing before the year 2050. We already have flooding on our streets.

Read On…

‘Putting Justice and Human Rights First in the US’ breakout with Catherine Flowers – Climate Reality

In Climate Reality’s Putting Justice and Human Rights First in the US breakout session, you can hear directly from climate and environmental justice leaders to better understand the history of injustice in the United States and the way forward in the fight for climate and social justice.

Tune in to hear from Climate Reality board member Catherine Coleman Flowers, Dr. Robert D. Bullard, Angelo Logan, and Julian Brave NoiseCat!

Learn More about Climate Reality Leadership Trainings

Marching Toward Change – Faith & Governance in the Movement for THE RIGHTS OF NATURE

Mari Margil on Rights of Nature – Read the complete text published by the Center for Humans and Nature.

Our insistence that each human being is an image of God should not make us overlook the fact that each creature has its own purpose. None is superfluous. The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God.

—Pope Francis, May 24, 2015, Laudato Si’[1]

Those fighting for rights and freedom know that change never just happens.

It may seem that the bending of the “arc of the moral universe . . . toward justice” about which Dr. Martin Luther King spoke—witnessed with the abolishment of slavery, the recognition of rights of indigenous peoples, of African-Americans, of women—is inevitable. It’s not. It never has been.

The long history of people’s movements shows us that fundamental shifts in society only occur when people join together to demand such change. This requires mass mobilization across countries, cultures, religions, and even time—taking decades, generations, and centuries to achieve—each requiring major shifts in consciousness to achieve major shifts in law and governance.

Today, as we face overlapping environmental crises, we need a fundamental shift in humankind’s relationship with the natural world—this means a major shift in how we govern ourselves toward nature. To achieve this requires advancing major societal and cultural shifts, as well—that is, changing how societies think about nature and humanity’s role as part of it, and the recognition that nature is worthy of respect, protection, and rights.

The Role of Faith in Cultural Shifts

One of the first places I ever spoke publicly about the rights of nature was at the First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon, in 2009. As part of the Econvergence Symposium, I presented on a panel that focused on how unfettered economic growth was driving us to environmental and economic crisis.[2]

It is axiomatic that religion plays a major role in shaping culture. What we believe and how we think about the world are often deeply influenced by our faith. For instance, a 2015 Pew Research Center report found that over 60 percent of white evangelical Protestants in the United States do not believe in human evolution.[3] Belief that God is the creator of the Earth is a central tenet of their faith.[4] By contrast, over 85 percent of those without a religious affiliation believe in human evolution.

Too often, religion has been wielded to legitimize the oppression of others, including nature. In 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued a papal bull which divided the world between Portugal and Spain, mandating that they colonize the new world and ensure that “barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.” Subjugation of both nature and people had the blessing of the Catholic Church.

Karenna Gore, director of the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York, described the historic role of the church in defining our relationship with nature.[5] In her keynote address at the 2017 Rights of Nature Symposium held at Tulane Law School, she explained:

The way that Christianity has been interpreted from medieval Europe to the age of colonization to the efforts in the 1950s in America to wed it to capitalism through moves like putting “In God We Trust” on the money . . . to the contemporary expressions of the Prosperity Gospel, mainstream religion has contributed to the objectification and exploitation of nature.

But Gore also spoke of the shift in consciousness within faith to protect nature, including the rights of nature: “There has been a lot of recent effort to retrieve and revive the ecological sensibility within the Judeo-Christian tradition, including reinterpretations of the Bible based on ancient Aramaic and Hebrew and Greek.”

Just as we’re seeing people of faith today advocate protection of nature, during the colonial era we saw people of faith advocate for abolishing slavery. In 1688, the Quakers of Germantown, Pennsylvania, issued their protest against slavery, writing, “There is a saying, that we shall doe to all men like as we will be done ourselves; making no difference of what generation, descent or colour they are.”[6] In the United States and Britain, Quakers would become a leading voice of opposition against slavery and the slave trade.

Faith played an important role in shifting societal perspectives on slavery, making possible the abolishment of slavery. President Abraham Lincoln, whose Emancipation Proclamation attempted to free the slaves in the South, stated in 1860, just a year before the start of the Civil War:

I think that if anything can be proved by natural theology, it is that slavery is morally wrong. God gave man a mouth to receive bread, hands to feed it, and his hand has a right to carry bread to his mouth without controversy.[7]

Today—as species extinction occurs far faster than natural background rates, as coral reefs are bleaching and dying off in the world’s oceans, as climate change accelerates—we are once again seeing faith play an important role in driving necessary change.

