September 23, 2021

We Can’t Solve the Climate Crisis Without Gender Equality. We’ll Prove It To You.

by How to Save a Planet

Background show artwork for How to Save a Planet

Take a look at many of the spaces where climate-related decisions are being made — from government to business to media — and you'll notice a numbers problem. Despite being roughly half the people on the planet, women rarely have equal representation in critical climate decision-making spaces. This isn’t just bad for women — it’s bad for everyone. This week, How To Save A Planet co-host Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson teams up with A Matter Of Degrees co-host Dr. Katharine Wilkinson for a deep dive into the data to show how gender inequality in climate leadership can not only deepen the harmful impacts of climate change but can also make it harder, if not impossible, to make urgently needed policy changes. We’ll also speak with someone who has seen firsthand how, when women do lead on climate, it can transform an entire nation. 

Guests: Anne Karpf, Christina Ergas, Wanjira Mathai

Calls to Action

  • Elevate the work and the threats facing environmental defenders. Normally, we would caution against being a social media activist. But many of these leaders are at risk because of corporate interests and power, and the threats fly under the radar. Amplifying the risks they are facing can actually make a real difference. Global Witness is one organization you can check out to see what risks they are facing and how to draw attention to them, while the news outlet MongaBay has an ongoing series on what they call, "Endangered Environmentalists."
  • Vote for Women. Or if you are a woman, consider running for office yourself.  Dr. Christina Ergas reminded us that support for women climate leaders should extend to the ballot box, to voting for women, especially women of color, in all sorts of races from city councils to state legislatures to Capitol Hill and the White House. If you're considering running for office, there are several groups that want to help you! 
  • Emily's List (one of the oldest organizations focused on helping Democratic women and non-binary people fun for office)
  • She Should Run (which helps women regardless of political affiliation)
  • Higher Heights (focused on helping Black Women run for office)
  • Matriarch (focused on helping progressive women run for office)
  • She the people (focused on helping women of color run for office) 
  • Run For Something (focused on helping young, diverse, progressive people, regardless of gender, run for office)
  • Dr. Anne Karpf reminded us to make sure that we’re engaging in collective action – which is far more effective than individual gestures. She recommended campaigns like EarthJustice’s Clean Air campaign, and the #PaidToPollute campaign that’s taking on the British government – the very same government who’ll be hosting COP26 in a couple of months – to court them to stop subsidizing oil and gas production.
  • Stay informed with the Women's Environmental Development Organization’s Gender Climate Tracker. There’s even an app for that! So if this episode left you enamored with all the reams of research and data, you can make sure that you have the latest information on this critical topic in your pocket and at your fingertips.

How to Save a Planet is hosted by Alex Blumberg and Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. Our reporting and producing team includes Kendra Pierre-Louis, Rachel Waldholz and Anna Ladd. Our supervising producer is Lauren Silverman. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney. Sound design and mixing by Sam Bair and Peter Leonard with original music from Emma Munger and Peter Leonard.

A Matter of Degrees is hosted by Dr. Katharine Wilkinson and Dr. Leah Stokes. Stephen Lacey is our Executive Editor. Jaime Kaiser and Dalvin Aboagye are our producers. Sean Marquand is our composer and sound engineer. 

This episode was fact checked by James Gaines.

Where to Listen


Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: Welcome to How to Save a Planet. I'm Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.

Alex Blumberg: And I'm Alex Blumberg. And this is the podcast where we talk about what we need to do to address climate change, and how we make those things happen.

Ayana: Today on the show, we have an episode I'm really excited about. We're talking about the connections between gender and climate.

Alex: But first, quickly, a sad reminder: like we mentioned last week, this episode is gonna be your last, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, as co-host of How to Save a Planet.

Ayana: I know. Totally sucks.

Alex: There was just too much going on in your life.

Ayana: I cannot in fact do everything all at the same exact time anymore.

Alex: Yes. And we're very sad to see you go, but we understand. And of course, the show, we should say, will continue on.

Ayana: Must go on. The show must go on.

Alex: We will still be here every week trying to save this planet.

Ayana: Thank goodness!

Alex: So without further ado, should we dive into your last time in the co-host seat?

Ayana: Yeah, let's do it.

Alex: And you have a really exciting episode for us today. It's one you've been working on for quite a while.

Ayana: Indeed. So today on How to Save a Planet, we will be talking about a topic that means so much to me, something that I've focused a lot on for the past two years in particular, and that is gender and climate. We are so lucky that Dr. Katharine Wilkinson, who originally pulled me into working around this topic, and with whom I co-edited the All We Can Save anthology, she will be co-hosting this episode with me.

Alex: Woo-hoo!

Ayana: Hey Katharine.

Katharine Wilkinson: Hello friends!

Ayana: Hello!

Alex: A collab.

Katharine: I'm really happy to be here, but also recognize this is a sad day.

Ayana: I mean, no better way to transition the end of this era for me than with you and a collab between our two podcasts, yours, A Matter Of Degrees, which you host with Dr. Leah Stokes, and How to Save a Planet, and our crew of nerds over here.

Alex: Exactly. Nerds unite! So gender and climate. What are you all gonna be telling us about the relationship between those two things?

Katharine: Well, Alex, you know Ayana and I have been thinking about this quite a bit.

Alex: Yup.

Katharine: The anthology that we co-edited, All We Can Save, includes writings from 40 women who are leading on climate in all different ways. It's like a little taste of what we like to call the feminist climate renaissance. And we hadn't planned it this way, but it actually happens to be the one-year mark since All We Can Save first came roaring its way into the world.

Alex: Oh! Happy birthday, anthology.

Ayana: Happy birthday mighty little book!

Katharine: Yeah, it's pretty cool. And we didn't highlight women's voices in this book for kicks. There was a strategy, a why, behind the anthology.

Ayana: There was.

Katharine: And it turns out to be super on-point for the episode that we are bringing today, because we're convinced that centering the work and wisdom of women is actually a critical strategy for advancing climate solutions and climate justice.

