Heavy Lifters

Climate science and policy is still considered a male bastion. These women are working to change that.

SEVERAL MONTHS AGO, I sat in a courtroom in San Francisco for a five-hour climate science tutorial. The cities of San Francisco and Oakland had sued some of the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies. They were claiming the companies knew they were exacerbating climate change decades before it became common knowledge, and had spent millions of dollars on campaigns to sow doubt about global warming and its causes. In a move that grabbed international headlines, the judge had asked both sides to present their accounts of the history and current understanding of climate science. As experts appointed by both sides made their presentations that day, I noted that all of them were men. I found that curious given that I know so many brilliant women working in both climate science and its history.

Here are six of them who, among many others, I would have expected to see in that court, women who are doing a lot of the heavy lifting not only on climate science and policy but also on educating the public. Their voices aren’t the ones we usually hear from or the faces we see on mass or social media discussions on these subjects. That, unfortunately, has as much to do with the implicit biases of the people who decide which voices to elevate as it does with the level of virulence women are met with when they dare to venture into the space of public thought, particularly in a realm that is as politically contentious as climate science is, and as “male” coded as any science (still) is in American society. The more we understand these forces, the better able we are to counteract them, both in the world and in our own brains.

The Historian: Naomi Oreskes

NAOMI ORESKES STUDIES the history of science, exploring how we decide which scientific research to fund, how that research is received, how societies perceive science, and its purpose throughout history. She has been following the thread of libertarianism through science for decades and has found that a general fear of government regulation has impacted scientific research in some unexpected ways. While looking into the history of research on the health impacts of tobacco products, Oreskes came across a network of men and thinktanks that were actively working to suppress information they thought might be used to pass overreaching legislation against the tobacco industry. She followed several of those same men right into climate science, eventually co-authoring the book Merchants of Doubt on the subject, which was later turned into a documentary feature. Oreskes says she often has to push back against the idea that any new discoveries in climate science, or even in the documentation of it, are what people should be paying attention to.

Oreskes, who studies the history of science, has spotted plenty of examples of sexism in the rise of climate denialism. Photo by Wrold Economic Forum/ Sikarin Fon Thanachaiary
Oreskes, who studies the history of science, has found plenty of examples of sexism in the rise of climate denialism. Photo by World Economic Forum/ Sikarin Fon Thanachaiary.

“When it comes to scientific knowledge, and particularly when it comes to making policy decisions that involve or rely on scientific knowledge, what’s most important is not the latest and greatest results, it’s the body of established scientific work,” she says. “Scientists around the globe started working on anthropogenic climate change in 1957, 1958, so we have 60 years of well-established, peer-reviewed, well-vetted, well-explored, highly criticized, highly critiqued scientific work, all of which has added up to one inexorable conclusion: Anthropogenic climate change is real, it’s underway, it’s serious, and it’s going to have quite significant and adverse consequences.”

Oreskes has spotted plenty of examples of sexism in the rise of climate denialism.

In 2015, for example, Shell released a video pushing the message that renewables aren’t as reliable as fossil fuels. The advertisement compared renewables to fickle women. In the fracking debate, women scientists, activists, and researchers, including Oreskes, have often been accused of “not understanding the facts.” Oreskes responded on Twitter, sharing her study of how the fracking debate has been formed with the hashtag #FrackingGirlFacts. The old “women don’t understand science” argument is often lobbed at any woman who talks about science, and as an outspoken critic of science denialism, Oreskes gets a double dose. She brushes it off and sticks to the facts: “There’s a robust body of scientific knowledge, it meets the standards of the scientific community; scientists had a theory, they tested that theory, they made predictions, and those predictions have now come true. There’s really not much more that you need to know.”

The Lawyer: Sharon Eubanks

SHARON EUBANKS WAS THE LEAD COUNSEL for the United States government in the federal tobacco litigation that, in the 1990s, finally held Big Tobacco accountable for misleading the public about its products’ impact on their health.