Just as the Old Testament and religious teachings speak of man’s dominion over the Earth, helping drive the belief that humankind is separate from and superior to nature, today some leading voices in the faith community are showing a new way of understanding.

In 2015, Pope Francis received worldwide praise for his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, in which he called for the protection of “our common home.” He begins by quoting Saint Francis of Assisi, who said it is “Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us.”

Later that same year, Pope Francis spoke again on the need to protect nature, and specifically the rights of nature.

Read on…

Born Country but Raised an Activist: Catherine Coleman Flowers of the Biden Climate Task Force

Catherine Coleman Flowers Uncovers “America’s Dirty Secret” n “Bloody Lowndes,” Alabama

By Sienna Zuco for Global Climate Pledge

“Because I’m country!”

Said Catherine Coleman Flowers when asked why she was passionate about working for rural communities as an environmental justice advocate.

Growing up in the “Black Belt” region of Alabama, which is known for its rich dark soil, Flowers fell in love with the environment that enveloped her.

“I just loved nature and going for walks in areas where most people wouldn’t walk and picking plums and eating them off the plum trees,” she remembered.

But the term “Black Belt” also points to the history of slavery in Alabama. So, not only was Flowers surrounded by nature growing up, but she also grew up in a place steeped in southern history.

“Bloody Lowndes” Beginnings

Flowers was born in Birmingham and raised in Lowndes County, Alabama of the rural southern United States. Lowndes County was commonly referred to as “Bloody Lowndes” due to its history of racism and violence. The county also connected Selma and Montgomery—two cities instrumental in the Civil Rights Movement. But Lowndes County was especially known for importing and distributing enslaved people in the state of Alabama in the 1800s.

“The founders of Lowndes County actually came from South Carolina, and they brought their slaves with them and a lot of slaves were sold into the area. And my family, my father’s family, were descendants of those slaves that were in Lowndes County,” said Flowers.

The county itself was named after the enslaver, plantation owner, and U.S. congressman William Lowndes of the deep south.

Flowers grew up with this backdrop of racism and slavery from Lowndes County’s past, but also within an atmosphere of activism and community as a child of the Civil Rights era.

Some may say Flowers was born to be an activist. “I had a lot of influence from my parents who were activists, as well as those people who were around or would come in contact with my family. And they helped me to develop a sense of community, and a sense of responsibility of being able to provide the best for that community,” she said.

While she may not have realized it at the time, her parents and those they interacted with played instrumental roles in the Civil Rights Movement. From seeing the work that her parents did, activism was ingrained in her at a young age.

“My parents were kind of like the jailhouse lawyers of the community, everybody went to them to ask for advice. They helped a lot of people; they did a lot of organizing. These are things that were just second nature. It wasn’t anything special to me because that was what I saw at the time,” she said.

The Racial Violence That Led to Flower’s Activism

In her teens, Flowers remembered a transformational experience which played an integral part in her becoming an activist.

John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital at Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, c. 1900

After her little brother was born at John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital, the same hospital which held the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis study, doctors purposefully sterilized her mother. Flowers noted this was something that not only happened to her mother, but other minority women at the hospital. Her mother went on to spend much of her life protecting other women from what had happened to her.

When the British Broadcasting Company, BBC, had come to interview her parents about their experience, Flowers learned of her own high school principal potentially being involved in the killing of a nine-year-old Black girl.

“There was a reporter who also anchored the NBC affiliate in Montgomery, he anchored the evening news, Black reporter, and he talked about my principal, and he said that my principal allegedly had been involved in the death of a young Black girl, nine years old,” said Flowers, “She was found with pajama bottoms wrapped around her neck and her body was found in a ditch. And [the news anchor] said that the principal allegedly was providing young Black girls to white men in Montgomery. And that struck me,” she explained.

At the age of 16, she became a Robert Kennedy Fellow and worked to get rid of both her principal and the superintendent of the schools successfully, helping to protect the futures of Black children in Lowndes County. As a Fellow, she continued to investigate into what should and should not be happening in schools in terms of children’s safety, such as what had happened in her own school district.

