Women Leaders on Climate Change

Highlighting Change-Agents in the Face of Climate Doom

Zaria Forman. | (Pineda, n.d.)


It was mid-October, and we were all perspiring. Walking through the downtown flea market in Cincinnati, Ohio, I was sorely overdressed for the occasion — a heavy jacket and jeans and a sweaty smile to match. Stopping for hot coffee in the mid-afternoon heat (79º Fahrenheit was the recorded high-temperature) didn’t improve my odds of cooling down, either. Panting slightly, wishing I could now wrap my jacket around my waist, I murmured to my three companions: “Global warming … I guess it is real.” Nothing. Not a single pause or comment or nugget of conversation. I consented, but not deterred, I vowed to try again. After a time, I shook my hands at the sun and, a little louder, lamented “Ugh! Global warming!” Nothing, again. Not even disagreement or doubtful shrugs.

This silence is actually all too common when the conversation of climate change or global warming comes up in American discourse. Some people still think it’s a topic that’s too political, or too controversial, and so global warming falls under this “spiral of silence” (Maibach et al., 2016, n.p.). Studies from Yale University’s Program on Climate Change Communication show that “people who care about the issue [climate change], shy away from discussing it because they so infrequently hear other people talking about it” (Maibach et al., 2016, n.p.). Perhaps this finding explains why I still find myself one of the few Facebook-ers who will actually post about global warming on a consistent basis. But by not talking about global warming and resulting climate changes, we as a global community risk a whole lot more than argumentative conversation; we risk additional, and potentially more catastrophic, climate changes in our children’s futures.

Figure 1: (IPCC, 2016).

I ‘believe’ in the science of climate change, as if personal belief were somehow to supersede scientific inquiry. I’ve been following global climate change news and information since my junior year of high school. I wrote about rising sea levels and super-typhoons and coal-belching power plants while my peers wrote about trendy holiday gifts in the school newspaper. My consciousness about these issues has been so inundated with science, facts, and figures that it’s difficult for me to pinpoint exactly why I do, in fact, believe in the reality of global warming. I see the projections (Figure 1) and read about the rising global temperature anomalies (Figures 2 & 3) published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and NASA nearly every day. I watch documentaries (“Before the Flood,” 2016) about flooded farmlands and smog-laden cities around the world, and watch the carbon dioxide parts per million (ppm) level rise and rise until it looks like it might leap straight off of the charts (Figure 4).

Figure 2: (Sublette, 2016).

I honestly wonder how anyone could perceive these findings as ‘normal’. But it’s understanding the basic relationship between input and output, the knowledge that everything has an equal and opposite reaction, that makes me certain anthropogenic climate change is rampant and happening right now. How could we doubt that all we have done to our Earth — mining, extracting, logging, acidifying, poisoning — would not somehow have any consequences?

Figure 3: (NASA, 2016).
Figure 4: (NASA, 2016).

A growing mass of individuals — climate scientists, activists, political speakers, and authors — are addressing climate change issues head-on, unabashedly and unapologetically, and are pushing climate change apathy to action. Curiously, men still represent the vast majority of academic climate scientists (Konkel, 2012) (Wikipedia, 2016), especially the scientists who have published works readily available in the public domain. Michael E. Mann, James Hansen, and Robert Balling are three popular examples often quoted in the mainstream media as ‘climate science experts’. But there is concern among feminists and environmentalists alike that “climate change and first world overconsumption are produced by masculinist ideology, and will not be solved by masculinist techno-science approaches” (Gaard, 2015, p. 20). Therefore, it is important to recognize the strong undercurrent of women leaders in the realm of climate change, women who continue to shatter the popular uncertainty surrounding (the so-called hoax that is known as) global warming.

