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Half the world’s future


GRETA, says the text, and two hands grip the pigtails behind the girl’s naked body. What clearer threat to girls and women who speak out about climate change could there be than the cartoon sticker carrying the logo for Canadian oil company X-Site Energy Services? Greta’s response: “They are starting to get more and more desperate…This shows that we’re winning.”

As a female climate scientist in the public eye for a decade, I have accumulated a few misogynistic insults, of course — dumb bitch, Princess, bright young bimbo, that girl needs to grow up, unattractive — as well as implicitly gendered descriptions as naive, profile-raising, careerist, flattered by attention, with a weird and desperate need to be liked. Did you assume these were from climate sceptics? Some were from climate scientists and activists, angry that I had spoken with my own voice about climate model uncertainties, advocacy beyond our expertise, and climate scepticism, without a long research career to my name or, more recently, research that didn’t agree with their views. Last year, in an online forum concerned about the possibility of rapid sea level rise — my research area — the anonymous “Rich” said I had a “questionable scientific fit” for my role as an author of the next report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), adding: “Is there any way to find out who nominated [her] to be a lead author? Her role smells very fishy to me.”

Freudian dismissals aside, I feel the environment for female climate experts has improved since I talked about the imbalance in a 2014 TEDx talk: “Men are often rewarded for being competitive. If there were more women involved, it might help naturally move things from a climate debate to a climate conversation.” At the time, I set up two Twitter lists, of climate scientists, and female climate scientists, where women were around one third of the total. Few were high profile at the time, but now — in part due to efforts to improve representation, such as the BBC’s 50:50 initiative — I see female climate experts across both broadcast and social media. I’m asked for interviews three or four times a week myself, and I’m heartened by the confidence of early career women to take those I can’t do. I believe that, finally, we are having that climate conversation.

Academia and scientific research are generally harder on female and BAME staff. As I write this I’m on strike, along with staff at 74 UK universities. The disputes include equality and casualisation: my own university, King’s College London, has gender and ethnicity pay gaps of 17.8% and 13.2%, and a staggering 58% of our academic staff are on fixed-term contracts. Women with caring responsibilities miss out on academic and networking events outside working hours, and conferences that don’t offer childcare. Women in the geosciences face barriers to fieldwork including risk of sexual harassment from colleagues, insufficient access to toilets to deal with periods, inability to urinate in specialist clothing designed for male bodies, and safety threats in many countries, with many issues compounded for BAME, LGBT and disabled researchers. In a 2014 study of over 600 field scientists, 26% of women had experienced sexual assault and 70% sexual harassment in the field, compared with 6% and 40% of men. In a recent survey of 95 female scientists, 63% had received inappropriate or sexual remarks while in the remote environment of Antarctica.

Overall, any difficulties I face as a female climate scientist are small change. White, middle class, born in a developed country to academic parents, with a permanent academic job and no involvement in fieldwork, and no dependents, my problems are limited mainly to being patronised or else stretched too thinly. (In a 2012 study of around 100 biologists and physicists, 72% of women were involved in outreach work compared with 43% of men). Becoming ill with bowel cancer in 2018 made these privileges (aside from having cancer) feel particularly clear. And as I grow old, I will be protected from many, or most, of the risks of climate change by the relative wealth and temperate climate of my place in the world.

The rest of my half of humanity will rarely be so lucky. Climate change impacts will be worst for the most vulnerable, those with least power, and systematically worse for women. Even if we meet the Paris Agreement limit of 1.5-2°C warming, an incredible challenge, we will not prevent all risks. The numbers of people affected are almost unimaginable. The 2018 IPCC report predicted that between 20 and 760 million more people will be exposed to climate risks and vulnerable to poverty under 1.5°C of warming, depending on the sustainability of future development, mostly in Africa and Asia, particularly South Asia. At 2°C warming the numbers are 90 million to 1.2 billion. Around 32-36 million people are predicted to be exposed to lower crop yields at 1.5°C of warming, and over ten times more at 2°C – particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central and South America. “Unprecedented” vulnerability to food insecurity is predicted in Bangladesh, Yemen, Oman and Mauritania at these temperatures. Between 100 million and 1.2 billion people are predicted to be exposed and vulnerable to water stress at 1.5°C, particularly in northern Africa, the middle East, and western, southern and eastern Asia.

