Agents of Change: Our Role as 500 Women Scientists in Addressing Climate Change

photo credit: Jane Zelikova

The evidence before us is too great not to act.

We are women and scientists who strongly believe in the power of scientific solutions to change lives for the better, particularly those of other women and marginalized groups. Our goal is to use our knowledge, expertise, and experience as scientists to highlight the unique challenges faced by women around the world in the face of climate change, and propose policy and grassroots actions to address these challenges.

Climate change is happening, and is the defining challenge of our lifetime. It affects every aspect of our lives from the way that we conduct business, travel, and to how we spend our free time. In turn, our activities affect the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere [1]. A wealth of scientific evidence shows that the Earth’s climate is changing at an alarming rate because of human activities related to fossil fuel consumption. Burning fossil fuels increases the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, which can efficiently absorb heat. As these gases build up, more heat is trapped in the atmosphere, and eventually the ocean, warming the planet [2]. If we continue to rely on fossil fuels for our energy production, the environmental, economic, and public health impacts of atmospheric warming will be dramatic [3]. In addition to the long term damage, these fuel sources are finite and environmentally damaging. Refining fossil fuels pollutes land, air, and water; extracting natural gas can make communities sick. The environmental impacts of oil spills can be long lasting. Fracking-related activities have caused an uptick in earthquakes at work sites and in surrounding communities [4, 5].

The best available climate records suggest that warming temperatures will have a host of cascading effects [6]. Climate change is projected to cause an increase in health problems, including heat stroke and diseases carried by mosquitos [7]. Extreme weather events are likely to become more common, threatening lives and property. Important ecosystems may be destroyed and rising sea-levels are already causing coastal flooding. [8] Polar species are facing loss of the ice they need to survive [9], humid forests face soil degradation and loss of stream flow [10], coral reefs are bleaching and dying from ocean water that is too warm [11, 12]. The loss of coral reefs will deprive large populations in tropical countries of the fish that is their major source of protein in their diet [13].

The impacts of climate change are not the same across the world, and not everyone will experience them in the same way. Women are disproportionately affected by climate change in part because they are often restricted from powerful political, social, and economic positions that connect vulnerable populations with climate monitoring information [14]. Women are on the frontlines of suffering when illness and natural disaster strike. Across the globe, we are often the last to receive lifesaving medical attention and food [15].

Worldwide, women do most of the work required to obtain water [16]. Increasing temperatures will result in an increased physiological need for water, just at the time when water resources are becoming more scarce. As droughts decrease the amount of available freshwater, women will be required to travel longer distances to get the water their families need. This work will take a toll on the bodies and livelihoods of women who work on farms, whose additional labor during droughts goes unrecognized [17]. More time spent on traveling to and from water resources means that women and girls will have less time for jobs and education [18].

Women are the primary caretakers of children and the elderly. We make up 60% of the largely unpaid caregiver roles for elderly in the US [19] and strong international norms require us to be the main ones to look after the sick and injured [20]. We make choices for the health of our families, and are devoted to their futures. This is a powerful motivator to protect our planet.

To combat climate change, we must reduce carbon emissions. Fortunately, countries, cities, businesses, and individuals can all work together to do this by increasing local public transportation, subsidizing renewable energy, installing efficient appliances and lightbulbs, expanding protected wildlands, and more.

Good policy outcomes are the result of careful and strategic planning by dedicated individuals working collectively. A one-size-fits-all solution does not hold the key to reducing carbon emissions. Rather, communities and states will need to work together to find the solution that works best for them [21]. We find great hope in this. Hope that by addressing climate change, we can improve the health, safety, and livelihoods of people and communities [22].

The 500WS organization will continue to support our members and mobilize our communities at a grassroots level. To put this into practice, we commit to the following actions:

  1. We will provide a public repository on the best available evidence and research on the impacts of climate change.
  2. If we see that regulations and policies fail to reduce emissions, we will fill the gaps left by stalled political processes with a commitment to scientific engagement and collaboration.
  3. Take part in local governance, whether this means attending city planning meetings, running for city council positions, or encouraging local businesses to reduce their emissions.
  4. Hold lawmakers and companies accountable for the environmental impacts of their policies and business decisions, with the goal of reducing overall emissions.
  5. Call for continued, and increased, funding for scientific research to study climate change, for the protection of wildlands, for increased investment in renewable energy technologies, and for clean air, water, and energy.
  6. Encourage our scientific peers to join us in reducing unnecessary air travel, and find creative ways to engage over teleconferences, webinars, and other low-carbon forms of interaction.
  7. Use our platform to highlight the difficulties faced by vulnerable communities as a direct result of climate change.

As scientists, women, and citizens, we believe that we can be impactful and passionate agents of change. Our voices, often under represented, are urgently needed at the table. By educating the public about climate change, we believe we can empower people from all walks of life to make environmentally sustainable changes in their communities. We thus commit ourselves to informing our peers, the public, and our legislators — and inspiring them to action. The evidence before us is too great not to act.