Ayana: And it's not just because we're women who have definitely sometimes been frustrated with how climate leadership is going—or not going—but also because we are both academics by training, and we've looked at the data.

Katharine: Mm-hmm. We have.

Ayana: There's some social science here that backs up what our guts have been telling us, what our eyes have been showing us. Women are uniquely critical to saving the planet. And that's the case that we'll be laying out in this episode. And for that we'll be joined by two sociologists who will pop in as expert guests.

Katharine: Mm-hmm. And we will also have a visit from someone who has seen firsthand how women's leadership on climate solutions has been transformative, particularly on the African continent.

Alex: I cannot wait to learn more about this, and I'll be back at the end of the episode thoroughly briefed and ready for calls to action. And for a special surprise!

Ayana: I'm a little scared of your surprise, but I look forward to seeing you again at the end of the episode.

Alex: All right.

Ayana: And Katharine, you and I are going to dive into this data right after a short break.


Ayana: Welcome back. So climate and gender. Let's dive in.

Katharine: So before we get too far down the rabbit hole of data on gender and climate, let's just take a minute to talk about what we mean when we say gender. It's just important to mention now that gender is not biologically determined, right? And it's not binary, so not everyone identifies as male or female, man or woman. And even among people who do, there's tons of variation in how our gender identity shapes our perspective of the world.

Ayana: Absolutely. And layered on top of gender are also differences, of course, in age, race, class, nationality, religion, all these other dimensions of who we are that affect our perspectives and how we approach the natural world and problem solving and each other.

Katharine: So we're gonna focus on gender, but we're gonna try not to be overly simplistic in how we do that.

Ayana: Nuance, nuance, nuance.

Katharine: Yeah. And I think, you know, some people would say why, if gender is a social construct, why do we need to be focusing on it? But we have to understand gender, and approach it with more care and more nuance because it does exist in society. Specifically because we're navigating a world that has been structured around gender divisions and hierarchies, right? We're grappling with, among all the other problems, deeply entrenched patriarchy.

Ayana: So we brought in an expert to help us unpack this. Dr. Christina Ergas is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and one of the things she studies is the role of gender and women as it relates to the environment. She spoke with us about how differently men and women are impacted by climate change.

Christina Ergas: Women across the globe tend to be the poorest, and generally the most vulnerable to climate disaster for a variety of reasons. In Bangladesh in 1991, there was a cyclone and some 90 percent of the people who died were women and children.

Ayana: Wow!

Christina Ergas: And the reasons were that gender norms there made it hard for women to escape. Some of the gender norms specifically were related to proper forms of dress. So women's long saris got in the way when they were trying to escape storm surges. Their caretaking responsibilities affected their ability to flee because they're often taking care of small children or elderly parents or ill people in their homes.

Christina Ergas: And of course, that would slow you down if you're trying to run away from some major disaster or catastrophe, but also the fact that in many cases norms around women's modesty made it impossible for them to learn how to even swim. So in situations where they might've been able to escape by just physically swimming, they were incapable of it.

Ayana: This is such a stark example, and other research backs this up. This is not an isolated case. According to the United Nations, for a whole bunch of intertwined reasons about culture and social status and existing gender hierarchies, an estimated 80 percent of the people who are displaced by the impacts of climate change are women.

Katharine: It's pretty shocking. And climate change exacerbates all these different challenges that women are already grappling with in our gender-unequal society, including gender-based violence.

Anne Karpf: One of the more terrifying phenomena that's emerged over the last 10 years or so is a phenomenon known as climate violence.

Ayana: This is Dr. Anne Karpf. She's a professor of life writing and culture at the London Metropolitan University, and just this last spring she published the book How Women Can Save The Planet.

Anne Karpf: You know, for example, after bushfires in Australia or floods in New Zealand, there is now significant evidence that violence by men towards women increases. Well, why? Well, because men, the traditional idea of masculinity is that men should be protecting women and the home, and when they can't do that, the sense of frustration, sense of failure and anger can make them so enraged that they hit out at those closest to them.

Ayana: And this is not an isolated incident. Another study found something similar after Hurricane Katrina. Physical victimization of women went up 98 percent.

Katharine: So just in case you weren't yet convinced that climate change is terrible in every possible way, truly just like a horrendous chain of events. And it's these outsized impacts on women that are yet another reason, another reminder of why we need to bring this gender lens, to have our antenna up for gender issues within the climate crisis, and also in how we respond to it.

Ayana: Right. And given this discrepancy across gender lines about who is impacted, it's perhaps no surprise that women tend to be careful about wanting to minimize the risks from climate and extreme weather. Again, Christina Ergas.

Christina Ergas: They tend to think that climate change is a bigger risk than men think it is. I think, you know, thinking about risk aversion, and of course again, women's caretaking responsibilities, that you have a situation where women, based on their roles in their communities and their families, they have to look out for other people. It's not just looking out for themselves.

Ayana: And because women are not a monolith, these concerns about the risks of climate change look totally different depending on where you live.

Katharine: Indeed. And in 2020, WEDO—an organization we love, the Women's Environment and Development Organization—they released this really fantastic synthesis of just a whole bunch, dozens upon dozens of current studies. And they highlighted some really interesting and specific examples about how women perceive climate risk in the US. And I just found these fascinating.

Ayana: Great, because I have not read this report yet, I will admit. So give me the dirt.

Katharine: I'm here for you as Dr. Cliff Notes. [laughs] So in Nevada, women ranchers perceive greater climate risks to their businesses. In Maryland, women are more likely to perceive themselves as vulnerable to climate-related health risks. In Florida, women perceive greater risks associated with hurricanes and other extreme weather events. And in post-Katrina New Orleans, women perceive their homes at greater risk from floods.

Ayana: Oh wow, so this is examples from all across the country. This is ...

Katharine: Totally. It's starting to sound pretty universal.

Ayana: North, south, east, west.

