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Female voices on climate change

Morgan Seag reports on an urgent discussion on how to make people care about climate change and take action.

During last week’s panel discussion on “Female Voices on Climate Change” at the 2019 Hay Festival, an audience member asked: How can we make people care about climate change?

“That’s the million-dollar question,” quipped the panel chair, journalist Rosie Boycott.

Indeed, it is the million-dollar question. But while there’s no easy answer, this Hay Festival panel made clear that diversity is key to climate communication, as it is to climate solutions. As Dr. Chandrika Nath articulated: “Getting a message across is not just about what you’ve got to say; it’s about where the people you’re talking to are coming from, what their view of the world is.”

The panel brought together four women from polar science, social science, policy and the arts to discuss challenges in climate research and solutions to climate change. In addition to Nath, who is Executive Director of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, the panel included Professor Melody Clark, Project Leader at the British Antarctic Survey; Dr. Ragnhild Freng Dale, researcher at the Western Norwegian Research Institute; and me, Morgan Seag, a PhD candidate at the Scott Polar Research Institute.

As the title of the panel suggests, gender was a central topic of discussion. In some respects, links between gender equality and climate change are well-established. We know that climate change exacerbates gender inequities, and that gender equality is an integral part of the solution. In fact, research has found that among the most effective carbon reduction strategies we have at our disposal is to directly address gender inequity, by supporting women smallholder farmers, securing women’s access to family planning resources and educating girls.

When it comes to gender equality in climate science, the panellists noted positive movement in recent decades. Despite bans on women working in Antarctica through most of the 20th century, women have made tremendous contributions to Antarctic science, as well as in other climate-related fields. The role of women continues to grow: today, over half of polar early career researchers are women and women run several of the world’s most influential polar science institutions.

Unfortunately, barriers to gender equality persist. Women remain heavily underrepresented in polar and climate research disciplines overall. Roughly two-thirds of women are sexually harassed while conducting scientific fieldwork, including in Antarctica, and roughly one quarter experience sexual assault. Inequities are exacerbated for women of colour, early career researchers and LGBTQ+ researchers. This is an issue not only of equity, but of effectiveness: research shows that diverse teams can produce better research.

Most of the panel discussion, however, centred on the issue of climate communications. How can we inspire people to care and motivate them to act? The panellists agreed that we need to do more than share scientific facts: we need diverse communicators who can inspire a wide range of people to feel that they can and should be part of the solution.

Freng Dale emphasised that to get people on board with climate action “we need to make sure the transition is just and equitable”. This requires including voices from outside the world of scientific experts and politicians. She pointed to the influence of the youth climate strikes and to the power of the arts, sharing the example of her work as assistant director of an award-winning interactive theatre production that engaged residents of northern Norway in a mock trial around oil extraction. She also stressed the importance of ensuring that indigenous voices are integral to communication and decision-making.

Boycott noted that part of the challenge in communicating climate change is the enormous scale of the issue. Clark grapples with this when communicating changes at her geographically remote field site in Antarctica. For her, the answer is partly in making the issue personal: she shares stories about the visible retreat of the ice cliff at her field site since 2006 and notes that, because of climate change, it’s been raining on the Antarctic Peninsula in recent years. Clark says her personal reflections open space for listeners to share their own observations about changes close to home, like unusual patterns in local weather.

The panellists also wrestled with the challenge of temporal scale. Some of the most dramatic impacts of climate change are expected to be felt by future generations, leading too many people to put climate action on the backburner. For Nath, the task for climate communicators is to bring the issue into the here and now. She stresses that some climate impacts are already being felt, especially in coastal areas and lower-income countries. When asked about long-term impacts of melting Antarctic ice, she emphasises that those future changes will be catalysed by what we do in the next few years. We have the power to change the future, today.

Morgan Seag [2016] is a Gates Cambridge Scholar doing her PhD in Polar Studies. Pic credit: Ragnhild Freng Dale from The Trial of the Century.