Becoming an Advocate for Her Community on Climate Change and Raw Sewage

In her adulthood, Flowers became a teacher and often used the Civil Rights Movement to inspire the younger generations she was teaching. From her own experience as a youth activist, Flowers believes young people have more power than they realize.

As a teacher, Flowers started realizing something was wrong. She felt the heat in cities like Washington, D.C. where she worked due to the heat island effect and started seeing animals from the south move to the north. She didn’t know what was happening until she watched “An Inconvenient Truth,” a documentary which discussed the horrors of climate change.

“When I saw the “Inconvenient Truth”, I was able to give it a name, and that was climate change,” she said, referring to the abnormal environmental problems she was witnessing.

Moving back to Alabama in 2000 to work on economic development in Lowndes County, Flowers began seeing wastewater issues in her own hometown. She would see pools of waste in people’s yards in the same places where kids would play. What was worse was that climate change was exacerbating these issues. But, the infrastructure to solve these problems for rural communities was almost nonexistent and proper wastewater management systems were blocked by an expensive paywall.

Flowers speaking to Duke University Students about exposed waste water

Flowers found that families were facing serious health problems as a result of the exposed waste. But she realized that doctors couldn’t provide a lot of solutions.

“Were there diseases that were manifesting in the U.S.? Because of climate change? I was alarmed because of the intersection of poverty, that American doctors were not trained to look for [these diseases] because they didn’t expect them to be here,” she wondered.

After partnering with the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, Flowers and scientists worked together to find what was causing the mysterious health problems of Lowndes County residents.

Their study found that 34 percent of residents tested positive for hookworm, known as a disease of poverty, as a result of their exposure to raw sewage. The parasite is known to live in warm and moist climates and is especially common in places with poor sanitation.

Flowers discussed how many Americans do not realize the extent of poverty in the U.S. and how that results in poor sanitation and wastewater management. But, she struggled to show the true extent of the issue, which was rooted in systemic issues predominately impacting rural and impoverished communities.

“The biggest barrier, and keep in mind I’ve been doing this for at least 18 years, was helping people to understand and acknowledge that there was a wastewater problem in this country. That people do not have access to wastewater infrastructure. And it was not due to a personal failing. It was due to structures that were in place that prevented [access],” she explained.

Not only was Flowers angered, but she realized she had to do something about it. She asked herself, “If we can treat wastewater in outer space to drinking water quality, why can’t we do that here?”

Becoming a Leader for Rural Communities

Flowers soon founded the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise, later reforming it into the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice (CREEJ). Addressing the intersections between environmental issues and poverty, CREEJ strives to create solutions that factor in the climate to solve wastewater management and infrastructure issues that are replicable elsewhere.

Flowers emphasizes that this problem is everywhere, “Everybody thinks it’s just Lowndes County. In the state of Alabama, it’s in all 67 counties. But, in just about every place in the United States, there is some problem, some form of wastewater issue,” she said.

Flowers with Al Gore and Cherri Foytlin

Even more so, she wanted to become a voice for her fellow rural Americans.

“The other problem that I had initially with this work is that people don’t understand rural communities and I still run into that where people just make certain assumptions,” she said, going on to explain that people don’t understand the nuances and differences between rural and urban communities.

Flowers often sees legislation lacking a rural perspective, despite one in five Americans living in rural areas, states the U.S. Census Bureau.

“I think oftentimes when policies are written to deal with infrastructure, even to deal with climate change, it mostly is from an urban perspective. It leaves out the lack of inclusive language to address rural communities,” she continued.

Becoming an Author and Inspiring Future Generations

From her life and her work as an environmental justice advocate, Flowers believed it was time for all to hear her own personal journey and encourage others to take action to build a better, greener, and more equitable future for all. So, she started writing a book last year on her experience. Set to come out this November, Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret discusses how Flowers got to where she is today and why she chose to deal with the problems others chose to avoid, such as wastewater issues and climate change.

“I think part of the lesson I’ve learned is we can’t let people ignore it. If they ignore it, there will never be a fix,” she said.

Flowers wants her book to encourage others, especially youth, to take action.

“I want to inspire young people to carry on this fight without them having to start from square one. And the book documents my journey. By sharing it like that, it gives them an opportunity to see if they want to do this type of work, where they fit in, and how they can expand and to move it to the next level,” she explained

Through her book, Flowers hopes to become a source of inspiration for others just like many individuals had been one for her.

