Women on Climate: The Nature Conservancy’s Innovation Summit
Reflections on women’s leadership in a hot and dangerous world
Last week I attended The Nature Conservancy’s Women on Climate Innovation Summit. In attendance were scientists, community organizers, leaders and writers, nonprofit directors, institutional liaisons, utility directors, and fossil fuel representatives, as well as artists, songwriters, professional athletes, political trainers, campaign strategists, representatives of venture capitalists, and feminists.
I will say, hands down, this summit was the most impactful, strategic, innovative, and emotional experience I have had as a scientific leader. It was phenomenal.
Why was it phenomenal? Well, to start, the women who were in that room were and are incredible. I have never been in one place with the diversity of women’s high caliber public leadership on climate change — it was sublime. There was so much power in that room and it gave me the tangible experience that we together are truly greater than the sum of our individual parts.
I want to reflect on why women’s leadership is so necessary to address climate change in the public, and how this was evinced just from the behavior demonstrated in the room. I will start with one observation. At this summit — where long hours and massive brain energies were spent — I did not hear of One. Single. Mention. Of science denialism and climate skepticism.
This omission should give you immediate pause. Because, as many of us know, denialism and skepticism are the primary currency of the front lines of science communication. We spend a great deal of time talking about combating climate denialism. And, while I do not want to cut short or underplay this important work, I do want to emphasize that there are many, many pathways in public for leadership on climate change.
Combatting denialism has been hyper-focused upon in the science communication community. And, yet, I wonder how much of this behavior is coded male power brokering? A great deal, I would suggest, and these battles are often waged upon the stakes of individual egos, power, and legitimacy. All of that is a form of self-obsessed brokering — and it lacks the moral attention to see across systems of discrimination and marginalization. Male-coded power brokering is, ultimately, about the power of individual men and their interests. And we all know how toxic that path is.
In the absence of engagement with the conflicts of denialism and rhetorical trawling for political wins, what did we talk about?
We built comprehensive leadership and decision-making pathways across vast domains of public life and organization. We built actionable, scalable plans for the integration of regional and domain-specific climate solutions. We talked about networks, power, leverage, privilege, responsibility, and systemic change. We talked about poverty, racism, misogyny, classism, and consumptive privilege. We talked about human rights, the rights of indigenous peoples, and the rights of people who will be our descendants.
From my vantage point, every woman in that room knew exactly why she was doing the work of contributing to climate solution innovation. And, news flash, it wasn’t a profit motive, a startup, a technology, and or an industry — the women in that room were there because of their dedication to public service, stewardship, and human rights. Every woman in that room had a place and a community she was rooted in stewarding and protecting.
This. This wholehearted humanity. This transparency. This is what is missing across the vast majority of climate leadership. As I said to the women gathered in a short delivered TED-style talk, there is no evidence in all of history that the leadership of white men alone is sufficient to meet the needs of indigenous women, women of color, and even white women. Representative leadership, within the climate solutions sphere, is a fundamental requirement for effective global leadership. Period. Full stop.
Women, emotion, and trust
Women are socialized to work together. This is a super power that the culture instills and rewards in us. In practice, this means that women get things done. We build coalitions, we listen, we address needs, we refine, and we integrate. And, we are also emotional. We build trust with one another through emotional intimacy. We tell each other stories and listen with our hearts in our throats. This is another super power.
This emotional intelligence of women was palpable in that room. Many, many women sat in relationship with one another, speaking in low tones with eyes gleaming with tears. Sitting, listening, holding space, building trust; this is what defines real leadership. Real power is not the tip of the spear. Real power is a broken and remade heart, willing to turn towards the pain of others, willing to be broken again.
For myself, I experienced wave after wave of crushing grief and despair in that room. In the majority of my professional work, I am so focused on arming myself and defending others. And yet, being in a room of women who were fundamentally aligned with shared values, I could soften and unpack my own heartbreak and compartmentalization. I am heartbroken, it is true. The crisis of climate change, the erasure of indigenous women’s pain, the chaos, violence, and injustice; it is gutting and rendering. That is the truth.
But, turning towards a room of women working to integrate the pain and chaos, I could see myself and my work in their eyes. I could also be seen and held in community — and I wasn’t prepared for how starved for that connection I am. This is how I now feel about feminist leadership — it is like oxygen and I need it to breath.
Without wholehearted, brave, feminist leadership, we will only continue to circle the drain of the culture and the crisis of climate change. Without a reorganization of power, such that women of color, indigenous women, and queer women hold real public power, we will only repeat the same systemic erasure of lives, stories, and pain. We, together on this living, beautiful, and ancient planet, deserve so much better. We need to change the world.