Women like Harvard historian Naomi Oreskes (2010) and world-renowned Scripps oceanographer (“Her Deepness”) Sylvia Earle (2009) have tackled complex scientific questions and delivered their stories to lay audiences and scientific peers alike. Outspoken environmental activists like Naomi Klein (2014) and Terry Tempest Williams (2016) have published damning accounts on the effects of global warming. Acclaimed authors Diane Ackerman (2015) and Mary Oliver (2016) have contributed global warming-related commentary as humanities scholars. The beloved Jane Goodall (2009) has connected species extinction rates with climate changes, and Elizabeth Kolbert (2014) continues to write climate change stories for New Yorker audiences all over the globe. These women, and others, continue to challenge the climate change “spiral of silence” and, I argue, are inspiring the next generation of environmental stewards. Without these women, our world would face far greater risks as a result of climate change than the ones we have yet to face in this century.

Climate Change Denial: Global Warming is a Myth?

For many Americans it may appear as if the scientific reality of global warming is still ‘up for debate’ — and that uncertainty is exactly what a silent army of fossil fuel public relations extraordinaires have concocted over the last three decades. Mainstream media is largely to blame for this confusion. Media outlets still present the global warming ‘debate’ as just that, a debate with two sides or positions, perpetuating the fatal understanding of the climate change consensus with its “balance as bias” paradigm (Boykoff & Boykoff, 2004, p. 125). And yet, there is a proven 97 percent consensus among climate scientists, who agree that “climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities” (NASA, 2016). In the midst of this consensus misunderstanding, extractive industry corporate executives, from the likes of ExxonMobil, and Republican party elites (virtually all of whom are white males in power positions) continue to cast doubt on the reality that is global warming.

Unbeknownst to the public until 2015, global oil corporation ExxonMobil was handsomely funding carbon dioxide research in the 1970s, in order to grasp the industry’s potential impact on the greenhouse gas effect. Their results: “The risk of climate change is real and warrants action” (Banerjee et al., 2015). This connection between the rise in global carbon emissions and the rise in global temperatures was therefore understood by the mid-1980s, before climate scientist James Hansen famously testified in Congress on the reality of global warming in 1988 (Banerjee et al., 2015). And yet, despite knowing this overwhelming potential for carbon dioxide emissions to contribute to the global warming risks and consequences we now face today, the industry abandoned its own climate research. Instead, “Exxon worked … at the forefront of climate denial. It put its muscle behind efforts to manufacture doubt about the reality of global warming its own scientists had once confirmed. It lobbied to block federal and international action to control greenhouse gas emissions. It helped to erect a vast edifice of misinformation that stands to this day [emphasis added]” (Banerjee et al., 2015).

Naomi Oreskes. | (Pulitzer Center, 2016).

A science historian at Harvard University, Naomi Oreskes (2010) primarily studies “how scientists decide that we know something … how they reach consensus, and also how they decide what topics are important to work on” (The Elephant, 2015). Writing a book on the history of oceanography, Oreskes discovered convincing climate change reports, published all the way back in the 1950s, claiming that widespread fossil fuel combustion could alter the planet’s climate systems. “I was frankly blown away by the … seriousness which with this group of scientists were taking the question [of climate change]” (The Elephant, 2015). She then detoured from her original oceanographic project and began writing — and researching extensively — about the so-called climate change debate. Publishing a paper in 2004, Oreskes declared that: “Actually in the scientific community, there was no debate … about the reality of climate change” (The Elephant, 2015).

Merchants of Doubt. | (Oreskes & Conway, 2011).

Oreskes now found herself in the crossfire of these ‘merchants of doubt,’ individuals who have essentially constructed the climate change debate in today’s public discourse. This confusion and mysterious string of threats led Oreskes to another book project, Merchants of Doubt (2010), and a subsequent documentary by the same title. Oreskes (2010) and her co-author Erik M. Conway tell the “story about a group of scientists who fought the scientific evidence and spread confusion on many of the most important issues of our time” — including the adverse public health effects attributed to smoking and global warming (Oreskes & Conway, 2010, p. 9). Now a modern environmental classic, Merchants of Doubt (2010) exposed the roots of climate denialism and has continued to empower other environmentalists in holding these elected and corporate officials, as well as the dissenting scientists, accountable for their contrary claims. Naomi Oreskes and her Merchants of Doubt (2010) “should finally put to rest the question of whether the science of climate change is settled” (Oreskes & Conway, 2010, n.p.).

