Why Women’s Climate Leadership Is Vital

October 22, 2019

On the back of a horse outside of Yellowstone National Park in August, I cracked a joke with a friend next to me: “I’m gonna let you finish about your Ph.D. and book tour there,” I ribbed her. “But you’ll need to make space for the voices that really matter here. You know, the voices of apolitical, middling, literary White men with big feelings.”

With grim laughter, rolled eyes, and more than a few expletives, we commiserated on the miserable lens that so many male writers and editorial gatekeepers use to frame climate change in the public eye. Examples of this problematic, patriarchal frame in climate storytelling are ubiquitous: men debating the meaning of words, men explaining ennui on a boat, or men succumbing to feelings of despair. These men and their words literally circumscribe the public’s moral imagination of the future we are choosing to leave for our children. Their stories limit our collective understanding of the world.

I was in Montana to join a summit of women leading on climate change and, over a few days in relationship over the back of a horse, on a kayak in Yellowstone River, or in working sessions together, we convened on the state and nature of feminist climate leadership. And, boy howdy, did we have a lot to say and a great deal of tears to cry.

There are very few places, professionally or personally, that many of us can go to be fully seen and held in the grief and wounding that comes with this work. We are often islands, weeping at keyboards, seething in rage, biting our tongues. We chew and swallow the grief and violation being done to our Earth and its people every day, and it is a bitter pill. So, to be in community with other women, where some of those scales fall in front of each other was, in some moments, transformative.

As I said my goodbyes to my sisters and colleagues, one thing was clear: women’s leadership on climate change is vital. Let me unpack it for you, so we properly understand the task at hand.

Vast webs of influence across global energy, finance, and political leadership prevent meaningful action on climate change. These fossil fuel companies, and the web of profiteering and exploitation connected to them, are the most powerful economic and political entities that have ever existed on the planet. They represent the most entrenched and violent oligarchs on the planet. And these entities are run by and for White men and their power.

Consolidated power in White men’s leadership dominates all sides of this problem. Men in science, men in politics, men in business, men in finance, men in nonprofits, men in the media, men in newsrooms. Men, men, men. Even when men are on the “right side” of this issue, they are often transacting in unaccountable, narrow, or even abusive ways. Across platforms and professions, men are still the gatekeepers of power, able to obliterate the careers and accomplishments of women in public with a tweet, a boardroom whisper, or by simply staying silent as their female colleagues are doxxeddisrespected, and erased, or worse. Then, those same men unironically self-deputize in public as “champions of women.”

This mythology of the White male savior solving the climate crisis with some kind of patented technology is so prevalent that it’s actually a trope. Consider the recent film Ice on Fire, produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, which featured 20 White men, 10 White women, and one Black man talking about climate solutions like trees and algae. Meanwhile, b-roll footage unraveled of hundreds of people of color from the global south being essentially “saved” by such solutions. Congratulations, people of color and poor folks around the world, White guys with carbon capture technology are here to save you!

The narrowness and unaccountability of climate leadership and storytelling norms exist in stark contrast to what is actually necessary to address the nature of the crisis at hand. Because what is needed now is the comprehensive deconstruction of the profit model and attendant webs of power woven by the fossil fuel industry and its subsidiaries. And because we are not at war with the Earth itself, we must also reimagine our relationship with the planet and each other. How we care for one another, and for the land and oceans of our homes, will determine the nature, both good and bad, of near-term and long-term outcomes on the ground.

When unpacking the systems of harm around climate change, we reveal violation upon violation upon violation, like layers around an onion—and a feminist, anti-racist intersectional lens is necessary to understand these interconnected systems of harm. Because what we are really trying to do is root out and reveal how the pain and suffering of certain people is erased and dismissed, while the pain and violation of others takes center stage. This is the lens of moral attention—and it is foundational for global climate leadership.

For my part, I do not view “women’s leadership” as a panacea for addressing the systemic root of bankrupt leadership, because of the unholy alliances among White feminism, white supremacy, and colonialism. This is not an original thought. Indeed, as a White woman, I have been granted access into White spaces of leadership and prominence by way of my skin color, not my talent. Often, the way White women build power—which is one of the ways I have negotiated my own career—is to attach to and align with the power of specific White men. You know, the good ones, we tell ourselves. We are complicit to get a seat at that table, where, we tell ourselves, we can do some good.

One of the hardest pieces about the struggle within White-led feminist leadership is that, even in the center of the movement, we are still not fully divested from the leadership and currency of White male power. We still whisper our truths outside those rooms. We are still waiting at the window side for freedom, believing that if we simply ask nicely enough, long enough, the window will open. We jibe and tack across these headwinds of white supremacy and patriarchy, to just stand on the ground beneath our feet.

Moreover, we are dishonest with ourselves about it. Such men, and the alliances that many White women have used to gain power and access, were present as specters in the rooms among us in Montana. They are the axes of power that we have the privilege to rotate around. We tell ourselves that it is worth it to supplicate to get a seat at the table—and this is the biggest lie of all. Because, in truth, we are only violated further, at higher levels, in more damaging ways, from these alliances. And, moreover, we White women are complicit in the continued violation of our colleagues and sisters who are Black, Indigenous, and other women of color. The power we gain from supplication is a poison pill. The solution is comprehensive divestment from patriarchy and White colonial supremacy.

Here is the thing about feminist leadership: it is gut-wrenchingly hard. Do not be fooled, this is not kumbaya woo-woo, and hand-holding. Rather, it is the deep work of reconciliation, justice, and accountability. For me, the kind of courage that it takes to confront the entrenched power of the fossil fuel industry is the same kind of courage and moral lens that it takes to dismantle my alliances with White male power. It is the exact same thing, with the same profile of retaliation and risks to physical, bodily, economic, and public harm.

Maybe what we were doing, in Montana and other spaces of feminist leadership as well, was cultivating our own bravery and our ability to see one another. Maybe it was reckoning with our complicity. Maybe it was birthing new levels of internal and external accountability. And maybe, downstream, these collective steps on the path will change the world for the better, as we firmly knit ourselves into the long arc of the struggle for justice for life itself on this finite and fragile planet. That hope is my North Star as I cross these rough and warming waters.


Teaser photo credit: By The-time-line – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wangari Maathai speaks about deforestation

Sarah Myhre

Dr. Sarah Myhre is a climate scientist and environmental justice activist as well as a Kavli Fellow with the National Academy of Sciences. Her first book, This Is Also a Climate Story, is forthcoming from Columbia University Press.

Tags: building resilient societies, ecofeminism, patriarchy, racism