Q&A: Why Women Leading the Climate Movement are Underappreciated and Sometimes Invisible

A new anthology co-edited by two women climate leaders helps make the point that “the climate crisis is not gender neutral.”

Students in New York demonstrate during the Climate Strike, part of a worldwide day of climate strikes on Sept. 20, 2019. Credit: Barbara Alper/Getty Images
Students in New York demonstrate during the Climate Strike, part of a worldwide day of climate strikes on Sept. 20, 2019. Credit: Barbara Alper/Getty Images

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The American scientist Eunice Newton Foote theorized in 1856 that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could produce global warming three years before similar work by the Irish physicist John Tyndall, whose research on warming is often cited as the beginning of climate science. 

Foote was also an early women’s rights campaigner, signing the 1848 Seneca Falls “Declaration of Sentiments,” a manifesto produced during the nation’s first women’s rights convention. 

She is, thus, a fitting historic figure for Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson to cite in opening their new book, “All We Can Save,” an anthology of essays, poetry and original illustrations on climate change by a diverse range of women, to be published Sept. 22. 

“Foote arrived at her breakthrough idea through experimentation,” the co-editors write. “With an air pump, two glass cylinders, and four thermometers, she tested the impact of ‘carbonic acid gas’ (the term for carbon dioxide in her day) against ‘common air’… From a simple experiment, she drew a profound conclusion: ‘An atmosphere of that gas would give to our earth a high temperature…’” 


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Among 41 contributors to the book is Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University who is now working with other scholars to ensure that Foote receives the credit and recognition she deserves. 

Other contributors include Jacqui Patterson, senior director of the NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program; U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo; writer Alice Walker; Jainey K. Bavishi, director of the New York Mayor’s Office of Resiliency; Christine E. Nieves Rodriguez, co-founder and executive director of Emerge Puerto Rico, and Tara Houska-Zhaabowekwe, an attorney, environmental and indigenous rights advocate and founder of the Giniw Collective.

“The climate crisis is not gender neutral,” Johnson and Wilkinson write in the book’s preface. “Climate change is a powerful ‘threat multiplier,’ making existing vulnerabilities and injustices worse. Especially under conditions of poverty, women and girls face greater risk of displacement or death from extreme weather disasters.”

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson (left) and Katharine K. Wilkinson. Credit: Laurel Graefe
Ayana Elizabeth Johnson (left) and Katharine K. Wilkinson co-edited a book coming out later this month collecting diverse voices of women in the climate conversation. Credit: Laurel Graefe

Johnson, a Brooklyn native and marine biologist who is CEO of the Ocean Collectiv, a consulting firm, and Wilkinson, an author and teacher from Atlanta who is the editor-in-chief at Project Drawdown, a climate nonprofit, originally conceived of the book at about 65,000 words. It has ballooned to about 130,000 words, with 41 essays and 16 poems, selected quotes and artwork. 

In a recent interview, Johnson and Wilkinson spoke about their book process, how climate fits into a national reckoning over systemic racism, electoral politics and the Covid-19 pandemic. 

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Where did the inspiration for your book originate, and how did you two come together to co-edit it? 

Wilkinson: The inspiration for this book came from the women who are in it. Ayana and I were in Aspen together for a conference and [felt] a bit of frustration about how much the public discourse on climate is still dominated by primarily older white male voices, and how many brilliant innovative, hardworking, committed women are not getting the megaphone. We went on what Ayana has now deemed a “rage hike” in Aspen, really putting our heads together on, “How can we get women in climate the attention and resources they need to really be able to have the change that they’re capable of making?”

Johnson: We knew that these women who were leading climate work were out there. They just weren’t visible. They weren’t household names, and because of that, they weren’t getting the resources or support they needed. And we know that a lot of the way that people become considered as thought leaders is through writing books, and there haven’t been nearly enough best-sellers on climate. But we knew that a lot of these women were not going to stop doing their work to write a book about their work—which is actually fine, because we want them doing the work—and so in lieu of that, we thought we could bring the book to them and use it as an opportunity to shine this spotlight on dozens of women climate leaders at once, and show the chorus and the mosaic of voices that is needed in this moment. 

We have not been shown the full spectrum of climate work that is being done and very much needs doing. So this book contains Indigenous wisdom, writings on agriculture, on mothering and nurturing and the psychology of how we deal with a challenge this big, about frontline activism, and the science and policy. I had not appreciated how much I was missing these narratives and approaches that are not technocratic or techno-utopian. Climate change is not an engineering problem. It’s a problem of how we live on this planet and interact with each other. 

How did you go about selecting the voices included in the book? And how does the range of women contributors, who vary in age, identity, and expertise, shape the book? 

Johnson: We really do think of this as like 41 different doors into climate work. We had some pretty amazing spreadsheets as we tried to track all of this, and make sure that we really were thinking about diversity in the broadest possible sense … to make sure that we could create a book that would welcome people in, and that everyone would be able to see at least a glimmer of themselves among the essayists. 