Climate Issue Case Study: Ocean Acidification

Climate change has since been described as an “existential issue for humanity” (Romm, 2016, xiii). It now is linked to a variety of worrying phenomena, including more deadly droughts, intensified natural disasters like hurricanes and typhoons, rising sea levels, melting land-ice, and shortages in food (Kolbert, 2006; 2015, p. 213). And yet, our oceans — which cover over 70 percent of Earth’s surface — face two tandem threats that could significantly alter our warming world even further: ocean acidification and coral bleaching. By changing the atmospheric composition of carbon dioxide, as humans have done, the balance of gases absorbed and expelled by the oceans and the atmosphere is now lopsided (Kolbert, 2006; 2015, p. 213). As a result, “more CO2 from the air enters the water than comes back out”, initiating the chemical conversion of carbon dioxide to carbonic acid; carbonic acid, “in sufficient quantities, can change the water’s pH” (Kolbert, 2006; 2015, p. 213).

Coral bleaching. | (Howard, 2016).

For many marine species, the cost of this acidification is proving fatal. A Nature study published in 2016 concluded that ocean acidification is “already affecting coral reefs” and that the “chemical shift [in the ocean] can slow the growth of calcium carbonate shells and skeletons, or even dissolve them” (Tollefson, 2016). “Today’s oceans are already 30 [percent] more acidic than they were before the Industrial Revolution. If current trends continue … ocean acidification could shift corals into a permanent state of decline by mid-century” (Tollefson, 2016). And yet, we continue to pump obscene amounts of carbon dioxide into the oceans by way of our fossil-fuel intensive lifestyles without another thought. So far, humans have pumped 120 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the oceans, with an additional estimated 2 billion tons slated for 2015 (Kolbert 2006; 2015, p. 214). Put more simply: “Every day, every American, in effect, adds seven pounds of carbon to the oceans” (Kolbert, 2006; 2015, p. 214). A new report from Nature journal predicts “the Great Barrier Reef will not survive coral bleaching if current sea temperature trends continue, according to charting increases over the past three decades which blames manmade climate change for the problem” (Collins, 2016).

Sylvia Earle. | (Astle, 2014).

Dr. Sylvia A. Earle — the author of more than 175 publications, lecturer in more than 70 countries, a woman who has conducted more than 100 expeditions and logged more than 7,000 hours underwater — is, according to Time magazine, a ‘Hero for the Planet’ (Earle, 2009, p. 254). Earle is an oceanographer, Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society, and the former chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), among other distinctions (Earle, 2009, p. 254). Once a deep-sea diver and now an outspoken ocean advocate, Earle focuses her energies on writing, speaking, and campaigning for Marine Protected Areas — ‘Hope Spots’ as she call them.

Together, with her organization Mission Blue, Earle has a goal to create “a global network of marine protected areas to safeguard 20 [percent] of the ocean by 2020” (Mission Blue, 2016). Currently less than 4 percent of the ocean has any sort of protection (Mission Blue, 2016). On our changing climate, Earle (2009) writes in The World is Blue: “[i]t has taken four billion years for living systems, mostly in the sea, to transform the lifeless ingredients of early Earth into the Eden that makes our lives possible, and less than a century for us to destabilize those ancient rhythms [emphasis added]” (Earle, 2009, p. 156).

Mission Blue. | (Mission Blue, 2016).