Katharine: Yeah. And it's got its particularities to a given place. You may be facing drought in Nevada and hurricanes in Florida, but these themes around risk to our bodies, our homes, our communities, livelihoods, these are things that seem to be disproportionately top of mind for women.

Ayana: Yes, they sure can.

Katharine: But it makes sense. You know, if you just think about your own life, right? Our personal lived experiences are what shape so much of how we perceive risk to ourselves, to our families. Like, will it be okay? I'm trying to suss that out given the data points I've had in my own life. And those data points, those lived experiences can be so wildly divergent across genders and across races.

Ayana: And it certainly seems to me like having this sort of healthy respect for the risks posed by climate change is a really good thing, right? Like, it helps us be prepared and, you know, plan accordingly.

Katharine: Yeah. I don't think underestimating the risk has been a super effective strategy so far.

Ayana: Yeah, to say the least. And then there's the issue that it's not just climate change that's risky, it's also that some of the proposed "solutions"—quote-unquote solutions—to climate impacts are risky as well. And when we were talking with Anne she got, you know, sort of fired up about that part of this.

Anne Karpf: The whole debate actually is gendered, but not explicitly gendered, implicitly so. For example, a lot of the solutions that are touted and often greatly admired are these very complex geoengineering schemes thought up by male scientists, which really, their great merit for some people is that they leave the causes of the climate crisis pretty much untouched. So they kind of say, "You can have business as usual, but we'll erect a giant umbrella to protect Earth from the Sun's rays." And people are taking these things seriously. And then we as feminists come along with other solutions and they say, "Oh, you're so unrealistic." Sorry?

Anne Karpf: Looking at the connections between gender equality and the climate crisis isn't about, you know, creating silos or special pleading, it's about enabling different groups to come together and fight together and to be much stronger together. Because we need a plurality of voices, and obviously we need women's voices prominent in them. If you don't have a correct analysis of what has caused the climate crisis and where its impacts are being most felt, you will come up with the wrong solutions.

Ayana: This sounds exactly right to me. And, in fact, one of the first papers I read on gender and climate was called "Risk perception: Another look at the 'white male' effect" by Dr. Christina Palmer.

Katharine: A second Dr. Christina, also a social scientist. And clearly in this study she's bringing together both dynamics of gender as well as dynamics of race.

Ayana: Yes. And this one, Dr. Palmer summarized her research results this way. And I quote from the abstract: "White males perceive the risks of health and technology hazards as low compared to white females and people of color, a phenomenon termed the 'white male' effect. White males' low risk perceptions are associated with individualist and hierarchist worldviews, as opposed to an egalitarian worldview," end quote.

Katharine: Ayana, I remember you were quite enchanted. Is that a weird description for how you responded to this study? [laughs]

Ayana: I was captivated, right? You sort of like, think about how all of these things might connect, but to see actual data of these correlations was really compelling. And my takeaway reading this was that, if white men are in fact significantly more likely to take on lots of risk—in part because historically things have tended to work out pretty well for them—and they also have so much power in society, then it's created this situation where they're essentially gambling with our collective climate future. Which is really scary to think that we have a situation where the biggest risk takers are in charge of something that affects all of us in the most fundamental existential way possible.

Katharine: Yeah that is I would say not ideal, right?

Ayana: Yes, let's diversify the decision-making on this one if we can.

Katharine: So to sum up what we have covered so far ...

Ayana: Okay.

Katharine: We have women being more impacted by the climate crisis. We see that women are paying more attention to climate risks. And women are bringing different ideas about what genuine solutions might look like. And all of that means it's critical for women to have fair and equal representation in decision-making about our climate future.

Ayana: Critical, yes. And yet we do not have any semblance of this equality right now. The research shows that women are vastly under-represented among the leadership of groups and organizations that are working to address climate change.

Katharine: Yeah, if you think about all the different spaces where climate-related decisions are being made, whether that's in government, corporations, law, finance, engineering, media, I don't think there's gender parity at the leadership level in any of them.

Ayana: For example, when it comes to how broadcast TV covers climate—or rather doesn't, really, which is a topic for another day—but when major news networks covered climate in 2020, women made up only about a quarter of the guests, the expert guests brought on to talk about climate. And women of color were under seven percent of the guests.

Katharine: Right. So women have unequal access to the climate microphone, and they also have unequal access to money. An NGO called the Global Greengrants Fund did this really fascinating analysis tallying up the giving of 1,000 foundations worldwide, and found that just 0.2 percent of all that philanthropic funding goes toward efforts focused on women and the environment.

Ayana: So even as women are more likely to be impacted by climate change, we are less likely to be at the decision-making table about solutions. And here's the thing that takes this from being just a grossly unfair and ridiculous situation to a tragically unfair and dangerous situation: when women are included, more shit gets done! The data shows this. Again, here's Anne Karpf.

Anne Karpf: When women are prominent in climate negotiations, it changes the nature of those negotiations. Countries in which women play a prominent political role are more likely to ratify treaties around the climate. You know, there's a whole sequence of studies now bearing this out.

Ayana: One of those studies is by Christina Ergas, who you heard from earlier. She and her colleague Richard York published a fascinating study called "Women's status and carbon dioxide emissions: a quantitative cross-national analysis." Obviously, this was catnip for me.

Katharine: And you do love a colon.

Ayana: I love a colon in title or, you know, wherever they need to be. And she and her co-author wrote, quote: "We find that carbon dioxide emissions per capita are lower in nations where women have higher political status." It's that clear. And they get this result even when they're controlling for everything from GDP per capita to urbanization, or industrialization, or militarization, and even the type of government.

Katharine: So basically, all other things being equal ...

Ayana: Ceteris paribus [laughs]

Katharine: Yes! I knew we were gonna get to some Latin. [laughs]

Ayana: It was only a matter of time.

Katharine: So all else equal, more political power for women correlates with less heat-trapping pollution for the planet.

