Dr. Katharine Wilkinson on Showing up as a Whole Person to the Climate Movement

amywestervelt
Sep 19, 2019 · 13 min read

Dr. Katharine Wilkinson is an author, strategist, and teacher. She is vice president of communications and engagement at Project Drawdown and senior writer for The New York Times best seller Drawdown: the Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. Her first book Between God and Green: How Evangelicals Are Cultivating a Middle Ground on Climate Change was dubbed a “vitally important, even subversive story,” by The Boston Globe. Her TED talk on gender equity and global warming has more than 1.3 million views and her writing has been published by the BBC, CNN, and USA Today among others. Katharine has taught at the University of Oxford and Agnes Scott College. She currently advises on Mary Robinson’s feminist climate podcast Mothers of Invention and serves on the boards of wild Ark and Chattahoochee now. Katharine holds a doctorate in geography and environment from Oxford where she was a Rhodes scholar and a B.A. in religion from Suwannee the University of the South.

Dr.. Katharine Wilkinson during her TED talk.

I met Katharine on Twitter and through her work to really push for an intersectional feminist approach on climate change, and because she pulled together this incredible group of women really leading on climate for a gathering in Montana earlier this year. She has been leading an initiative on women leading on climate for quite a while. That was the subject of her TED talk and she is just really interesting on that subject and a really important voice to be listening to right now.

Dr. Katharine Wilkinson I think in some ways the broader roots of grappling with climate discourses and who the climate messengers are is something that’s been on my mind for a long time. I mean that really was what shaped my research and my first book. Right out of undergrad I worked for a year for NRDC and my boss was in New York but I was spending a lot of my time in rural Tennessee with county mayors and landowners and the governor’s office and in Nashville and I just was so struck by how much the environmental movement was speaking right past so many audiences that, you know, at least ostensibly, they wanted to engage. And in many cases these were people who really cared about land, really cared about place, and this was in the midst of the second term of the Bush administration and so you know we were already so much feeling that gridlock, I think, of political will and public engagement … even though some recent pieces have suggested that was not the case at that time. It was very much the case at that time! And so yeah. I was really interested in seeing, what are other ways into this? So I think that sense of the gatekeeping and the narrow set of voices and framing, and narratives not working has been with me for a long time.

After I finished my PhD and spent some time turning it into a book I actually mostly stepped away from climate because the movement really didn’t feel good. You know I think part of it was vocational grappling, of course; I don’t really want to be an academic and I’m not sure how to best use my skillset in this space. But also I think by and large it wasn’t a space that was inspiring to me. And I think in many ways that was because of it’s one-note-ness. You know I was not at the COP in Copenhagen but Mary Robinson talks about being there and that like no one was talking about people. No one was talking about humans, you know, and she had this moment of like whoa how are these dots not being connected.

And I think that was one of the things that the Evangelical climate movement that I researched and wrote about was doing — they were connecting the dots to issues of poverty and health and you know things that at that time just there wasn’t a lot of that conversation in the climate space all too often. Of course it has been there forever, but not with much amplification and maybe not as frequently.

Then when I joined the team at Drawdown and started thinking more and writing about the ways in which gender equality and climate intersect, and also just sort of watching the movement with slightly fresh eyes having been a bit pulled back for a few years, I was feeling like “wow some has changed and so much has also stayed the same.” And I was just going to climate events where everyone onstage is a white man mostly over 40. So I think it was a bit of slow burn in some ways and then like a hot fire!

I’m sort of embarrassed that it took me as long as it did to connect the dots between the feminist conversations I was engaged in and climate conversations. You know, I think in some ways I felt like oh well I put my feminist hat on and I go lobby with Planned Parenthood, and then I come over here and deal with the bro-rock-racy of climate work.

What was a weird game changer actually was that one of my colleagues who does all of our social media for Project Drawdown, summer of 2018 said “you absolutely have to get on Twitter. And I was like No no, the last thing the world needs is more sound bites, it just goes against everything that I hold dear and she was like, “Listen that’s fine. But you have to get up there.” And I did. And what opened up was this incredible community of women. You know I met Ayana [Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson] through Twitter, we only met for the first time in person in February. I met Kate Marvel [Dr. Kate Marvel] through Twitter and then we met in person at National Geographic. I really didn’t expect that incredible silver lining of the cesspool that is Twitter.

Amy Westervelt No that’s true actually I had a similar experience where I realized oh, the two things that I’ve covered the most consistently for my career are gender and climate. And like I completely thought of the two things as separate forever and then I have definitely met a large number of feminists working across various industries but especially in climate on Twitter and suddenly I’m like OH.