Hope for the Future

Recently, Flowers was one of only eight climate leaders to be selected to serve on Biden’s Climate Task Force. Being a country girl from “Bloody Lowndes” Alabama and now advising a United States presidential hopeful, Flowers has found that the support of those who are closest to her has helped her to achieve such success.

“I stand on a lot of shoulders. And I’d probably take up this entire interview just naming people who have been instrumental in influencing me from my childhood even through now,” she told me.

She emphasized her parents’ role in her activism. “I think what I developed from my parents was a sense of what is morally right and a sense of giving a voice to people that do not have the access, or the privilege themselves,” she said, hoping to use her platform to do just that.

While Flowers and those in her life and community have faced continual challenges, she remains optimistic.

“I am hopeful for the future because young people are the future… The fight, the vision, I see we are going to get closer to where we need to be.”

All photos courtesy of Catherine Coleman Flowers

Original Post

Saying Goodbye – In Memoriam 2020

2020 has been a year of loss.  Even before the pandemic, we were grieving for our planet. We were grieving for loss of species, for children in cages, for the disparity in our world. But the last few months have been wrought with heartbreaks from Covid-19 to George Floyd to John Lewis. We are mourning as a nation and as a global community for our loved ones, our neighbors and our beloved leaders. CEE remembers a few of our friends and loved ones lost during this time of crisis. We invite you to reflect with us on lives lived in the spirit of justice and care for our Earth. These courageous lives, leave us with the incredible task of carrying the work forward for more equality, for reparation, for the right to vote and have our voices heard –  and for the ability to do the work that we must to protect one another and our planet. We honor you. With deepest thanks.

 

Pamela Sue Rush

From Remembering Pamela Sue Rush – Rev. William Barber and CEE Fellow, Catherine Coleman Flowers

“She opened her life and showed the world what inequality looks like. Some of the wealthiest U.S. citizens walked through Pamela’s dilapidated home and sewage-polluted yard. Many left in disbelief. Yet she was quietly, patiently waiting for someone to help her escape this prison imposed upon her and her two children. In the meantime, she would testify before Congress and become an active member and one of the faces of the New Poor People’s Campaign led by Rev. Dr. William Barber and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis. She even hosted them in her home. A presidential candidate visited as well. Sen. Bernie Sanders promised to raise up her story as he fought for a more equitable society.”

Watch: PBS News Hour

 

Alfredo Sirkis  – In the Fall of 2019, CEE Director Karenna Gore traveled to Recife, Pernambuco, Brazil at the invitation of Alfredo Sirkis to participate in Faith and Climate (Fé No Clima), for the Brazilian Climate Change Conference. True to the work of Earth Ethics faith and climate leaders were convened from not only the major religious institutions of the Catholic Church and Jewish communities but also with representation of indigenous faith and wisdom groups rooted in the forest and African traditions which make up the richly diverse cultural landscape of the country.  Read Karenna’s overview of the experience: Faith in Climate, and watch Climate Reality’s tribute to Alfredo Sirkis below with his daughter, Anna Sirkis, and former US Vice President, Al Gore.

 

Father John Raush 

Father John S. Rausch was a Catholic priest with the Glenmary Home Missioners served for over 40 years ministering in small towns throughout Appalachia and the South. He passed on February 9, 2020 while getting ready to say Mass.

From Father John: For the People, For the Land

“Father John regularly conducts tours of Appalachia introducing people to the ministries and social issues of the region.  During these tours he combines social analysis with theological reflection encouraging a conversion of heart in participants.  A strong environmentalist, he speaks against the devastation of mountaintop removal and encourages sustainable economic development.”

Enjoy reading ‘Four Lessons from the Life of Father John Rausch’ by Margaret Gabriel here.

Watch: Saving the Earth through our Spirituality

Climate Equity and Inclusion

When people think about climate change and environmentalism, the image that comes to mind is a polar bear on a melting block of ice. However, that image neglects to include people, especially living in communities that are suffering from lack of climate and environmental justice. These areas, often inhabited by people of color, poor people or rural residents are located across the United States. In many of these communities, basic services such was access to water and wastewater sanitation are also affected by climate change.