Ayana: Yep! And they go on in that paper to write that the implication of these results is that if we improve gender equality, that this should be expected to work synergistically with curtailing climate change and environmental degradation more broadly, which certainly rings true to me. And one amazing example that pops to mind is that the only successful global climate negotiation we've ever had—that led to the United Nations' Paris Agreement—was led by women, by Christiana Figueres and her colleagues.

Katharine: Yep. I have loved to hear how women were working behind the scenes in Paris to really bring all of that together. And there are other studies that have similar findings.

Ayana: Mm-hmm.

Katharine: An analysis of the European Parliament for example found that women were significantly more likely to support environmental legislation than their male colleagues were—again, controlling for things like political ideology, nationality. Another study with a deceptively exciting title, "Sex and environmental policy in the US House of Representatives," it's not actually about sex, I'm sorry to tell you. But it showed that female legislators favor stricter environmental policies again than their male counterparts do.

Ayana: That's such a great title. It's like one of those, "now that I have your attention, let's talk about how to get better climate policy."

Katharine: "Please read this academic gobbledygook."

Ayana: And I also love the study that found that "Nations that have higher proportions of women in parliament are more prone to ratify environmental treaties." So, you know, just the more women in political positions with decision-making power over climate and environmental policy, the stronger and more robust that policy ends up being—or just having that policy in place at all because of their votes.

Katharine: Mm-hmm. And after the break, we are going to hear about a movement that did what the data suggests we should do—a movement founded by a woman that put other women in leadership and decision-making positions, a movement that became so successful, it managed to change the trajectory of an entire nation. That movement—and what we can all learn from it—right after the break.


Ayana: Welcome back.

Katharine: We're picking up our episode on climate and gender with a story of the phenomenal things that are possible when women do lead the way. In particular, the story of a truly remarkable woman named Dr. Wangari Maathai. Dr. Maathai was a scientist; she had degrees in biology, and a PhD in Veterinary Anatomy from the University of Nairobi. And I think she was the first East African woman to earn such a degree.

Ayana: And around the same time she became chair of her academic department, Dr. Maathai started to hear from women in different parts of rural Kenya that they were suffering. And she learned that rivers were running dry, women had to walk further and further to get water and to get firewood for cooking. And the food itself was becoming more scarce, and so they had less time for tending crops and for taking care of their children.

Katharine: And the reason why these women were struggling with these challenges and suffering had to do, at least in part, with trees. So more and more trees were getting chopped down, and as the trees went, so did firewood, food, and of course, just the whole ecosystem stability that trees provide.

Ayana: So after understanding all this, in 1977, Dr. Maathai started organizing women to plant and take care of trees. It started with just seven seedlings, then it became thousands planted in rows as a sort of "green belt" to counter deforestation and desertification.

Katharine: In exchange for these tree-planting efforts, the women would get paid a small amount of money in addition to just receiving the benefits of regreening this area. Dr. Maathai called this initiative, "The Green Belt Movement."

Wanjira Mathai: You know, she had done quite an amazing amount of work protecting green spaces, working with ordinary women in rural areas, farmers, and helping them understand the connection between the environment and poverty, the connection between environment and food self-sufficiency, and how important it was that they are able to feed their families at a very basic level.

Ayana: This is Dr. Maathai's daughter Wanjira. Wanjira Mathai is also a scientist—a biologist with a masters in public health, an MBA as well. Today, she's vice president and the regional director for Africa at the World Resources Institute. But for many years, she helped run the organization started by her mother, who passed away in 2011.

Katharine: Now Wanjira's mother, Dr. Maathai, was doing this work long before much of the research we cited above had even been conceived or conducted. But Wanjira told us, even without the research, her mother knew that centering women would be the key.

Wanjira Mathai: Look at any sector, especially in developing countries, you realize that women are central to it: forestry, environment of course, climate change. If we are going to achieve sustainable development, women will be a very central part of this because of the felt needs they have, and in many ways also then influence entire communities. Because we know for many women, when they have any financial resources in their pockets, it benefits more than themselves. They always invest in others. They always invest in family. They always invest in community. And so working with women, equipping women, allowing women to thrive and access markets, facilitating their ability for them to engage, is central to our unlocking prosperity for the African continent. No question in my mind.

Katharine: So in the 40-plus years since the Green Belt Movement was first founded, hundreds of thousands of women have gotten involved, over 5,000 tree nurseries have been created, and women have gotten trained in everything from forestry to food processing, bee-keeping, all different trades that help them earn income while preserving their lands and these critical resources.

Ayana: So far, over 51 million trees have been planted in Kenya alone, and this movement, planting trees on farms, in schools and churches, along rivers, in the countryside has now spread to other African countries.

Katharine: And beyond planting, women involved in the Green Belt Movement have also been doing important advocacy work like preventing the destruction of a 34-acre green space that sits at the heart of Nairobi. And there has been pushback at various points on this journey, and at some of these protests they were actually brutally beaten by police.

Ayana: Dr. Maathai was beaten unconscious at one of these protests, but she wasn't deterred.

Katharine: Yeah, Dr. Maathai and the women of the Green Belt Movement, they realized that protecting the environment hinged on democracy. And democracy in Kenya in these decades, suffice it to say wasn't thriving. And that meant that their regreening work, all of these nurseries, all of these tree plantings, it couldn't work either.

Ayana: And here at the risk of skipping some critical details and complex history, we'll just say the Green Belt Movement ended up playing a critical role in realizing a true democratic election in 2002, which was a major turning point for the country.

Katharine: And in fact, in that election, Dr. Maathai won a seat in parliament by a landslide.

Ayana: She did!

Katharine: And appropriately enough, she went on to serve as assistant minister for environment and natural resources.

Ayana: It was this work of connecting environmentalism and women's empowerment and political engagement and democracy that the world noticed, which is what led Dr. Maathai becoming the first African woman and environmentalist to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Here she is in 2004 giving her acceptance speech.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Wangari Maathai: As the first African woman to receive this prize, I accept it on behalf of the people of Kenya and Africa, and indeed the whole world. Together we planted over 30 million trees that provide fuel, food, shelter and income to support the childrens and education and household needs. The activity also creates employment and improves soils and watersheds. Through their involvement, women gain some degree of power over their lives, especially their social and economic position and relevance in the family.]