“Alter the chemistry of the ocean,” Earle (2009) writes under the subheading ‘An Acid Ocean,’ “and the entire system shifts” (p. 171). Noting that “photosynthetic organisms in the sea do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to generating oxygen and otherwise holding planetary chemistry on a steady course,” Earle worries about the future of oceans — and the future oceans for her children. In the meantime, Earle is combating what she calls the “crisis … of complacency” by protecting what fragile, and relatively undisturbed, ocean ecosystems we still have remaining on Earth (Earle, 2009, p. 173).

Climate Issue Case Study: Species Extinction

The “significant” decline reported across all of Earth’s biological diversity in our era of the Anthropocene has human-caused climate change to thank. According to the World Wildlife Fund’s latest Living Planet Report (2016), “based on 14,152 monitored populations of 3,706 vertebrate species … [o]n average, monitored species population abundance declined by 58 percent between 1970 and 2012” (WWF, 2016, p. 12). And that’s only accounting for the species that we know about or have previously discovered! Similar reports from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimate “that 35 percent of bird species, 52 percent of amphibians and 71 percent of reef-building corals will be particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change” (WWF, 2015). The scientific journal Science published a review article in 2014, which concluded that “Current rates of extinction are about 1000 times the background rate of extinction. These are higher than previously estimated and likely still underestimated [emphasis added]” (Pimm et al., 2014, p. 987).

Elizabeth Kolbert. | (MacMillan Publishers, 2014).

Because of this incredibly spiked extinction rate, science writer Elizabeth Kolbert, among others, has suggested the Earth is currently experiencing its sixth ‘mass extinction’ period in her new book The Sixth Extinction (2014). “The Big Five extinctions, as seen in the marine fossil record, resulted in a sharp decline in diversity at the family level. If even one species from a family made it through, the family counts as a survivor, so on the species level the losses were far greater” (Kolbert, 2014, p. 16). Mass extinctions disrupt “long periods of boredom” in the evolution of species with spurts of panic (Kolbert, 2014, p. 16). While human-driven activities, such as habitat destruction, overfishing, and overhunting, continue to affect the current mass extinction rate, several aspects of climate change continue to exacerbate this “unprecedented” intercontinental reshuffling of species (Kolbert, 2014, p. 19). “[W]hat is of most concern to biologists today is that as the rate of global warming speeds up in the coming decades, the climate may well change too quickly for many if not most species to adapt” (Romm, 2016, p. 121). Put more starkly: scientists with the German Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre have projected that by 2080 “more than 80 [percent] of genetic diversity within species may disappear in certain groups of organisms” (Romm, 2016, p. 123).

Jane Goodall. | (Tiki-Toki, n.d.).

Jane Goodall, world-renowned primatologist and beloved chimpanzee ally, has added the issue of climate change to her environmental rallying cry in recent years. As a United Nations (UN) Messenger of Peace, Goodall travels all over the world to speak to audiences about “endangered species, particularly chimpanzees, and encouraging people to do their part to make the world a better place for people, animals, and the environment we all share” (Jane Goodall Institute, 2016). Goodall was most recently featured in the film “Racing Extinction” (2015) and spoke at the UN climate summit in Paris in December 2015. In Paris, Goodall linked “the importance of saving the rainforest as a way of mitigating climate change” (Democracy Now, 2016). Trees are important, she says, because they “absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. And as we cut them down and burn them, that CO2 is released back from the trees, the leaves and also from the forest soils … about 50 percent of our tropical rainforests have already gone” (Democracy Now, 2016).

But despite the mass extinction — and the destruction of our forest habitats — Goodall remains an optimist. “I think we’ve got a window of time, and I don’t know how big that window of time is — a window of time that we can start to at least slow down climate change, protect more of the forests, develop alternative energy … And maybe it’s wishful thinking because there are so many biologists who stand up and say we’re on a downward trajectory that will mean we can never hope to save much on the planet. But I truly believe there’s a window of time, but that it’s desperately urgent we all do our bit, realizing that every one of us makes some kind of difference every day” (Kawakami, 2015).

