“Is there anything you’d like to share with your elders?” I asked my two students, pointing to the room with at least 80 adults. “Any words of advice for our generation as we face the climate crisis together?”
At 57 years old, I didn’t consider myself an elder, but I definitely grew up in a different era from my students at Warren Wilson College and my two daughters, now 24 and 17. In the spring of 2023, we gathered at a local winery for the launch of my book Love Your Mother, an event sponsored by the United Way of Asheville-Buncombe County. I’d brought a current and former student with me to share their lens on the climate emergency.
“We’ve grown up hearing all our lives about the urgency of the climate crisis and its impact on our world,” said Catherine Tsarouhtsis, a junior majoring in Environmental Studies and working on food justice at the Warren Wilson College garden. “We need all generations to act, and we don’t have time for uncertainty or despair.”
My former student, Lakyla Hodges, works as an equity and education manager at Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, promoting access to youth programming outdoors. She emphasized the role of working with diverse communities. “Once you bring the community with you, you start caring more about everything around you,” she said.
I wrote this book, featuring the stories of one woman from every US state working for climate justice, for my students and my daughters. I wanted to research climate stories from Alaska to Arkansas, from Maryland to Mississippi. Climate justice and social justice are interconnected because climate change disproportionately affects marginalized and vulnerable communities, which often have fewer resources to adapt to or mitigate the impacts of climate change.
In simplest terms, climate justice is about access to a healthy environment for all. Across the globe, women and girls represent 80 percent of those displaced by the climate crisis: But women are building innovative climate leadership through communication, collaboration, and community. What I found in my research were women from diverse vocations: scientists, students, poets, sculptors, community organizers, politicians, and more. Half of the women in my book are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color). Their life stories showed me how individual acts can generate collective climate momentum. Here are a few of the ways women are leading on climate:
Climate Communications Consultant — Alabama
Growing up in a prominent evangelical family, Anna Jane Joyner mentored several of my students when she worked in Western North Carolina with the faith-based Creation Care Alliance. She now lives in coastal Alabama, where I also grew up, at ground zero of the climate emergency, given the increased frequency and severity of hurricanes in the Gulf Coast. In response, she founded an organization called Good Energy, which aims to increase the accuracy and relevance of storylines about climate in Hollywood TV and movie scripts.
“Where did most people learn about World War II?” she asked me. “From films and movies.” She argues that in five years, movies that don’t depict climate in some way will feel irrelevant and outdated. Her team has found support from Bloomberg Philanthropies and actors like Mark Ruffalo and has written a free guidebook for screenwriting in the age of climate change called the Good Energy Playbook.
Electrical Engineer — Kansas
Volunteering with the Boys and Girls Club in Kansas City, Pooja Shah connected an electrical bulb to a solar panel to show middle school students how to generate energy from renewable resources. As an electrical engineer for one of the largest construction and engineering companies in North America, she mentors young people in STEM and also works to increase renewable energy for some of the largest energy projects in the US, building systems that could power 300,000 to 500,000 homes.
“Solar and renewables are not just the right thing to do, but the economical thing to do,” she told me. Her home in Kansas City is far from where she grew up in the western part of India in the state of Gujarat. Yet, electrifying the economy with renewable energy, rather than coal or natural gas, is one step toward confronting the climate crisis across the globe. In her work, she focuses on equity, such as how to make electrified vehicles accessible through public transit and school buses.
Farmer, Birth Doula, Restaurant Owner — Kentucky
Tiffany Bellfield-El-Amin works across rural eastern Kentucky to help Black farmers grow collective entrepreneurial strength as well as local food. She’s a third-generation Black farmer in a state with only 600 Black-owned agricultural businesses — less than two percent of all Kentucky farmers. In her work with Community Farm Alliance as a food justice organizer, she provides technical assistance to help Black farmers adapt to the climate crisis with resilient food systems, which isn’t easy given the extreme weather caused by global warming.
“My great-great-grandfather was a slave,” she said. “My grandfather’s family owned land and farmed tobacco. Now I’m part-owner of twenty-six acres, where I grow herbs, edible flowers, and pollinator-specific plants.” In meetings, she is often the only Black farmer and woman at the table, she told me, but she uses her voice to ensure access to resources and justice for all.
Sharing these stories with my students and my daughters has changed me; I feel more connected to others who are working to create a healthy environment for us all. It’s overwhelming to know that only 100 companies contribute 71 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. But one of the most important things we can do about the climate crisis is to talk about it with our friends and neighbors. In addition to communicating about climate, we can collaborate with others in our communities to act and amplify the message: We are in a climate crisis. It is late, but it is not too late. This is a love story of community, and it isn’t over yet.
Mallory McDuff is the author of five books including Love Your Mother: 50 states, 50 stories, and 50 women united for climate justice and Our Last Best Act: Planning for the end of our lives to protect the people and places we love. She teaches environmental education at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC.