Climate change is an issue that affects everyone on the planet but women and girls are the ones suffering its effects the most. Why? Because women and girls have less access to quality education and later, job opportunities. These structural disadvantages keep them in poverty. In fact, women make up 70% of the world’s poor. In a nutshell, climate change impacts the poor the most and the poor are mostly women.
Poverty driven by and made worse by climate change also makes girls more susceptible to child marriage, because it drives hunger and girls getting married often means one less mouth to feed for their parents. Climate change also leads to geopolitical instability which, in turn, results in greater instances of violence — which we know disproportionately impacts women and girls.
Ironically, saving the planet has been made to seem a “women’s job”. This phenomenon, dubbed the “eco gender gap”, sees the burden of climate responsibility placed squarely on women’s shoulders through “green” campaigns and products that are overwhelmingly marketed to women.
There are several hypotheses for why this is. Firstly, women are the more powerful consumers (they drive 70-80% of all purchasing decisions). Secondly, they are disproportionately responsible, still, for the domestic sphere. And finally, going green is seen as a women’s job because women’s personalities are supposedly more nurturing and socially responsible.
Women should be involved in fighting the climate crisis at every level — from the kitchen to the science lab to the boardroom. Ruth Bader Ginsburg explained it best when she said: “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.” However, women are underrepresented in the science field (including climate science), with just 30% of research positions held by women and fewer still holding senior positions. The Reuters Hot List of 1,000 scientists features just 122 women.
Having more women climate scientists could allow for an increased emphasis on understanding and providing solutions for some of the most far-reaching implications of climate change. Diversity in background and experiences allows for different perspectives. More perspectives allow for different research questions to arise or even a different approach to the same question.
There are, however, women all over the world in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) that have made some incredible strides in the fight against the climate crisis, from fire-resistant coating to protect places prone to wildfires, to a water-storing park for a region usually overwhelmed by floods. Here are just some of the world's incredible women scientists leading the way on tackling the climate crisis.
1. Corinne Le Quéré
Meet Dr. Corinne Le Quéré. She once used a 100,000-year-old chunk of Antarctic ice in a gin and tonic and has some head-spinning achievements under her belt. French-Canadian Le Quéré is a climate change scientist known for investigating carbon cycles (that’s basically nature's way of recycling carbon atoms). Her research has contributed to understanding how climate change and variability affects the land and ocean carbon sinks, and understanding the drivers of CO2 emissions.
She is a Royal Society Professor of climate change science at the UK's University of East Anglia, provides evidence-based advice to inform governments on their response to climate change, and has authored multiple International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. She’s also on the Reuters Hot List of a 1,000 researchers, on which fewer than 1 in 7 listed are women.
2. Meghan Spoth
Polar science used to be dominated by men. But an expedition to Thwaites Glacier helped change that. One of the researchers on that trip was Meghan Spoth, a Master’s graduate of the Climate Change Institute, University of Maine, in the US.
The trip, which has changed the face of Antarctic research, took her and a group of other women, to Amundsen Sea, a rarely explored corner of the Antarctic continent, to better understand the rate at which the Thwaites Glacier disintegrated in the past so that modelers might make more accurate estimates of how fast sea levels will rise in the coming century.
3. Kate Nguyen
Dr. Thuy Quynh Nguyen, from Vietnam and better known as Kate, is leading research on fire design and protection engineering. Having attracted over $3 million in research grants and industry funding, she’s putting those dollars to good use. Nguyen’s research has led to the development of a spray-on coating for rural buildings to help them resist the ravages of bushfires, helping to protect lives of the vulnerable. What’s more, the coating is made from industrial waste that would ordinarily end up in landfill.
She’s won loads of awards for this including being the first researcher in Civil Engineering to receive the L’Oreal-UNESCO Women in Science Fellowship in 2020, and the Batterham Medal for Engineering Excellence by the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering.
Currently, Nguyen is a senior lecturer at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University and is currently the leader of the university’s Innovative Fire and Facade Engineering Group.
4. Rose M. Mutiso
Dr. Rose Mutiso is an energy researcher and activist from Kenya who works with experts around the globe to find solutions to the energy crisis in developing countries. Mutiso’s TED talk, “How to Bring Affordable, Sustainable Energy to Africa,” has more than 2 million views and gives a critical analysis on energy poverty. “Countries cannot grow out of poverty without access to abundant, affordable, and reliable electricity to power these productive centers. Or what I call energy for growth.”
Mutiso is now the Research Director at the Energy for Growth Hub, an institute that studies critical issues and offers guidance in making the leap towards a future of higher energy efficiency.
5. Kate Marvel
“We need courage, not hope, to face climate change.” In blog posts, tweets, podcasts, and more, New York-based Dr. Kate Marvel debunks misinformation about climate change with compelling storytelling.
