The role of women in climate science

On International Women’s Day two leading scientists involved in the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, talk about their work, the importance of diversity, challenges, and motivations

Ko Barrett is Vice Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). A United States national, Barrett is Deputy Assistant Administrator for Oceanic and Atmospheric Research at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Washington DC. Barrett has been involved in the work of the IPCC for 15 years—as a United States delegate to IPCC plenary sessions, a lead representative of the United States for Working Group (WG) II and for Synthesis Report approval sessions for both the Fourth and Fifth Annual Reports (AR4 and AR5). As a member of the Task Force on Procedures, established after the review of the IPCC by the InterAcademy Council in 2010, Barrett chaired IPCC contact groups to reach successful conclusions, and is widely recognized as a creative, thoughtful, and fair contributor to the Panel. Barrett was part of the IPCC community that was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

Anjal Prakash caught up with Barrett at the second lead authors meeting of the IPCC Special Report on Oceans and Cryosphere (SROCC) held recently in Quito, Ecuador.

Anjal Prakash (AP): What is the relevance of the IPCC’s Special Report on Oceans and Cryosphere?

Ko Barrett (KB): I am very excited about the Special Report on Oceans and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate. This report will cover areas where impacts from climate change are very apparent—like in glacial high mountains and at the poles, but also in areas where fundamental changes are occurring but are not noticeable to most people—like in the oceans. Treating them together in one report allows us to provide a storyline about climate change from the tops of the highest mountains to the bottom of the deepest oceans and to assess these issues in more depth than ever before.

AP: How will this report help deal with issues we encounter in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, popularly known as “the third pole”?

KB: The “third pole” was discussed as being very important in the scoping of this report. Changes to the Hindu Kush Himalayan region could affect millions of people who rely on its tremendous resources. These impacts will have far-reaching consequences and can be considered bellwethers of change in other parts of the world. I am hopeful that recent research will help provide a better understanding of the challenges climate change presents in the region as well as keys to a sustainable future.

AP: What has the IPCC’s experience of working to improving diversity—having more women scientists and people from the global south—been like?

KB: At the IPCC, we have made concerted efforts to improve the diversity of our leadership team, author teams, and expert reviewers. With each successive assessment report, we improve the number of developing country scientists and women involved in the production of these reports. For example, only 2% of authors were women in the first assessment report. Compare this to 38% for the Special Report on the impacts of 1.5 degrees of warming.  It is progress, albeit slower than we would like. One thing I would like to highlight is that the value of having diverse perspectives cannot be overstated: IPCC reports become more robust and less biased with more scientists from the global south and with woman authors.

AP: As a scientist and a woman, what kinds of challenges have you faced in your career?

KB: Honestly, my greatest challenges were self-imposed. They were ways in which I limited myself by not believing I could succeed as well as others. I will tell you candidly that I do not have a PhD and for many years I apologized for this and let certain opportunities pass me by because I didn’t believe I was worthy of certain jobs. It is only in recent years that I have come to understand—to deeply know—that I have qualities and expertise that are unique, needed and valuable. Not everyone is best suited to dig deep into an issue as required for a PhD. Some people, like me, are good facilitators and big thinkers and this is sorely needed too.

AP: As one of three Vice Chairs of the IPCC, you are role model for many women who want to take this path. What would be your message to them?

KB: Believe in yourself. Find women who can support you and mentor you through rough times or periods of low confidence as you follow your passion. Take professional risks that will advance you through your career, even if it seems like quite a big stretch. Only by reaching will you succeed. And we need you to succeed.


Purnamita Dasgupta is Chair Professor, and Head, of the Environmental and Resource Economics Unit at the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, India. Her research examines the challenges of mainstreaming externalities into decision-making processes, localised environmental degradation, climate change mitigation, and adaptation policy. Her primary focus is on impact assessment, economic valuation, costing, and modelling for future scenarios.

Dasgupta is a Coordinating Lead Author for the International Panel on Social Progress, as well as the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 Degrees C. She was Coordinating Lead Author for the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), its Summary for Policy Makers and Synthesis Report, and a member of its Scientific Steering Group on Economics, Costing, and Ethics.

AP: How has your journey been in the field of climate science, as a scientist and as a woman?

Purnamita Dasgupta (PD): I would like to share an experience here. I was co-chairing a small group meeting on climate science in Stockholm in 2016. There were some extremely knowledgeable and accomplished experts from around the world in the room. The women were as vocal as the men. The discussions were intense and inspired by a sincere desire to make a difference. There were informal parallel sub-group discussions going on as well. Suddenly, one expert walked up to me and said in a fairly agitated and audible voice, “Madam, for a woman, you smile too much.” A first indeed in my career.

What it brought home to me was the diversity in the expectations from women and on what constitutes acceptable conduct in public, especially when they hold positions of responsibility, no matter for how transient or short a duration these maybe.

I have not forgotten the incident, but I have definitely forgotten the expert’s name, and have only a hazy recollection of his face. Even at that time, I remember I did not feel particularly offended but rather saddened. It was something to ponder on…..because I had had plenty of opportunities by then to experience equality, gender sensitivity, and to earn respect amongst scientists, especially within the IPCC. The IPCC AR5 processes gave me hope that women can and will be able to break the glass ceiling everywhere.

AP: How did you manage domestic responsibilities with demands coming from professional associations? Who is your inspiration?

PD: I am fortunate to have an extremely supportive family—we share housework between family members.  My husband, son, parents, siblings, and in-laws all have one great thing in common. We all love reading—newspapers, journals, books: fiction and non-fiction. My family members have always been willing to engage in discussions related to my work, which I think has been most crucial.

My great grandmother, Indumati Bhattacharyya, was a highly respected social activist and freedom fighter. I would like to cite from a recent translation of her reminiscences, of an incident that took place when she was jailed for the first time as a political prisoner. When he saw her, the in-charge at the police station said, “Please come in, please come. Since you decided to continue disobeying the law (she and another friend were spinning cotton threads in pre-independence India), what other option do we have?”  She balanced her domestic responsibilities with her pursuit of a dream of an independent India, in the way that she thought best. If she could do it three generations ago, I definitely can do it today. But yes, we both needed a supportive family. It is not easy, it is lonely at times, but it is about give and take in the family.

AP: Are there specific areas where having women, and a greater diversity of people, helps in getting a clearer understanding of climate change impact and in adapting to climate change? Are there questions women might ask that are sometimes overlooked otherwise?

PD: I will take an example from the water sector. Traditionally, women’s use and knowledge of water in developing country contexts were associated with activities within the household. Today, we see a feminisation of agriculture in several parts of the world, where the water issue has transcended conventional divides. From managing floods to droughts, drinking water supplies to waterborne illnesses, from occupational trajectories to economy level impacts, women have significant contributions to make.

In the South Asian context, studies conducted by ICIMOD, OXFAM, and others reveals that women, who bear the brunt of these impacts, are often perfectly aware and capable of comprehending what is happening around them and to their lives. However, communicating these perceptions and experiences is often easier with females than males in specific cultural contexts. So women scientists, who can act as bridges due to the nature of the work that they do, can bring a lot to the table and provide valuable insights into these processes. They can also play an important role in ensuring that material is presented in a gender sensitive manner and that dissemination activities are tailored similarly.

Anjal Prakash is the Programme Coordinator of the Himalayan Adaptation, Water and Resilience Research (HI-AWARE) initiative at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). He is coordinating lead author (CLA) of the IPCC Special Report on Oceans and Cryosphere. This story was first published on thethirdpole.net

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