Climate Issue Case Study: Rising Sea Levels & Melting Glaciers

Perhaps one of the most talked-about changes our planet will face in the next 100 years (or so) is the rising of global sea levels. “The rise in sea levels is linked to three primary factors, all induced by this ongoing [sic] climate change”: thermal expansion, melting of glaciers and polar ice caps, and ice loss from Greenland and West Antarctica (National Geographic, 2016). Headlines from news organizations and climate science journals alike proclaim the impending destruction to-be wrought by this projected global warming effect. A February 2016 article from the New York Times announced that, alarmingly, “Seas Are Rising at Fastest Rate in Last 28 Centuries”; an image of a kayaker floating down a flooded street in Miami, Florida, accompanied the piece (Gillis, 2016). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a notoriously conservative and somewhat delayed synthesis of climate science reports worldwide, focused much of its “Physical Science Basis” Fifth Assessment report (2013) on sea-level rise. Analysis published in 2013 found “that the best estimates of future sea-level rise are considerably higher now than they were just five years ago [emphasis added]” (Hausfather, 2013), and the projections have continued to prove more worrisome in the years since.

Rising Seas. | (Treat et al., 2013).

National Geographic published in 2013 an interactive, online map that depicts new global coastlines, should all the ice in the world melt. According to its calculations, if all the ice on land melted, “the entire Atlantic seaboard would vanish, along with Florida and the Gulf Coast. In California, San Francisco’s hills would become a cluster of islands and the Central Valley a giant bay” (Treat et al., 2013). That is to say, if all the land-based ice were to melt, which is arguably a process that takes hundreds if not thousands of years. But we’ve already committed ourselves to a warmer Earth for centuries to come, based on all of the existing greenhouse gases dumped into our atmosphere. And the ice-melting feedback loop will become harder and harder to reverse with our continuing (and crippling) consumption of fossil fuels (Folger, 2013). It’s important to remember though that “[d]uring the warm interglacial period that came just before the last Ice Age, global average temperature appears to have been just a few degrees warmer than today, and the seas were very likely at least 20 feet higher [emphasis added]” (Climate Central, n.d.).

Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner. | (ArtCOP21, 2015).

Two women are attempting to shatter the consciousness around issues of rising sea levels with their artistry and advocacy. Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner is a Marshallese poet and spoken word artist whose work “focuses on raising awareness surrounding the issues and threats faced by my people. Nuclear testing conducted in our islands, militarism, the rising sea level as a result of climate change, forced migration, adaptation and racism in America” are all themes prominently featured in Jetnil-Kijiner’s poetry (Jetnil-Kijiner, 2011). In 2014, Jetnil-Kijiner addressed the Opening Ceremony of the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Summit, performing her poem “Dear Matafele Peinem” as a 26-year-old representative from the Marshall Islands (Jetnil-Kijiner, 2014). The poem, written to her daughter, fiercely and eloquently describes her island world impacted by climate change. “They say you, your daughter and your granddaughter too will wander rootless, with only a passport to call home … Mommy promises no one will devour you, no greedy whale of a company sharking through political seas, no backwater bullying of businesses with broken morals, no blindfolded bureaucracies going to push this mother ocean over the edge. No one’s drowning, baby. No one’s moving” (Jetnil-Kijiner, 2014). And Jetnil-Kijiner continues to advocate for environmental justice issues around the world, such as protesting the ongoing construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, occurring on the frontlines of the Standing Rock Sioux lands in North Dakota (Jetnil-Kijiner, 2016).

Figure 5: (Forman, 2012).