In Florida, sea-level rise is very apparent. As a result, the groundwater is rising too. This makes it hard to treat wastewater with septic tanks. The failing septic tanks are damaging the environment and the health of residents relying on that technology for wastewater treatment. In Miami-Dade County, septic tanks contaminate the aquifer that provides drinking water. Over a year ago, a Miami Herald article trumpeted that the city of Miami has a $3 Billion septic tank problem. This failing or nonexistent wastewater infrastructure we’re seeing largely impacts communities of color where sewage ends up inside their homes or in their yards. This should concern everyone since it has been established that COVID-19 is shed in feces and can exist in wastewater.

“Climate injustice is exposing marginalized communities to imminent destruction caused by our fossil fuel addiction, which exacerbates climate vulnerabilities and expands climate inequality.”

Sea-level rise has also led to sunny day flooding in the Sunshine State. As a result, escaping sea-level rise has led those that can afford it to move to higher ground. The highest ground in the Miami area is called Little Haiti. Historically it has been a neighborhood of low-income immigrants of color, and now, longtime residents are being forced out of their homes. This is called “climate gentrification” and it is also occurring in nearby Liberty City and Overtown, both of which were largely occupied by black people. In fact, Overtown was once called “Color Town” because of its large black population. Another pattern of climate injustice is exposing marginalized communities to imminent destruction caused by our fossil fuel addiction, which exacerbates climate vulnerabilities and expands climate inequality. Without an intentional effort to promote climate equity and inclusion, the displaced will end up in the flood-prone areas with failing septic systems.

“The people least responsible for climate change are the most impacted.”

In Alaska, water and sewer lines are being exposed and twisted because of thawing permafrost. Many indigenous communities have never received water or wastewater infrastructure. Places like the village of Newtok don’t even have running water. Without any toilets, people rely on five-gallon buckets known as “honey buckets” to dispense their waste. Then dispose of it in a pit or hole. The town is currently being relocated because of housing  being lost to melting caused by increasing temperatures. In the Navajo Nation, many homes are also without running water or wastewater infrastructure. Infections from COVID-19 are remarkably high and are underscored by limited water in homes and the inability to wash hands.. The theme is similar. The people least responsible for climate change are the most impacted.

Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret by Catherine Flowers, via hardback and Kindle on November 17th, 2020.

Lowndes County, Alabama provides another clear example of how the lack of access to sanitation is where environmental justice intersects with climate change. Known as “Bloody Lowndes” because of its history of racial terror, it is located between Selma and Montgomery. Most of the historic Selma to Montgomery voting rights march trail passes through this county. In the 1960s, sharecroppers were denied the right to vote and evicted from the plantations where they lived for attempting to exercise their right to vote. Today, Lowndes County, still a Black-majority county has the highest per capita COVID-19 infection rate in the state of Alabama. This should not come as a surprise since the area came to international prominence for its poverty and people living with raw sewage in their yards or flowing back into their homes because of failing septic systems. In 2017, a peer-reviewed study was published revealing that several tropical parasites including hookworm were found in fecal samples of county residents. Some of the tropical parasites were not expected to be found in the United States. Yet with climate change bringing warmer temperatures, the health consequences will worsen, and the old infrastructure designs are not and won’t be sufficient. Wastewater infrastructure in particular is continuously ignored despite being just as essential as water infrastructure. Those on the frontlines of these infrastructure injustices are suffering now more than ever because of climate change. They are the canary in the coal mine.

“A truly inclusive green future acknowledges the needs and voices of all living at the frontlines of climate change — rural communities, the poor, and people of color as well as polar bears and melting ice caps.”

Therefore, we need an inclusive view of environmentalism and an equitable vision for green infrastructure and jobs. A view that includes converting to a green economy using clean energy and renewables; building sustainable housing with a zero-carbon footprint; and switching from fossil fuels. It also includes creating affordable wastewater treatment technologies that reclaim nutrients and water for reuse. Most importantly, it requires supporting a truly inclusive green future that acknowledges the needs and voices of all living at the frontlines of climate change – rural communities, the poor, and people of color as well as polar bears and melting ice caps.

About the Author

Catherine Coleman Flowers the author of the book entitled Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret, the Rural Development Manager for the Equal Justice Initiative, founder and director of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, Practitioner in Residence at Duke University, and board member of Climate Reality Project. Inspired by her daughter and grandson, her goal is to create a Green world that will benefit seven generations to come.

Catherine is the Center for Earth Ethics Senior Fellow for Environmental Justice and Civic Engagement. Learn More about Catherine’s work