References

[1] Earth System Research Laboratory monitoring shows that atmospheric concentration of CO2 is over 400 ppm (April 16th, 2017). Available online at: https://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/weekly.html

[2] Stocker, Thomas, ed. Climate change 2013: the physical science basis: Working Group I contribution to the Fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, 2014.

[3] IPCC, 2014: Summary for policymakers. In: Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part A: Global and Sectoral Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, pp. 1–32.

[4] Skoumal, R.J., Brudzinski, M.R., Currie, B.S. Earthquakes Induced by Hydraulic Fracturing in Poland Township, Ohio, Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, Jan 2015, doi:10.1785/0120140168

[5] Bame, Dorthe, and Michael Fehler. “Observations of long period earthquakes accompanying hydraulic fracturing.” Geophysical Research Letters 13.2 (1986): 149–152. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/GL013i002p00149/full

[6] IPCC, 2014: Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Summaries, Frequently Asked Questions, and Cross-Chapter Boxes. A Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. World Meteorological Organization, Geneva, Switzerland, 190 pp.

[7] Reiter, Paul. “Climate change and mosquito-borne disease.” Environmental health perspectives 109.Suppl 1 (2001): 141. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1240549/

[8] Sweet, W.V., M. Menendez, A. Genz, J. Obeysekera, J. Park, and J.J. Marra, 2016: In Tide’s Way: Southeast Florida’s September 2015 Sunny-day Flood. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 97, S25–S30, doi: 10.1175/BAMS-D-16–0117.1.

[9] Barnhart, Katherine R, Christopher R Miller, Irina Overeem, and Jennifer E Kay. 2016. “Mapping the Future Expansion of Arctic Open Water.” Nature Clim. Change 6(3): 280–85. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2848.

[10] Buytaert, W., Cuesta-Camacho, F. and Tobón, C. (2011), Potential impacts of climate change on the environmental services of humid tropical alpine regions. Global Ecology and Biogeography, 20: 19–33. doi:10.1111/j.1466–8238.2010.00585.x

[11] Hughes, T.P. et al. “Climate Change, Human Impacts, and the Resilience of Coral Reef.” SCIENCE 15 AUG 2003 : 929–933

[12] Hughes, T.P. et al, Global warming and recurrent mass bleaching of corals., Nature. 2017 Mar 15;543(7645):373–377. doi: 10.1038/nature21707.

[13] Allison, E. H., Perry, A. L., Badjeck, M.-C., Neil Adger, W., Brown, K., Conway, D., Halls, A. S., Pilling, G. M., Reynolds, J. D., Andrew, N. L. and Dulvy, N. K. (2009), Vulnerability of national economies to the impacts of climate change on fisheries. Fish and Fisheries, 10: 173–196. doi:10.1111/j.1467–2979.2008.00310.x

[14] Alam, M., Bhatia, R., Mawby, B. 2015. “Women and Climate Change: Impact and Agency in Human Rights, Security, and Economic Development.” Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security. Available online at: https://giwps.georgetown.edu/sites/giwps/files/Women%20and%20Climate%20Change.pdf

[15] United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women). 2016. Annual Report 2015–2016. Available online: http://www.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/publications/2016/6/annual-report-2015-2016#sthash.c6hnWMyY.dpuf

[16] Detraz, Nicole. 2014. Environmental Security and Gender. Routledge Research in Environmental Security series. New York: Routledge. ISBN: 9781138789104.

[17] Alston, M. 2006. ‘I’d Like to Just Walk Out of Here’: Australian Women’s Experience of Drought. Sociologia Ruralis, 46: 154–170. doi:10.1111/j.1467–9523.2006.00409.x

[18] Graham JP, Hirai M, Kim S-S. 2016. “An Analysis of Water Collection Labor among Women and Children in 24 Sub-Saharan African Countries.” PLoS ONE 11(6): e0155981. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0155981

[19] Weber-Raley, L., and Smith, E. 2015. “Caregiving in the U.S.” A report prepared for the National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC) and the AARP Public Policy Institute. Available online at: http://www.caregiving.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/2015_CaregivingintheUS_Final-Report-June-4_WEB.pdf

[20] World Health Organization. 2014. Gender, Climate Change, and Health. http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/144781/1/9789241508186_eng.pdf. ISBN 978 92 4 150818 6

[21] Betsill, Michele M, and Harriet Bulkeley. 2006. “Cities and the Multilevel Governance of Global Climate Change.” Global Governance 12(2): 141–59.

[22] Melillo, Jerry M., Richmond, T, and Yohe, G.W. 2014. Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment. U.S. Global Change Research Program. Available online: http://nca2014.globalchange.gov/report

Authors: The 500WS Climate Change Strike Team, including —Holly Williams, Theresa Jedd, Christine Shields, Iara Lacher, Lexi Moore, Erica Richard, Judith Weis, Courtney Warren, Rukmani Vijayaraghavan, and Jane Zelikova

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