Katharine: In this speech, Dr. Maathai stands before dignitaries at the Nobel Prize ceremony, and she describes how what started as a simple movement to help the environment and women by planting trees, evolved into something much larger.

Ayana: Here's Dr. Maathai explaining—better than we ever could—how all of that unfolded.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Wangari Maathai: Through the Green Belt Movement, thousands of ordinary citizens were mobilized and empowered to take action and effect change. They learned to overcome fear and a sense of hopelessness, and moved to defend democratic rights. In the year 2002, the courage, resilience, patience and commitment of members of the Green Belt Movement, other civil society organizations and the Kenyan public culminated in the peaceful transition to a democracy government and laid the foundation for a more stable society. Today, we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking, so that humanity stops threatening its life support system. We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own.]

Ayana: And at this incredible moment of all of the attention swirling around the winning of the Nobel, Dr. Maathai's daughter Wanjira was there. She was working with her mother's organization at the time, and she remembers this moment so vividly.

Wanjira Mathai: It was euphoric, and at the same time chaotic. You know, behind the scenes trying to respond to, you know, media from all over the world. It was a big deal. It was intense.

Ayana: I think apart from it just being so wonderful to have the first African woman win this award, it was so remarkable when I read what your mother had won it for.

Wanjira Mathai: Yeah. Yeah.

Ayana: Because to see a peace prize be awarded for environmental work absolutely knocked my socks off. I just didn't see that coming.

Wanjira Mathai: There was a lot of questions about why an environmentalist had won the Peace Prize. It was not, "Yay, this is great all around."

Ayana: Not everyone had the same reaction as Katharine and I did?

Wanjira Mathai: No! No, no, no, no. There were more journalists who were like, "Why her?" And in fact, when you read a lot of the criticism of the prize that year had to do with what does environment have to do with peace? And that is a question nobody is asking today. Every so often I go back and I read the citation. It was not an award to the Green Belt Movement. It was an award to her for having made that connection between the environment, democracy and peace, and how intricately connected they were. And so in so many ways, it became the platform on which my mother's rest of her life, really, because in many ways from 2004 to 2011 when she sadly passed away, that's what she spent time demonstrating: that the environment had everything to do with peace. That wars around the world are fought over natural resources, that there will be wars over water, that there will be wars over other natural resources if we are not careful. That there will be destruction meted upon us as a human family if we don't take care of the environment. There was such clarity in her understanding of how environment and peace were so intricately connected. That was so progressive.

Katharine: Ayana, there are many takeaways for me from the story of the Green Belt Movement, but one of them is that to make a movement truly successful takes more than just one woman—even a deeply remarkable woman like Dr. Maathai—or a handful of women. It takes lots of women.

Christina Ergas: Yeah. The literature suggests 30 percent.

Ayana: This again is Dr. Christina Ergas. There are lots of reasons why researchers theorize that 30 percent is a sort of tipping point. For one, if you have just a single woman at the table, then chances are she was selected not because she thinks differently from the men around her but because she thinks like them.

Katharine: Right. So you may have a slight gender diversity, but you're not getting genuinely diverse perspectives. And that's another reason researchers think you need more than one woman at the table, because as we've discussed, women aren't a monolith. You need that kaleidoscope of lived experiences and perspectives.

Ayana: And another reason could be as simple as the fact that men often ignore women when they speak.

Katharine: They do? [laughs]

Ayana: I cannot relate to this, but I've heard this is sometimes the case. But it's important to note that Christina also stressed that 30 percent is the bare minimum, not that we should stop there.

Christina Ergas: I think more is actually important.

Ayana: Like actual equality?

Christina Ergas: Yeah, actually. Yes. [laughs] I mean, if your nation is made up of 51 percent women, it should be 51 percent women.

Ayana: Or at least more than 30.

Christina Ergas: Exactly. For sure.

Katharine: Because I guess shifting patriarchy is a hard solo gig.

Christina Ergas: And I think that in dealing with the climate crisis, a lot of what needs to be done is attending to our emotional needs, attending to our relationships, attending to connections and tending to how we listen to other people. That's caretaking, right? How do you caretake if you're not paying attention?

Katharine: This sounds like another radical feminist idea: listening!

Ayana: I know. It's a wild suggestion. Listening is indeed important, especially for the work that remains to be done in dealing with the climate crisis. And when you think about what all those women in the Green Belt Movement were doing, it's local, on the ground, painstaking work of talking, explaining, persuading, planting and of course, listening.

Katharine: I think Dr. Maathai absolutely understood that, right? It's not just saying, "We need to plant 51 million trees," it's also the work of figuring out where do those trees go? In which communities? On whose land? How do we make sure the trees are cared for and allowed to flourish, not just when they go in the ground but for many years and decades afterward?

Ayana: Yeah. And the parallels to the climate movement are so clear. It's not just we need to deploy billions of solar panels. But equally important is the work on the ground of figuring out where they go, and which communities benefit from this? And can people actually afford to buy this renewable energy? All of this involves a kind of leadership and entrepreneurial spirit that doesn't necessarily fit with our stereotypical notions of what this climate-adapted future would look like.

Katharine: Mm-hmm. And in Wanjira's current job with the World Resources Institute, she works with local women leaders in all kinds of fields, not just tree planting. And these are women who are green energy entrepreneurs with distributed solar, LED lighting, they're local nonprofit leaders. And they're engaged in this same vital, interpersonal, local aspect of climate work. And I think you're right, it's a key counterpart to the big picture, big idea, Elon Musk stereotype, Silicon Valley vibes of what climate solutions entrepreneurship looks like.

Ayana: It's not about a hero, it's about a distributed network of doers, one connecting to the next, and together massively expanding the reach of climate solutions on the ground.