Wilkinson: I think that “quilting” is a good metaphor for how we put the book together. And one of the things we wanted to be super intentional about was not just pulling in women who write in some capacity for a living. … We also wanted to work with folks who maybe had never written about their work before in this way—they haven’t told their story. And that was a particularly exciting part of the project for us, supporting folks in doing that writing for the first time. 

The spirit that brought us into collaboration to begin with was around community-building, and so we really wanted this book to be a community-building effort in some way. So we’re working on designing what we’re calling “All We Can Save” circles … [to facilitate] 10 weeks of small group dialogue that helps folks kind of dig into the content of the book and the questions that it raises together. 

Many people can feel overwhelmed by the scale of the climate crisis and experience a kind of “ecological grief.” How do you grapple with these feelings and keep yourselves motivated to keep fighting for climate action, and how can others do the same? 

Wilkinson: The only way that I really have been able to kind of hold that grief and keep moving forward is to hold it with others. I think the “All We Can Save” circles will be more than just grief circles, but certainly, that will be a piece of it—having a space for conversation with people who may be having a bunch of the same “feels” that you’re having. 

How did the confluence of the Covid-19 pandemic and a surging racial justice movement impact your editing process, given that you started working on the book before then? 

Johnson: I think it’s an opportunity to connect the crisis of racial injustice, the economic crisis that’s been instigated by coronavirus, [and] the inequality crisis more broadly with the climate crisis because they are connected. As much as it would be simpler to deal with them alone, it’s just not possible—it simply won’t work. A lot of the essays in the book talk directly about those intersections. … And also the climate crisis doesn’t stop because of these other things—it’s not going away. And so it’s more important than ever to understand the interconnections so that we can collaborate across movements that have been far too disparate to this point. 

Wilkinson: My observation is that it tends to be a strength of women in the movement to be able to hold multiple things at the same time—to understand that this is about health, and this is about justice, and this is about good jobs, and this is about science, and it’s also about story and the kaleidoscope through which we need to see and try to understand the climate crisis. … That comes through in lots of different ways in these pieces. 

Johnson: When we re-read the full manuscript in this new world, we were so nervous that it was not going to hit the right tone because the world had changed so much—turns out, all these women have been thinking about these issues that were just coming to the fore in a new way. … One of the things that the pandemic and everyone sort of staying at home has shown us is that individual behavioral change is not enough to lower emissions. This is a collective problem; this is going to require government and transformation of our energy system and agriculture and manufacturing and all of it. 

What is the significance of your book coming out so close to the 2020 election, given the larger role climate now seems to be playing in U.S. electoral politics? 

Johnson: We specifically made sure the book was coming out before the election in the hopes that it would be able to seed some conversations around the importance of the candidates’ climate platforms at all state and federal levels and in the upcoming election. So that timing was deliberate. In fact, it was a total sprint to get the book done in time to make that possible.

There is a lot of writing about policy in this book—how it’s shaped, how it should be shaped, a behind-the-scenes look at the Green New Deal and how the candidates’ climate platforms are developed and iterated on. Maggie Thomas, who was an advisor to Jay Inslee’s campaign and then became Elizabeth Warren’s climate advisor, wrote a piece a week after Warren dropped out of the race, describing her experience in this Democratic primary, which is the first time climate has become a major issue in the history of our elections. … And Varshini Prakash [wrote] about her work leading Sunrise Movement and how that ended up having a huge impact on the way that we’re talking about climate policy in the United States—the fact that any candidate now has to have essentially a climate platform and stance. 

Wilkinson: It was also really important to us to make sure we had truly youth voices—the opening essay is by a youth climate leader, and there’s another essay by a youth climate leader in the closing section—making sure that the perspectives of really intergenerational justice are coming through and to give a sense of the spirit that the youth movement is bringing. That whole notion of “the climate crisis is a leadership crisis,” so much of that is about how we are showing up as leaders—not just who, but how—in a spirit of collaboration and creativity and deep commitment to justice and frankly, just doing things differently than the mainstream climate movement had been doing them. 

Finally, what are your personal next steps, and do you plan to collaborate further?

Johnson: We have seen so much interest in the book that we are actually building an organization around it called the All We Can Save Project, a non-profit that will carry this work forward of supporting women climate leaders and deepening the conversations about the work that needs to be done by everyone. This idea of reading circles to engage with the book is one element that we’ll be supporting through the “All We Can Save” project. Another is making sure the book is used as an educational tool, more in academic settings. Another is creating an award for women climate leaders, named after Eunice Newton Foote, who actually discovered that carbon dioxide would cause planetary warming in 1856 and has basically not been recognized by the Ministry of Science. And then more generally, [we’ll be] just supporting women climate leaders. 

Wilkinson: There’s this upwelling that’s happening. … How do we help it upwell more wholly and fully and quickly and to greatest possible effect?