Attorneys trying the dozen or so climate liability cases making their way through the court system frequently turn to Eubanks for advice, given her experience holding Big Tobacco accountable for misleading the public about the health impacts of cigarettes. Photo by Susan Young.
Attorneys trying the varied climate liability cases making their way through the US court system frequently turn to Eubanks for advice due to her experience taking on Big Tobacco. Photo by Susan Young.

In the past decade or so, Eubanks has turned her attention to environmental cases and these days her advice is frequently sought by attorneys trying the dozen or so climate liability cases making their way through the country’s courts. Those cases, brought by cities, counties, and now states (Rhode Island filed suit in July 2018), are all currently led by men. They aim to use public nuisance law to hold oil companies liable for the climate impacts of their products. Eubanks has been urging the litigating lawyers to consider a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) case. The RICO act helped her bring the tobacco industry down — the courts held that the cigarette companies had committed fraud on a massive scale, and forced them to change the way they did business, particularly in marketing and advertising. So far, her suggestion has fallen on deaf ears. However, given that big climate liability cases brought by San Francisco and New York were recently dismissed, litigators may be more open to the idea.

“Not unlike Big Tobacco, the oil companies here, their internal documents make the case of their knowledge and their cover-up,” Eubanks says. Of course, because of her experience working on the tobacco litigation, Eubanks also knows to expect a long fight and, most likely, a lot of losses before a win. That has already proven to be true in the case of climate liability suits — the first batch began a decade or so ago and there have been no wins since. “Some of the same lawyers representing these [oil and gas] companies represented the tobacco companies, and believe me, they have a lot of tricks up their sleeves in terms of prolonging the process of getting information,” she says. “If any of these liability cases move forward, discovery would take quite some time and there would be several motions to draw it all out before we ever get to a trial.”

The Activist: RL Miller

RL MILLER FIRST GOT INVOLVED in climate change activism via blogging. These days she’s a super effective political organizer who heads up the political action committee Climate Hawks Vote, and pushes politicians — particularly in California, but on the national stage as well — to commit to action on climate. Her most recent victories include getting more than 750 candidates to sign a pledge to take no money from fossil fuel interests; pushing the California Democratic Party to endorse climate hawk Kevin de Leon for Senate; and supporting several progressive climate hawks to wins in their primaries this year.

As head of the political action committee Climate Hawks Vote, Miller pushes politicians to commit to climate action. Photo courtesy of RL Miller.
As head of the political action committee Climate Hawks Vote, Miller pushes politicians to commit to climate action. Going by her initials, “RL,” Miller says people in general, and men in particular, interact differently once they meet her in person and realize she’s a woman. Photo courtesy of RL Miller.

When she started blogging on the liberal political website Daily Kos, Miller first used a fake name, and then began using her initials, because she was going through a bad divorce with an abusive ex. Her first name is unique and identifiable, and she didn’t want to be found. “I avoid photographs and any kind of gender ‘tell’ pretty well,” she says. “The first time I show up in person anywhere, all the guys look at my face, then my name tag, then down at my chest, and they go ‘You’re RL Miller?’ in this ‘I need to adjust my perception of you’ kind of way.”

She says people in general, and men in particular, will often interact with her differently once they discover that she’s a woman. “I have had progressive men say to me, ‘I thought you were a guy, you write so tough,’” she says.

Operating as gender-neutral online has served to protect her. “Because I use my initials and because I deliberately try to project this squawky hawk with talons kind of thing, I don’t get nearly as much physical gender abuse as most of the women in the space do, but I know it’s out there,” she says. “I hear it. I hear my colleagues being called the c-word, and it horrifies and saddens me at the same time as it makes me angry.”

Miller’s ex has moved to Texas and the divorce is long-since final, but she sticks with her initials in part for privacy and in part because, she says, it’s a good way to tell whom she’s dealing with. The climate movement ignores or condescends to women at its peril, she says. “You know the statistics on who’s most concerned about climate change? It’s what are called ‘forward-thinking’ women, by which people generally mean women who think about the next generation.”