Wanjira Mathai: I think that the fact that the transformation will happen when no one is left behind—we hear that all the time: leave no one behind. It is so easy to leave people behind because some people are so far away that it is an effort to get to them, but that's the heavy lift that's needed. That's the heavy lift that [we] need. And that's what matters. And so some of these women entrepreneurs are exactly what is needed for that—for that last mile to be achieved. And if we don't achieve that last mile then we've left a lot of people behind.

Ayana: What you're describing just makes me think of everything that is lost when we try to do everything at this broad, high, you know, intergovernmental or, like, mega corporation level, and ignore all this critical work that needs to happen at the local and community level, as far as actually spreading the climate solutions that we have at our fingertips already.

Wanjira Mathai: Right. And the truth is if we don't get to that level, we are not doing anything. Because a lot of the action that is needed when we say we need to bring emissions down, we're talking about the action that has to be taken at the ground, at this level. We're talking about poverty, eliminating poverty. So what that really means, Katharine and Ayana, is that we have to invest in civil society. We have to really begin pumping resources into organizations that are working at that level. They're the ones who struggle the most to get resources, but they do the heavy lift. That has got to be this next phase of work.

Wanjira Mathai: I'll give you an example. We have a campaign to restore a hundred million hectares of land by 2030 on the African continent—AFR 100. It is a campaign that was launched by African heads of state. It is anchored on the global goal to restore 350 million hectares of land globally. It's impressive, but it has to trickle down to what it means for each country on this planet. What does that mean for Kenya? For Uganda? For Tanzania? Where will those trees be planted? Where are those landscapes that need to be restored, and who will restore them? That's where the difference will be made.

Wanjira Mathai: And so we need to get organized and support the organizations, the youth movements, the entrepreneurs who are doing the actual work of restoration, because that's what will trickle up and count for the UN restoration target. But they're that far apart, but the action on the ground is what really matters. This decade of action that we're talking about—2020 to 2030—has got to be about building that forcefield at the grassroots. Those boots on the ground are the ones who are doing the work that's needed.

Katharine: And women—and girls—have been building this grassroots forcefield in several key ways. Again, here's Christina.

Christina Ergas: Women, and especially women of color, tend to spearhead environmental justice organizations and activism with numbers of upwards of 60 percent.

Ayana: This abundant leadership has been most visually obvious in the youth climate movement. It has been so beautiful to watch and cheer for all these girls, these teenagers, these young women who are linking arms and declaring the need for urgent climate action from governments, from corporations, from their parents. [laughs]

Katharine: All of the above.

Ayana: Yup.

Katharine: And another sociologist, Dr. Dana Fisher, actually did an analysis of the recent climate strikes in the US, and she found that two-thirds of the organizers of those climate strikes self-identified as women.

Ayana: Yep. And there's another way in which young women are super influential and leading, and that is when it comes to convincing climate science deniers that climate change is real and should be a concern. Research from Dr. Danielle Lawson and her colleagues showed us that young women and girls seem to be especially powerful climate messengers. And specifically for politically-conservative white men who are, in the US, considerably more likely to be climate deniers, their daughters are more likely to be able to change their minds on climate than their sons.

Katharine: Deeply powerful daughters.

Ayana: Kids these days, I tell ya. [laughs]

Katharine: Yeah, young activists are bringing this incredible moral voice to the climate movement.

Ayana: Yeah, this fierce moral clarity about our duty to help protect their futures.

Katharine: So where intersectional, grassroots, justice-centered work is happening, that is where you'll find women—and particularly Black, Indigenous and other women of color at the helm. It's work of course that is vital to put the brakes on new fossil fuel infrastructure.

Ayana: For example, the protests against the Line 3 pipeline right now in northern Minnesota led by Indigenous women. We're all familiar hopefully with Standing Rock and the resistance there that was led largely by Indigenous women. And so all across the country and the world, we have women of color on the frontlines of environmental work. This dangerous and, in fact, risky work, putting themselves in harm's way is often being led by women and women of color in particular.

Katharine: Yeah. A recent report shows that 2020 was the deadliest year on record for environmental defenders.

Ayana: Yes, this is a deeply concerning trend going in the wrong direction. And another concerning data point is the gender imbalance in more elite areas of climate policy decision-making that are not the grassroots. Case in point, there's this big moment on the horizon with COP26, the upcoming United Nations Climate Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in November.

Katharine: The UN's climate chief is Patricia Espinosa—who is a woman. But the United Kingdom is hosting these international climate negotiations, and their leadership team for COP26—basically the top brass that's directing the thing—it was originally 100 percent men.

Ayana: 100 percent. So based on what we've talked about in this episode, 100 percent seems like maybe the wrong percent to choose for this if we want it to be successful.

Katharine: You can imagine that some folks thought this was not cool. So yeah, lots of people spoke out, a campaign was formed, letters were signed, strongly worded letters.

Ayana: [laughs] I love a strongly worded letter.

Katharine: As do I. And things are looking a bit better now on the UK's COP26 leadership team, but there's still lots of questions about fair and diverse representation in the negotiations overall, right? Especially with issues around vaccine access globally to make it safe and possible for people to attend, exactly who will get to have a voice at COP isn't totally clear.

Ayana: So many questions remain. And despite everything we know about the quantitative benefits of including women in leadership on climate, we continue to be left out. And though I love a strongly-worded letter, I think there are perhaps other mechanisms, better options for ensuring that women have a seat at the table.

Katharine: Beyond letters, this is actually something that can be advanced through legislation. Wanjira talked to us about Kenya's recent and very bold experiment to inscribe what's known as a two-thirds gender rule into its national constitution.

Wanjira Mathai: I think it's a terrific piece of legislation. It's actually two thirds of any gender, so it could go either way. But it is the fact that there can be no more than two-thirds of any gender in any position. But as we know, in a society that has been very heavily patriarchal, it is women who've been left out. So historically, this is helping bring women into the political process, and this is for all elective positions. So it is an impressively good piece of legislation that is in the Constitution, and it is forcing us to identify talent that is there that would often be ignored, set aside. But there's still quite a bit of discussion around places where it is not enforced, because how do you—if you have a system of governance at elective offices, how do you determine which positions will be women? So you can't say this particular constituency must vote in a woman. This particular constituency must vote in a man. So how do you decide? In the elective parliamentary offices, it's more difficult to enforce, but it is a law and they're having to figure out how to do it.