Another artist, Massachusetts-born Zaria Forman creates “large-scale compositions of melting glaciers, icebergs floating in glassy water and waves cresting with foam [to] explore moments of transition, turbulence and tranquility” (TED, 2015). Her work has been featured in numerous popular culture magazines, such as National Geographic and Smithsonian Magazine, as well as in The Wall Street Journal and The Huffington Post (Forman, n.d.). She says in her TED talk of her work: “I consider it my life’s mission to convey the urgency of climate change … I’ve traveled north to the Arctic to the capture the unfolding story of polar melt, and south to the Equator to document the subsequent rising seas. Most recently, I visited the icy coast of Greenland and the low-lying islands of the Maldives, connecting two seemingly disparate but equally endangered parts of our planet [emphasis added]” (TED, 2015).

Zaria Forman. | (Pineda, n.d.)

Forman’s soft-pastel masterpieces look as vivid and real as photographs (see Figure 5), and yet her artistic depiction of melting ice caps and sea level rise adds an earthy, arguably needed human quality to what would otherwise be seen as ‘old news’. She desires her “viewers to emotionally connect with a place you might never have the chance to visit. I choose to convey the beauty as opposed to the devastation. If you can experience the sublimity of these landscapes, perhaps you’ll be inspired to protect and preserve them” (TED, 2015). Amazingly, Forman utilizes only her fingers and palms — no tools — to craft her one-of-a-kind canvas art. “Among the many gifts my mother gave me was the ability to focus on the positive, rather than the negative. My drawings celebrate the beauty of what we all stand to lose. I hope they can serve as records of sublime landscapes in flux, documenting the transition and inspiring our global community to take action for the future” (TED, 2015).

Conclusion: Hope in the face of climate change?

Hope is a seed that seems to run in short supply when one starts listing off all of the imminent, seemingly unavoidable consequences of global warming and its effects on global climate change. I mean, just think about all of the reported phenomena discussed — ever so briefly, and not at all adequately accurate in scope! — in the aforementioned paragraphs: mass extinction of species; rising sea levels and melting glaciers; ocean acidification; not to mention climate change denial. Even now in the United States, after the presidential election in November 2016, climate change seems like an insurmountable, if not laughable, undertaking, considering our current President-Elect Donald J. Trump and his position on the (“hoax” of an) issue (Meyer, 2016). Environmental news headlines around the world screamed, practically in anguish, the morning following Trump’s nomination: “If he fulfills his campaign promises, President-Elect Donald J. Trump and his future administration could prove cataclysmic for the planet’s climate” wrote the Atlantic Monthly (Meyer, 2016). National Geographic News reported similar predictions: “Donald Trump’s surprising victory in the U.S. presidential election will ignite a dramatic change to U.S. environmental policy. Trump has signaled that his administration will reject President Barack Obama’s policies aimed at combating climate change, a move that likely would throw international efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions into chaos” (Greshko, 2016).

Christiana Figueres. | (Figueres, 2016).

Christiana Figueres is a champion for climate change optimism — and right now, in the face of a climate-change-denying American President-Elect, we need optimism. In February 2016, Figueres described her role as former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the recently successful Paris Agreement — before Trump threatened to dismantle the accord’s promises in America. After decades of failed international climate negotiations, Figueres (2016) sought to “seed Global Optimism” for the Paris Agreement.

“We’ve only just started our work on climate change. And in fact, we need to make sure that we redouble our efforts over the next five years that are the urgent five years. But I do believe that we have come over the past six years from the impossible to the now unstoppable. And how did we do that? By injecting transformational optimism that allowed us to go from confrontation to collaboration, that allowed us to understand that national and local interests are not necessarily at odds with global needs, and that if we understand that, we can bring them together and we can merge them harmoniously” (TED, 2016).

Perhaps instead of lamenting over the lost opportunities for a progressive, climate-change-believing elected leader, we Americans can adopt this ‘climate optimism’ attitude so passionately embodied by the former Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, and the many other women leaders who are still fighting for climate change consciousness even after November 8. “Impossible is not a fact, it’s an attitude. It’s only an attitude. And I decided right then and there that I was going to change my attitude and I was going to help the world change its attitude on climate change” (TED, 2016).


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