Dr. Katharine Wilkinson: Right, one of these things is exactly like the other one! I can’t remember where Rebecca Solnit wrote about this, but she wrote that climate is the most important thing and that is why I’m working on gender. I even remember at the time thinking like “What? Why?” I had to kind of let that simmer for a minute because I think the orthodoxy is that the things that matter are the things that directly reduce emissions. The things that matter are the changes and rules and incentives and it’s been really helpful for me to kind of lean more firmly into the actually very simple insight that culture always leads politics. And you know it is usually actually not that many people who are able to shape changes in culture. And therein lies the feminist climate renaissance!

Amy Westervelt: What would you describe as the intersectional feminist approach on climate? Or are there specific areas where it’s very obvious to you the disconnect between sort of the typical patriarchal approach and what you would see as an intersectional feminist approach?

Dr. Katharine Wilkinson: At the core of it for me is thinking about how do we pursue climate action in a way that heals systemic injustices rather than deepening them? And maybe even to take one step back from that, most of the time we talk about climate change as the problem, right? The challenge, the crisis, the emergency. And it is all of those things.

But I have found it really helpful also to think about climate change as feedback, as sort of the planet telling us that the way we’ve been doing things has not been working.

And I think when you kind of think about it through this lens of feedback and that we’re getting that feedback from all sorts of directions all at the same time all about the same core systems of extraction and domination … I mean, I think you could even think about the opioid crisis as a form of that feedback. You can think about, you know people people rising up in all different ways and I sometimes think that climate change is like the planet’s form of rising up and being like this is not working, we can’t keep going like this, humans. So thinking about you know, yeah one level of this is about emissions, but this is actually about a system that generates greenhouse gas emissions and makes addressing them seem nearly impossible.

So that sense of of “multi solving” systemically and healing not just what we’re doing to the planet but also what we’re doing to one another at the same time, not just because that’s like the right thing to do or a good thing to do, but because that is the more effective thing to do. I think we can perhaps Band-Aid our way to some emissions cuts but I don’t actually think we can get where we need to go without that much deeper transformation. And I think, you know, that I didn’t hear a lot of that in the climate space for a long time. And then you know I think part part of that is also then that we have to transform ourselves and I think that’s probably the other piece. The other kind of intersectional feminist piece that I think is really powerful is doing the work before the work, doing the inner work and the community building and relational work that makes the work that’s that kind of visible work in the public square possible, and lends it efficacy.

You know, it took me a long time to feel like I could show up in climate conversations with anything like my whole self. And I still have these moments. Like I’m supposed to speak to a room of probably three quarter CEOs next week, and I kind of can feel myself pull back sometimes from showing up in all the ways that I know and understand this issue, which is not just with my academic mind or my scientific mind or my policy mind or my strategic mind. That’s also very much with my heart and my soul and you know these sort of deeper ways of knowing that I feel like feminist spaces can accommodate in a way that’s really refreshing. If we’re talking about ultimately a whole world, like a world made whole, then we also have to be made whole.

Amy Westervelt It’s so interesting that you say that because there’s this thing of you know emotional discourse being coded as feminine and therefore undervalued and considered less than. And the idea that emotional intelligence is not as intelligent as scientific intelligence or whatever is a real bedrock value of the patriarchy.

And yet it’s so ingrained in all of us. And in the scientific community! I interviewed this guy a while back who had been a scientist at Exxon during the time that they were actually researching climate science and he was also a scientist you know for many years before and after that. So we were talking about climate science communication and he was just like yeah you know that it definitely, for most of my career, has been a thing that if you’re good at communicating you must be bad at science. And then I talked to Katharine Hayhoe and she said the same thing. As a woman it’s like a double whammy because you already have a lot to prove because you’re a woman doing science and then if you’re good at communicating then that just makes you seem like even more of a woman.

Dr. Katharine Wilkinson Right. If you’re that good at communicating we probably have too much ovary action showing up.

Amy Westervelt Oh my God. And also how freaking terrible is it that this thing that requires really a lot of complex, nuanced communication to get people to process all these emotion and understand what needs to happen and make radical change and all of these things, and here is this thing actively working against being able to do that.

Dr. Katharine Wilkinson: Yeah totally. This is taking me also back to to my PhD research, because I was envious in some ways of these faith-based climate conversations and leaders. I was like “You guys are allowed to use the language of values and beliefs and ethics and what’s wrong and what is right. And you know what does it mean to be human, all of that you know is just part of the mix and and that for me was another huge critique that that work left me with about the mainstream secular movement, that it was often not going to those places, and not because people weren’t bringing values and beliefs with them but because oftentimes they weren’t naming those things.