Ayana: So lots to figure out, for Kenya, for all of us. And the problem, of course, is we don't have a lot of time with which to do all that figuring. We need climate action now. We need women's leadership now.

Katharine: We need it because there is a leadership crisis at the heart of the climate crisis. And that's not just about who is leading, but also how we are leading—by moving beyond ego, linking arms, leading with heart and centering a deep commitment to justice.

Ayana: Precisely. These are glorious characteristics of a feminist climate renaissance that is now—finally—unfurling in the climate movement.

Katharine: Wanjira reminds us that the need for this renaissance couldn't be greater because the stakes really couldn't be higher.

Ayana: Given everything you know from your work over the past decades now, when it comes to climate change how screwed are we?

Wanjira Mathai: Well, I have to tell you I've been feeling we are pretty screwed. We're pretty screwed. And the extent to which we're even more screwed is the lack of solidarity that I feel. So I don't know what it's gonna take to wake us up. But yeah, pretty screwed.

Ayana: Thank you for giving an honest answer. We have a lot of people who are like, "Yeah, it's gonna be tough but, like, we'll be fine." I'm just like, "Are we gonna to be fine? Do you have a crystal ball that I should know about!?"

Wanjira Mathai: I don't know. I hope so. Of course, I'm an optimist, but we are at the moment we do have to wake up. We're pretty screwed.

Katharine: Well, in the spirit of waking up and getting to work to find that space between pretty screwed and totally screwed, Ayana, I think it's time for calls to action.

Ayana: It is indeed. Let's get Alex back in here for that.

Alex: Did someone say "Calls to action?" Did I hear the calls to action whistle? [whistles]

Katharine: [laughs]

Ayana: It's like summoning a ghost.

Alex: That's my bat signal. That was such a fascinating episode. I learned so much.

Ayana: So glad.

Alex: So what do we do to help rectify the current gender imbalance in climate leadership?

Ayana: Oh, Alex. I am so glad you asked.

Alex: I'm here to please.

Katharine: Big picture, Alex, it all starts with supporting women.

Alex: Great, I'm down with that.

Ayana: Good. That's a good start.

Katharine: Good. I was hoping you might be.

Alex: What if I was like, "Now, wait a minute!"

Ayana: [laughs]

Katharine: We'd have to just boot you right back off, I think.

Alex: Let's not take it too far!

Katharine: And all three of the experts we interviewed for this episode had suggestions along these lines.

Ayana: What Wanjira said was that that means supporting environmental defenders—who we mentioned are especially vulnerable—to ensure they can continue their important work.

Katharine: And normally we would caution against just being a tweet activist, but because so many of these leaders are endangered because of corporate interests and power, because these harms to them often fly under the radar, this is actually one of the places where using your voice and helping to amplify the risks that they're facing can actually make a real difference.

Alex: Yeah, so we need to make noise about that.

Ayana: Mm-hmm. Yeah, we sure do. And what Dr. Christina Ergas reminded us was that support for women climate leaders should extend to the ballot box, to voting for women—especially women of color—in all sorts of races from city councils to state legislatures to Capitol Hill and the White House.

Katharine: And this is less a suggestion for you, Alex, but more women should consider running for office themselves. And we've got some links in show notes for various orgs that can help you maybe explore that idea or even go for it.

Ayana: And what Dr. Anne Karpf wanted to send us off to do was make sure that we are engaging in collective action, which is far more effective than individual gestures. So we included some links in the show notes to two campaigns that she specifically recommended that folks consider getting involved with.

Katharine: And lastly as always on How to Save a Planet, we wanted to share resources for you to learn more. WEDO has a great collection of information at And there's even an app for that! So if this episode left you enamored with all the reams of research and data, you can make sure that you have the very latest information on this critical topic in your pocket and at your fingertips.

Ayana: I mean ...

Alex: Heaps of data right on your phone!

Katharine: Woop woop!

Ayana: And there we have it. Katharine, I am so glad we got to co-host this episode together.

Katharine: Me too! It was really special to bring this to life. Alex, I'm gonna leave it to you and Ayana for a last co-host tete-a-tete.

Alex: If I could just editorialize for one moment.

Ayana: You're making me so nervous, but yes you may.

Alex: [laughs] Are you afraid I'm gonna, like, mansplain some things?

Ayana: Yes, that's exactly what I'm fearing right now. [laughs] But I love your self-awareness, and now I'm less worried, so tell me what you're thinking.

Alex: Well, I was just gonna say that, like, a thing that sometimes goes unsaid and I'll just say out loud: having women in charge, in leadership, it's better for everyone, for men and women.

Ayana: I feel like you've actually done a really good job of making space for women in climate, actually.

Alex: Oh, thank you. I don't know what to say. [laughs] But I'm inserting myself here at the end of this episode with a small gift. I want to dwell, actually, on several points that you guys made—no. [laughs] At minute 33, you said ...

Ayana: Can I just—time out? Anna Ladd, one of our producers here on How to Save a Planet, just dropped an amazing joke in the chat. It goes like this, Alex.

Alex: Yes?

Ayana: Where do men get their water?

Alex: I don't know.

Ayana: A "Well, actually ..."

Alex: [laughs]

Ayana: Yeah, don't be that guy. When I'm not here to monitor you, don't slip.

Alex: I'll try to make you proud, Ayana. But before you leave your official co-host chair, we, the team at How to Save a Planet, we wanted to give you something. We made you a little farewell audio gift.

Ayana: I am very excited, but also incredibly nervous about this gift, because there's a lot of outtakes. You guys have like ...

Alex: We have a lot of outtakes. We found the best ones.

Ayana: A lot of tape of me saying a lot of ridiculous things.