Why will more of those affected be women? In 2007, the UN reported that 60% of the chronically hungry people in the world are women. Over half a billion. Women have less control over food resources: the FAO estimated in 2015 that only 12.8% of agricultural holders (i.e. decision-makers) globally were women, and across 16 countries surveyed (mostly in Africa and Asia), half as many women owned or co-owned agricultural land: 21% of women compared with 44% of men. The IPCC in 2014 noted that women suffer food insecurity in some countries because food is preferentially given to other family members, and that “social exclusion from decision-making processes and labour markets” reduce women’s ability to adapt to climate change. In data compiled by the UN in 2014, women or girls were in charge of water collection in 70% of households in rural sub-Saharan Africa, compared with 14% where it was men or boys; in rural Asia, woman were in charge of collecting water for 30% of households, and men for 13%.

Extreme weather disasters are also exacerbated by gender inequality, and many types of extreme weather will increase in a warmer world. By 2050, 350 million more people could be exposed to deadly heat stress under 1.5°C warming. Heavy rainfall is expected to increase in several regions of the world, and the number of very intense cyclones to increase; urban flood risks fall disproportionately on women and the poor. In some disasters, men are more likely to die or be injured due to search and rescue, outdoor work, and fewer social support networks (for example, in heat waves). But when women give birth (as an estimated 1000 women were doing each day after the 2013 Philippines typhoon, almost 150 in life-threatening conditions), manage periods, and face the threat of sexual violence and coercion in unsanitary and unsafe post-disaster conditions; when women are not taught to swim (up to four times more women died after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami), or must be accompanied from their homes by men, or don’t have the same access to warning systems and information; when women stay behind to care for children and the elderly, and suffer increases in domestic violence, trafficking and child marriage: we cannot ignore the connection between gender inequality and climate impacts. Yolande Wright of Save The Children, the child rights organisation, tells me they are increasing their focus on intersections between gender inequality and climate change to reduce risks to vulnerable children worldwide.

But the story to tell here is not just the suffering of women. We have an unprecedented chance to design a better future. We know that policies that reduce climate change or its impacts can reduce gender inequality, and vice versa, as long as they are truly designed in consultation with women. Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez, for example, describes the long history of failing to ask women what they want and need from clean cook stoves. And, as David Johnson of the Margaret Pyke Trust points out, “An estimated 232 million women in low and middle income countries have an unmet need for family planning, meaning they wish to avoid or delay pregnancies”: that is, up to 27% of women in those countries. If their needs were met, maternal deaths would fall by about 76,000. Improving women’s health and well being should be the priority here, with any associated reduction in population growth seen as a co-benefit.

Giving women their share of power could improve not only their own lives but also help to reduce climate change. Last year, Astghik Mavisakalyan and Yashar Tarverdi found that greater female representation in national parliaments leads to more stringent climate policies and lower carbon emissions. But in the ‘COP’ international climate negotiations (of which the Paris Agreement is the most famous example), the “constituted bodies” that implement aspects of the agreements average only 30% women.

Women and girls are already acting to improve the resilience of their communities to climate change. And organisations like CARE International and Save the Children are supporting and amplifying their voices, particularly in developing countries. You can hear some of their stories this Sunday 8th March at the #March4Women gender equality rally for International Women’s Day, in solidarity with women on the front lines of the climate crisis, hosted by CARE International. I’ll be speaking on a panel chaired by Lucy Siegle with Madara Hettiarachchi, Head of Humanitarian at the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), and Beauty Musewe, a democracy activist and refugee from Zimbabwe. There’ll be speeches and music by Helen Pankhurst and many others, then a march to Parliament Square.

See you there.




  1. This was a great read, thank you. I heard you on the Radio 4 ‘39 ways to save the planet’ programme’ on educating girls. It caught my attention because since 1993 I’ve been involved with a charity supporting girls through their four years of secondary education in Malawi. We’ve always known our support was needed and valuable and knew we were working to improve poverty and inequality but I’d never taken the time to see our work in the wider global context . Very helpful and inspiring . Thank you .

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