The Watchdog: Maura Healey

IN 2015, MASSACHUSETTS ATTORNEY GENERAL Maura Healey teamed up with her then New York counterpart Eric Schneiderman to initiate a fraud investigation of ExxonMobil. Their effort was spurred by news reports from Inside Climate News and The Los Angeles Times that included damning documents revealing that the company had conducted extensive research on climate change and its impacts, and then, in the mid-80s, created TV and print ads and advertorials that discounted climate science, funding various climate skeptics’ research in the process. While Healey has been doggedly pursuing the case, despite various attempts by Exxon to discredit her personally and to get the case thrown out, it was Schneiderman who tended to receive all the attention for the case. When Schneiderman stepped down amid sexual assault accusations earlier this year, the media went nuts with speculations that the Exxon fraud probe was essentially over. Never mind that Healey was still there in Massachusetts, working the case, or that Schneiderman’s lieutenant, Barbara Underwood, is continuing New York’s case. The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in April that Healey could carry the case forward, and that’s exactly what she’s doing, ignoring the Schneiderman controversy.

Healey was one of two state’s attorneys to initiative a fraud investigation of ExxonMobil in 2015. Her male counterpart in the investigation received most of the attention for the case until he stepped down earlier this year amid sexual assault accusations. Photo by Marilyn Humphries.
Healey was one of two state’s attorneys to initiative a fraud investigation of ExxonMobil in 2015. Her male counterpart in the investigation received most of the attention for the case until he stepped down earlier this year amid sexual assault accusations. Photo by Marilyn Humphries.

“Now Exxon must come forward with the truth, what it knew about climate change, when, and what it told the world,” Healey said in a statement. “The people of Massachusetts — and people everywhere — deserve answers.”

The Glaciologist: M Jackson

LIKE RL MILLER, Dr. M JACKSON has purposefully chosen to operate professionally under a non-gendered name and is often presumed to be a man. She says when people do find out that she is a woman, her gender occasionally comes under attack. During the 2016 election, she and other members of the Glacier Lab at the University of Oregon, where she received her doctorate, released an academic study she didn’t expect more than a handful of professors and scientists to read. Entitled “Glaciers, Gender and Science,” it suggested that we should start looking at the issue of gender in glaciology.

Jackson says there are some major systemic hurdels to women entering the field of glaciology, including childcare requirements and hesitation to ask for speaking fees. Photo by James Bernal.
Jackson says there’s a fair bit of sexism within the scientific community. In her field, this has taken the form of who gets to decide what counts as “real” glaciology. Photo by James Bernal.

“The majority of glaciology is produced by men, about men, and within masculine discourses,” Jackson says. “And there are some big issues with that. So we were saying, ‘Let’s look at what happens if we take a feminist approach, if we said [glaciers] don’t need to just be monitored, measured, and controlled but actually the way humans interact with ice is the way we understand ice, and we need to focus some attention there too.’”

“We’ve opened my field to incorporate people,” Jackson continues. “So I look at all the people living near the glacier ... In talking to those people, I realized that how the information that a glacier is shrinking is absorbed and then shared in a community is fascinating. Some people would say that’s evidence of climate change. Others would say it’s evidence climate change is not happening here because we have oral tradition that says the glaciers used to be smaller and that glacier is just doing what it normally would do ... They accepted that climate change is happening everywhere, just not here with this glacier.”

Jackson and her colleagues’ article caught the attention of climate deniers and it blew up on social media with various folks decrying the “waste” of federal funds on such research. “Then they found out who I was, and all the emails to me became about my gender,” she says. “People weren’t telling my male colleagues they should be raped and die. This is a different thing.”

Jackson says it’s not just climate deniers. There’s a fair bit of sexism within the scientific community as well, which, although not as virulent, often derails women. These days she sees it taking the form of who gets to decide what is and isn’t “real” glaciology.

Jackson would love to see more women entering her field, but says that there are some major systemic hurdles. She cites panels and conference speaking engagements as one small example. “Women don’t go to as many conferences or accept as many speaking engagements as men do because the consequences of leaving the institution are often greater for them,” she says, referring to the fact that the qualified women are likely to be working at research institutions or as tenure track professors where their absence might be frowned upon. “Then you add who’s going to cover their classes? Then you add childcare, then you add the cost. Often men either ask for or are offered speaking fees or transportation coverage, but research shows that women don’t do this as often. I didn’t know in the first four or five years that I could even ask for speaking fees ... So, there’s a system that gets built up around this that makes it gendered.”