Alex: Will you do me the honor of allowing me to play it for you?

Ayana: Yes.

Alex: All right, here we go.


Alex: During our time on the podcast, we cracked lots of jokes—often with our guests.

Colette Pichon Battle: I remember being called an environmentalist. And I was like, "I'm not an environmentalist, I'm a bayou girl," you know? And they're like, "Well, you want us to do something about the trees." And I'm like, "Everybody around here wants you to do something about the trees. Like, we're not environmentalists, we just love trees."

Ayana: "I'm just a tree hugger but only in the literal sense. I have never metaphorically hugged a tree.

Alex: I can't emphasize enough, just how many jokes.

Ayana: I mean, who doesn't love a policy memo?

Alex: [laughs] You've got a policy memo.

Ayana: Yep.

Alex: You've got an op-ed. You've got some polling.

Ayana: We're stacking papers, as they say.

Alex: I don't think that's what they refer to when they talk about stacking papers.

Ayana: No? That's not what they mean?

Alex: They're not talking about policy memos.

Ayana: I've been hearing all these hip hop songs wrong for decades. I thought they were all just talking about policy documents.

Alex: Jay-Z is talking about white papers. No. Right.

Ayana: "Make it rain white papers." This is my MO.

Alex: That's what you do when you show up at the club?

Alex: But we didn't just joke, we also sang.

Ayana: Don't go putting the world on your shoulders. Don't go putting the world on your shoulders because you don't have to do this alone. Alone, alone, you don't have to do this alone, alone, alone, alone.

Alex: If my words could glow with the gold of summer.

Ayana: What? [laughs]

Alex: [laughs] It's a Grateful Dead song called "Ripple."

Ayana: Oh, right. I know that one.

Alex: And danced. Specifically that mid-'90s favorite, The Running Man.

Ayana: Very nice loungewear.

Alex: Okay, ready?

Ayana: I'm so ready. [laughs]

Alex: We asked hard questions.

Ayana: This is like collecting refrigerants by any means necessary. Are you the Malcom X of refrigerants, yes or no?

Gabe Plotkin: Couldn't possibly answer that.

Ayana: [laughs] That's probably—probably smart.

Alex: We weighed on aesthetics.

Anna Ladd: Is it appropriate to say "diarrhea green?"

Ayana: Ooh, I don't think it is.

Alex: It sells itself!

Alex: We got drunk on kelp beer.

Lauren Silverman: Should we pop it open? I'm going to.

Ayana: Nothing like a warm beer on a Tuesday afternoon. Just love opening cans.

Alex: Really drunk, apparently.

Alex: And just, like, the problem with kale, 'cause kale got pretty huge. I mean, if you asked kale, you know, 15 years ago, like, "Kale, what's your biggest dream?" It would not have dreamed of where it is today, right? Like, kale is huge.

Ayana: Just I love that you give Alex, like, two sips of kelp beer and he just is channeling the hopes and dreams of kale already.

Alex: Anthropomorphizing kale. [laughs]

Alex: But mostly what I'll remember during that time is all that you taught me.

Ayana: Here are some antonyms to fun: melancholy, monotony, cheerlessness, bitterness.

Alex: You taught me so much.

Alex: You know they get paid from these carbon offsites.

Ayana: Offsets.

Alex: Sorry.

Ayana: You're, like, yearning for a company retreat right now. But that is not what this show is about.

Alex: Cleaning up greenhouse gases with the following equipment: a van, and wads of hard, cold cash.

Ayana: I believe that's cold hard cash, Alex. [laughs]

Alex: But weirdly, not the things I wanted to know.

Ayana: Policy is also my love language.

Alex: What exactly is a love language?

Ayana: Oh, Lord. You know, there's only so far down that road I want to go with you, Alex. [laughs]

Alex: Oh, but now it's time for you to leave the show, and we are all feeling very, very sad. We're all gonna miss you, but I really do think I speak for all of us when I say maybe we're not doing a podcast together anymore, but we are not saying goodbye. You will still be hearing from me when I have a joke I want to share or a fact I want to check. And as God is my witness, I will find out what a love language is. Take care, Doc. You're gone, but your phone number remains in all our contacts, so you're not getting rid of us.

Alex: All right.

Anna: Let's have everyone say goodbye if you're still recording.

Alex: Yeah.

All: Goodbye, Ayana. We miss you already. We're really gonna miss you. Bye, Ayana. We'll miss you so much.


Ayana: Oh my gosh, you guys! Wiping away my little tears. That was really super lovely. Thank you.

Alex: Thank you.

Ayana: I miss you already, too.

Alex: And thank you for spending the last two years with me making this crazy podcast.

Ayana: We made a podcast about climate change and people actually listened to it.

Alex: I know! We did it, and we're still doing it. Now you can be one of the listeners. Will you listen to the podcast?

Ayana: Will I listen? Are you kidding me? Of course I'll listen.

Alex: Good. All right.

Ayana: Okay, that's enough. Let's not get too sappy. Katharine, are you still here? Should we roll the credits?

Katharine: Let's roll them.

Ayana: How to Save a Planet is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. It's hosted by me, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, and my beloved Alex Blumberg. The show's producers and reporters include Kendra Pierre-Louis, Rachel Waldholz and Anna Ladd. Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney.

Katharine: And A Matter of Degrees is hosted by me, Dr. Katharine Wilkinson, and Dr. Leah Stokes. Stephen Lacey is our executive editor. Jaime Kaiser and Dalvin Aboagye are our producers. Sean Marquand is our composer and sound engineer.

Ayana: Sound design and mixing for this episode was done by Sam Bair and Peter Leonard, with original music by Peter Leonard, Bobby Lord, and Emma Munger. This episode was fact-checked by James Gaines.

Katharine: Special thanks to A Matter of Degrees funders and supporters: The Sunrise Project, NorthLight Foundation, McKnight Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, The 11th Hour Project and UC Santa Barbara.

Ayana: And that's a wrap. Thank you so much to each and every one of you for listening.

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