Some time ago I was asked to write a piece on the subject of “Women and Climate Change” for a women’s journal, however, unfortunately the publication had to fold and the essay was returned to me.  So after some thought, I’ve decided to put it here on my blog.  It’s longer than my usual posts, more of a long-form essay, but read on—I hope you find it interesting!

In the same month that COP 28 (The annual Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) opened in November 2023 in Dubai, Britain’s BBC published its annual list of the 100 most influential women in the world, of which almost one quarter were women climate crusaders. Yet at COP 28, Sultan al Jabar of the United Arab Emirates maintained there was no science behind the arguments for phasing out the use of fossil fuels due to their catastrophic contribution to climate change.  It would therefore seem that in her 2022 lecture on the role of women in managing climate change, Emma Howard Boyd, Chair of Britain’s Environment Agency, hit the nail on the head when she said, “Female leadership in local, national and international policy making is vital,” adding, “Our planet is home for us all.  But globally women are on the frontline when it comes to the consequences of environmental change.”

Yet the work of women working at grass roots level—to assist in climate disasters, advocate for environmentally sound choices in everything from heating to packaging of food, and in gathering local, regional and national groups to contribute to those efforts—by and large goes unreported in the press. In an open letter prior to COP 26 in 2021, the campaign group She Changes Climate stated, “Women and girls more often face the brunt of climate related disasters than men. They are the ‘shock absorbers’ of climate change.”  The letter went on to note that climate change disproportionately impacts women’s livelihoods and food security. It drives up levels of violence against women and influences female educational and work opportunities.  Perhaps the most compelling response to the challenges inherent in global climate change comes from Canadian Katherine Hayhoe, a climate scientist and chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy in the United States.  She has been named a United Nations Champion of the Earth and one of TIME’s Most Influential People.  According to a review in The Guardian, her groundbreaking book, Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World, is “… one of the more important books about climate change to have been written.”

The essence of Hayhoe’s message is the power of community—and not necessarily among like-minded souls.  Hayhoe presses the point that there is a place within a given community—a sports club, for example—to spread the message that it is in all our interests to play an active part in communicating the importance of choices respectful of the planet, rather than diminishing it.

Nikki McGee of Elevated Mountain Guides, based in Utah, is an example of communicating the stewardship message within her organization. The lifelong outdoorswoman founded EMG with a mission, “To provide therapeutic outdoor adventures to people who would not otherwise have the opportunity.”  Stewardship of nature is a key value underpinning McGee’s work, as EMG strives to instill a greater appreciation of the natural world and an understanding of how best to care for it.  Asked what women bring to initiatives to protect the planet, McGee observed, “Women have the energy to get things done—I have drive and ideas, but that can be scary.”  She admits, though, that women can be full of ideas, but they don’t always come forward.  “We have to be bad asses,” she adds.  “But we’re good at building teams, finding the right people and then bringing everyone together to work toward something.”  Introducing children to the natural world is a favorite part of McGee’s work.  “Kids are like sponges,” she says.  “They absorb everything—you teach them to leave no trace, and you see the light bulb go off, and when kids get something, they’re vocal about it.  And they’re not preachy in the way that adults can be—they are so excited to share their knowledge about the environment, that it catches on when they go home.”

Nikki McGee with an Elevated Mountain Guides volunteer

Another woman weaving the stewardship message into her work is shepherdess Brittany “Cole” Bush, founder of Shepherdess Land and Livestock in Ojai, California, and a consultant in climate beneficial agriculture. “I’m preventing wildfire with four legs,” says Bush, as her goats consume brushland at high risk of wildfire.  A desire to understand how a food system can be sustained, regenerative and resilient inspired Bush to ask herself, “How do we learn from the past to inform the future?  And how can I be part of the solution.”  Those questions led to academic immersion in the field of Environmental Studies, where she wanted to learn, “Exactly what we need to do to sustain our food system in a rapidly changing world.”  Part of her training was in using sheep and goats in the environment, “To do good for the land.”  Having set up the business, Bush also runs workshops, bringing more people of all backgrounds into the community to learn about stewardship of the natural world.  One of the big questions underpinning her work on the land and with the animals is, says Bush, “ What is my part in the culture of care for the environment?”

Members of Cole Bush’s flock.

Playing a part in the culture of care inspired Roz Savage to take a leap into the political arena. Savage is no stranger to the big leap—in 2004 she gave up a corporate career to concentrate on advocacy for the planet, drawing attention to her message over an eight year period when she set off on the quest to row singlehanded across the “Big Three” oceans.  Now she is standing for parliament in Britain, with a key commitment to address the “reality of climate change.”  However, Savage maintains, “We are still bargaining with nature.”  Citing the exploitation of natural resources to meet the demand for lithium used in the manufacture of electric engines and solar power, she believes we are creating another kind of colonization.  “It’s because we continue to want all the advantages of the modern age, but without any inconvenience sustainable practices might require of us,” says Savage, adding, “We are in a culture of domination—men v. women, and humans dominating nature, pretending we are not part of nature.”

Roz Savage, rowing across an ocean

Several years ago, Savage founded a community of women, The Sisters, which she described as “An audacious vision for changing the world by harnessing the intelligence and strength of the world’s women and directing their actions toward change.” The Sisters communicate online, and within their communities work to create positive change, with sustainability established as a primary goal.  Savage envisages a world where we are “in partnership” with nature, demonstrating compassion for the natural world—and at the heart of The Sisters is a message of “reciprocity.” It is, says Savage, “A greater sense that we are all in this together.”  It’s a message she now brings to her campaign for election. “The sustainability of our environment is one of the reasons I’m doing what I’m doing,” she adds.  “The job of government has to be to ensure the wellbeing of the people, which means taking care of our natural world.  It’s hard for people to do the right thing when the message is ‘Use more, take more.’”

Each of these women underlined the community-building skills and connection to the natural world inherent in the “feminine.”  Globally, women are gathering, starting initiatives within existing organizations, sharing experiences and what they have learned to create a world where sustainability underpins decisions from the most simple household purchase to those of national and international security.  In her book, Love Your Mother: 50 States, 50 Stories and 50 Women United for Climate Justice, Mallory McDuff points out that women have been at the forefront of climate science since 1856, when American physicist/inventor Eunice Newton Foote issued the first warning regarding human impact on the climate.  McDuff writes that for the fifty women interviewed, “Love was the force.  Not some syrupy sentiment … but the deep, unrelenting love of a mother who knows fracking is poisoning her children—and she seeks another way.”

Hayhoe also speaks of love, suggesting that the accepted interpretation of the Biblical message from Genesis, that man would have dominion over the earth—is wrong.  According to Hayhoe, “dominion” does not mean “domination”—which has been accepted in patriarchal societies—but instead means stewardship and respect for the planet.  It’s a sentiment supported by Rebecca Solnit in her essay, Ten Ways To Confront The Climate Crisis Without Losing Hope.  She writes that the qualities required to change the world are “ … the ability to coordinate and inspire and connect with lots of other people and create stories about what could be and how we get there.”

Women from all walks of life are coming together to advocate for the natural world – but perhaps there’s another reason for the quest to improve Earth’s health, one that will resonate with women everywhere. In her book Women and Nature, Susan Griffin weaves issues of gender and ecology, and comments, “Women are always being asked to clean up.”