Feminist leadership on climate change focuses on human rights

Dr. Sarah E. Myhre’s prepared remarks for Congreso Futuro, January 18th 2019

I want to thank the people of Chile, the scientific institutions of Chile, and Congreso Futuro for inviting me to speak here today. It is an honor.

My name is Dr. Sarah Myhre. I am a climate and ocean scientist.

I am from Seattle, Washington, from a landscape of steep mountains, snow, blackberries, cold rivers, salmon, black bears, and orca whales.

I come from a country that is similar to and different from Chile.

I come from a country that never reconciled our history of colonization and slavery.

I come from a country that does not uphold the value of restorative justice. Of life itself.

I come from a country of indigenous genocide, where today indigenous peoples are unrecognized and stripped of rights to their lands and their waters.

I come from a country which criminalizes refugees. A country that puts children in cages.

I come from a country that is the second highest emitter of greenhouse gasses in the world.

I come from a country led by a violent, fascist, and mediocre man who publicly brags about sexually assaulting women.

I come from a country that may soon strip its citizens of the right to free and open access to abortion.

And yet.

I also come from a country that invests billions of dollars in scientific exploration and progress. A country that shines a very, very bright light of scientific knowledge across the entire planet. A country that invests in the careers of individual scientists.

I am one of those scientists.

In my scientific career, I have spent the last 10 years studying the climate of Earth’s past. Over the last million years the planet has oscillated between cold glacial conditions and warmer interglacial conditions. Like a heartbeat, these oscillations in Earth’s climate were paced by celestial geometry. By the changing relationship between the earth and the sun. Cold to warm, cold to warm.

Over the last 10,000 years, the planet has been in an interglacial: an interval of relative warm compared to the ice bound glacial states.

Now we are exiting the envelope of relative climate stability of the Holocene, into a more dangerous, unpredictable world. A world of catastrophic storms and fire tornados, of droughts and flooding. A world of ecosystem collapse. A world of unparalleled risk and uncertainty. A world our children will inherit.

We are exiting this safer cooler world because of the emissions of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. These emissions, from industrialization, land use, deforestation, and transportation, are changing our world in devastating and dangerous ways. These emissions are primarily caused by the activities of the richest countries in the world. Even more specifically, the oil and gas companies, which continue to profiteer off of heating the planet, are the richest and most powerful economic entities in the history of the planet.

As a scientist, it has been my role to understand these phenomena and systems. And yet, once understood and published in a scientific journal, what good does our work in the world do?

This is one of the reasons Congreso Futuro is so special. We are here to communicate and connect regarding the value of science in public life. To pause and consider ourselves, our species. What a beautiful thing.

And yet, I would suggest, that even communication is not enough. Why? Because the lives of millions to billions of people are on the line. Death, disease, poverty, water insecurity, conflict, and collapse. We as a planet must get to global carbon neutrality by 2050, through reorganizations of economic and political power and decision-making, in order to preserve a habitable and stable planet for human life and our precious pale blue dot.

To get to that goal, we don’t need communication as much as we need leadership, because we must fight the vested interests of the most powerful and violent oligarchs in the world.

But, leadership is not empiricism. Leadership isn’t data. Leadership is not objective.

Rather, leadership is rooted in ethics and values. So what are our values?

I would suggest that a leadership framework focused on human rights is foundational for science. If we do not care about the suffering of other people, we are lost. Only through caring for people can we care for the land, our ecosystems, and our planet. Only through caring for one another can we shepherd the future of this pale blue dot.

This idea, of care as central to our ethical interactions in the world, is rooted in a feminist ethic of care, which states that we are all embedded in interconnected webs of relationship. And to be an ethical person is to care for and attend to the lives of those to whom you are connected to.

And we know, in this global society where everyone pays a cost because of the profiteering and emissions of only a few, that we are all fundamentally connected to each other. The air that we breath, the water that we drink, the knowledge that we share, the culture that we uphold: all of it knits us together into the fabric of life.

We need scientific leadership that is brave enough and bold enough to care for the lives of those who are subjugated, erased, and violated. Feminism is not about simply empowering women to succeed as men. No. It is about reorienting our moral attention to reveal the suffering and violation of other people that has been in front of us all along. It is about upholding the value of life — not just the lives of wealthy white Westerners. But rather, the lives of the poorest, the most vulnerable, and those systematical and historically violated and erased.

Indeed, if we do not refine this moral lens, we will see again and again catastrophes like what happened in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, where 3,000 United States citizens died. Not because of the climate-amplified tropical storm, but because, despite their suffering, the color of their skin, their language, and their culture did not summon the moral attention of the racist and negligent Trump Administration to respond with care and resources. The people of Puerto Rico were left to die on their own and the legacy of this catastrophe will forever shame the United States.

We as scientists must advocate for the value of life itself at this precarious moment. One of the ways we can do that is to speak directly about the global cost of the subjugation of women and girls. We now know that the number one solution for carbon reduction across the planet is, together, access to education for girls and women, and the comprehensive access to control the outcome of their reproductive lives. This includes open access to abortion for every woman. Why? Because when women have control over their bodies and education, they make fundamentally different choices. Choices that can lift them and their families out of poverty. Choices to often, though not always, have fewer children at a later age in live.

If we lifted the global population of women out of educational and reproductive subjugation, it is projected that we would see a reduction of approximately 1 Billion people on the planet by 2050 — with massive reductions in emissions and global poverty on par with any other technological solution to the climate crisis.

Leaders here in Chile, and around the world, have the capacity to act, today, to change the course of our planet’s future. Not through investment in new technology — but in the extension of basic human rights and dignity to women and girls, specifically and most importantly the free and open access to abortion. Scientific leadership must be brave enough to speak these truths to power, otherwise we will simply sit on the sidelines to document and publish the decline of life on our precious planet.

I challenge every scientist and public leader here today and listening from afar to lead with a feminist ethic of care in the world and center the value of human rights. Specifically, the importance of global access and investment in the education and reproductive rights of girls and women. And, fundamentally, the free and open access to abortion.

It is not strong men who will solve this crisis but rather free and caring people, especially free women and girls.

Thank you for your time and attention. I send you all of my love and care.

This talk has been created from the scholarship, labor, and bravery of many other people. My work here draws upon the scholarship and leadership of Dr. Farhana Sultana, Dr. Katharine Wilkinson, Dr. Carol Gilligan, Project Drawdown, 500 Women Scientists. I am deeply indebted to their work in the world. Thank you.

Communication and leadership to change the world. Climate, justice, equity, and decision making. hello@rowaninstitute.org #weneedtochangetheworld