As a child, Jackson says she had never seen a female scientist and so didn’t really know that it was an option for her, a fact that drives her to do more outreach. “We have a lot of data that shows women do more science outreach, which then makes science outreach map as ‘women’s work’ and therefore less ‘science-y.’ It’s a bit of a vicious cycle,” she says. But she’s undeterred. “I believe in making sure that scientists come from all genders, races, religions, and so forth. Everyone does not have to be a scientist, but I want everyone to know it’s an option.”

The Climate Scientist: Katharine Hayhoe

The research on climate denialism suggests a distinct gender component to it: The vast majority of climate denialists are men. Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe says her online experience backs that up. “One of these days I need to get the hard numbers on this, but I have a block list of about 2,000 on Twitter, and I’d hazard a guess that about 60 to 70 percent are people who are identifiable as male by their name or photo,” she says. “In about ten years, I’ve only been attacked by about five to seven women.”

Hayhoe gets attached by climate deniers on a regular basis, attacks that are often just as focused on her gender as on climate science. Photo by James Bernal.
As a well-known climate scientist, Hayhoe gets attacked by climate deniers on a regular basis. These attacks are often just as focused on her gender as on her research. Photo by Ashley Rodgers.

A lot of the hate Hayhoe gets online — she gets attacked at least once a day — is focused on her gender as much as her science. “There’s the climate deniers and then there are all the misogynists who don’t really have a problem with climate science, they just have a problem with women,” she says. Sometimes that includes people who are proponents of climate science. “I get a lot of extremely condescending and arrogant comments from men who actually agree with me, too.”

That happens offline, too. This past spring at Hayhoe’s university (Texas Tech), an older professor she had never met, who worked in the engineering school, a different college, found out she was in the political science department, decided she should really be in the geosciences school, and called the dean of her college and suggested she be moved to a different department. “We’re actually at the same level; we’re both full professors,” she says. “And I’ve never met him. It was pretty unbelievable. This stuff would never happen to a man, I’m sorry!”

If you look for anything online about Hayhoe sounding off on this stuff, though, you’re unlikely to find it. “When you talk about these things you get it ten times worse,” she says. “So not only do we get it, but … we’re conditioned not to talk about it.”

That’s part of why she chairs the advisory committee for the Earth Science Women’s Network, which was formed by early career women in earth sciences a decade ago and now includes thousands of scientists working in research, government, and the private sector. Hayhoe says helping women get into science is not as much of a problem as getting them to hang on in the field. “By the time you get to full professor in climate science, only 13 percent are women, but entering it’s more like 30 percent,” she says.

Although some of that likely has to do with the general attrition that happens across all professions as women hit childbearing age and have to grapple with the lack of supportive systems for working parents, Hayhoe says it’s also driven by systemic sexism that is constantly telling women in science that they’re not good enough. “I felt like between graduate school and becoming a professor there was this flip,” she says. “In undergrad it was actually a benefit, in grad school it was sort of neutral, and then as a professor, being a woman was worse, and I had to work harder, have more publications, have more grants, do more, be more, in order to be judged as competent as a man.” She points to studies of National Science Foundation grants that have shown that if you had a female name on a resume, you had to be at least 30 percent more productive than a man to be considered equally competent.

Like M Jackson, one of Hayhoe’s greatest contributions to the field — her skills in communicating climate science to the public and, particularly as an outspoken Christian, her ability to reach those who skew toward the right of the political spectrum — has also been an obstacle in her career. “If you do outreach, you’re not a serious scientist,” she says. “So because I’m a woman and I do outreach, I’ve had to have a CV that’s twice as good as my male colleagues in order to be promoted. And I worked hard and did it, but I had to kill myself to get the publications and the grants so that they couldn’t dismiss me for being ‘fluffy.’”

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Subscribe Now

Get four issues of the magazine at the discounted rate of $20.