In 2013, as a postdoctoral researcher, Marvel discovered that human activity almost definitely changed global rainfall patterns. Her TED talk on the topic, “Can Clouds Buy Us More Time to Solve Climate Change?” has been watched over 1.3 million times.
Today, Marvel teaches an MA program, "Dynamics of Climate Variability and Change", for the Earth Institute and is an associate research scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) at Columbia University. She also is a postdoctoral researcher at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
6. Rumaitha Al Busaidi
Rumaitha Al Busaidi is a marine scientist and activist from Oman who noticed that intruding seawater was changing the Omani agricultural landscape. Al Busaidi worked with public Omani stakeholders on the concept of integrated aquaculture systems — this means linking multiple farming activities, where at least one comprises fish-farming. This is a sustainable, resilient solution that increases food security. It was adopted as a national project with a goal to impact 50 farms by 2020.
Al Busaidi’s TED talk "Women and Girls: You Are Part of the Climate Solution" has more than 1 million views on Youtube. In it, she addresses how women are more likely to be impacted by climate change. “Other approaches are necessary, which have to do with how our societies are structured. The most important of them is educating and empowering women and girls,” she said. Slightly off the subject, Al Busaidi is also credited as the first woman to be a radio football analyst in the Arab world.
Passionate about subverting gender stereotypes, Al Busaidi is the founder of WomeX, and the leader of Environmental Affairs of the Environment Society of Oman. Al Busaidi also holds two MSc degrees in Environmental Sciences and Aquaculture and, in 2021, was named a Fellow at Echoing Green in 2021.
7. Asmeret Asefaw Berhe
Prof. Asmeret Asefaw Berhe is a soil biogeochemist from Eritrea whose research is broadly focused on soil science and global change science (the study of the atmosphere, oceans, ice, land surface, ecosystems, and human systems to understand climate change). Berhe’s aim with her research is to understand the effect of changing environmental conditions on vital soil processes, most importantly the cycling and fate of vegetation, water, rock, and soil in what is known as the critical zone — the thin surface layer of our planet.
She earned her PhD at the University of California, Berkeley where she discovered that soil erosion can cause soil to store more carbon. Berhe’s research also touches on political ecology and here she works to understand how armed conflicts and wars affect land degradation and how people interact with the environment. Her TED talk which explores "A Climate Solution That’s Right Under Our Feet" has over 2 million views.
Currently, she works at the University of California as a Professor and Falasco Chair in the Earth Sciences, Life & Environmental Sciences Department. She’s also written a book called Soil and Human Security in the 21st Century.
8. Angelicque E. White
As a biological oceanographer, Angelicque “Angel” E. White studies life and relationships in the ocean and investigates the changes happening through the smallest of lenses — microbes. Her TED talk explores “What Ocean Microbes Reveal About the Changing Climate” and has reached almost 2 million people.
Today, US-based White is an associate professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who obtained a PhD from Oregon State University. She is the principal investigator of the Hawaii Ocean Time-series and an investigator in the Simons Collaboration on Ocean Processes and Ecology.
9. Joanne Chory
Meet 67-year-old Joanne Chory, an American biologist and geneticist who uses plants as the answer to climate change. Chory’s focus is on the genetic codes of plants, and how to help them adapt to store more carbon dioxide — which you can hear her dissect in her TED talk, “How Supercharged Plants Could Slow Climate Change.” She told the Washington Post: “I would like for my kids to be thinking that I did something important for their world,”, after she decided to put retirement on hold.
Chory has received a number of accolades, including the 2018 Gruber Genetics Prize, the 2018 Breakthrough Prize winner in Life Sciences, and the L’Oreal-UNESCO Women in Science laureate in 2000.
Chory is a Professor and the Director of the Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. As the leader of the Harnessing Plants Initiative, she is recognized as one of the greatest scientific innovators of our time
10. Catherine Lilian Nakalembe
To be recognized with such amazing women is an absolute honor! https://t.co/rFQsLJewRi— Dr. Catherine Nakalembe (@CLNakalembe) April 4, 2022
Last but certainly not least is Dr. Catherine Lilian Nakalembe, a Ugandan remote sensing scientist. This means she uses sensors to capture and analyze data in order to solve problems such as natural resource management, urban planning, and climate and weather prediction.
Nakalembe’s priority is food security in Africa and how using satellites can help monitor smallholder farms and guide farmers’ decisions about agriculture. Through this satellite technology, she has been able to prevent the potentially disastrous impacts of crop failure. In 2020, Nakalembe won the Africa Food Prize for this work.
Today, she works as an Associate Researcher Professor at the University of Maryland, as the NASA Harvest Africa Program Director, and is a member of the NASA SERVIR Applied Sciences Team, serving as the Agriculture and Food Security thematic lead.