Amy Westervelt Yeah that makes so much sense. The faith-based community gives you a legitimate reason to talk about it

Dr. Katharine Wilkinson Right, as opposed to if you’re just a non religiously affiliated human you’re just going to have to keep those thoughts to yourself.

Amy Westervelt Have you kept track of what that community is talking about on on climate or have you seen any kind of shifts since you did your initial research?

Dr. Katharine Wilkinson I have kept up with it a bit. Actually there’s a woman Robin Feldman who’s an academic who has a book coming out in October which is kind of a sort of a sequel in some ways to Between God and Green. And she really has looked at what’s happened in those intervening years, that kind of stalling that’s happening right now.

There was a lot of very well-funded backlash. You know you looked at some of that in Drilled and that certainly has impacted the community. It was already there. I mean it was it was already percolating through those communities and conversations but I think it’s intensified. Except there’s one thing — I haven’t seen this polling on evangelicals in particular, but you know we don’t see an age gap among Democrats or self-identified progressives around climate like 20 somethings and 60 somethings look pretty similar on average. But when you look at Republicans or conservatives there’s a huge age gap. And my guess is that that also shows up. I saw some hints of that age gap in the evangelical community.

Amy Westervelt: Do you feel like there’s an identity thing there where it’s like if you’re evangelical and conservative then climate denial is sort of part and parcel of that identity as it’s kind of been packaged to people?

Dr. Katharine Wilkinson: Yeah I think there is an identity thing. I mean I did focus groups in the summer of 2007 and there was so much Al Gore bashing. You know in the sense of like yes, we’re totally called to care for God’s creation or we’re totally called to be stewards of of this earth. But then there was you know ideology and I think identity to some degree would just chop that off at the neck. And for many people it just did not extend to climate because climate was seen as being part of this broader progressive agenda that they just couldn’t couldn’t necessarily get behind. It was just Al Gore’s thing.

Amy Westervelt: That’s so interesting. I’m curious about the election and how climate is being discussed and how you’d like to see it discussed but also, is there anyone that you’re seeing bring this lens of systemic injustice in across the board to the climate conversation?

Dr. Katharine Wilkinson: Man it’s changed so much hasn’t it?

Amy Westervelt Yeah just since 2016 I think it’s amazing that they all have to have a comprehensive climate policy that’s actually written down and on their websites. That’s a new thing!

Dr. Katharine Wilkinson:I know, I know. I was thinking about this while watching the seven hours of town hall! I was like wow I mean they’re actually quite literate, in a way that is a big shift and it’s quite a thing.

My sense still is that it’s hard to feel most of them connecting to climate as a human. People seem to have an easier way in to education issues or health care issues right because there’s someone they know or there’s a story . But actually there was a moment when, and I forget what the exact question was, but the question kind of was couched in some hard thing, like this is what my community is dealing with already on climate, that kind of context. And Elizabeth Warren responded with the most sort of genuine empathy that really you know you could sort of see that information penetrate her in an emotional way and then come back with you know sort of the strategic policy political answer. And I think that that ability, not just to puppet the human interaction but to actually really authentically do it. And in the next breath move into the kind of action piece. I think in a lot of ways that is what climate is demanding of us that we are able to shift with a lot of speed and elegance between really hard emotional territory and holding uncertainty and rising back into vision and strategy and action. So it just struck me. It struck me that she was demonstrating that in a way.

Mostly I feel encouraged that the conversations are kind of as big as they are. And that we’re not just talking about a handful of silver bullet solutions which are actually not silver bullets. There seems to be more systems thinking about solutions. That’s great. I think it’s been great to have both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren squarely pointing the finger at the fossil fuel industry.

I think I’m most excited to see how the climate conversation makes its way into down ballot races and dialogues like you know I live in Atlanta and all of a sudden now we’re going to have both Senate seats up next year. Will there be conversation about climate in campaigns in Georgia? I don’t know. I’m hoping there are going to be some rabble rousers who make sure that that happens. But I think that it’s one thing for it to be happening in the Democratic primaries it’ll be really interesting I think to see how that plays out in these other tangos.

Amy Westervelt: I know, the one I keep thinking about is Mitch McConnell. And I think almost every person in the climate town hall they were like, “OK big guy, you’ve got this policy proposal, but what are you going to do about Mitch McConnell?” And I’m like OK but are we hearing about climate in that race? What has Amy McGrath said about climate? And have we really connected the dots in that race, that this person is the number one blocker on not just climate but gun reform, really every social justice issue?

Dr. Katharine Wilkinson Yeah, yes!

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store