Why we need a feminist climate science and how we might get it
In 2007, artist Katie Paterson used audio recordings of three Icelandic glaciers to infuse affect and emotion into the study of the retreating Solheimajokull Glaciers. Paterson created sound recordings of the glaciers and pressed records of each. She then cast ice record discs made from the glacier’s own meltwater. The records were then played together until they had all melted away. The project aimed to expand how we think about recording and storing data, challenge what kinds of data we take to be conclusive, and draw attention to the transitory nature of the glaciers themselves. The purpose of this artwork was to “intervene in such ‘truths’ [traditional masculinist truths] by presenting purposefully imprecise social and scientific methodologies and works.”
Paterson’s project was later included in 2016 article on feminist glaciology, titled “Glaciers, Gender, and Science: A Feminist Glaciology Framework for Global Environmental Change Research,” in which the authors develop a feminist scientific approach to the study of glaciers under conditions of climate change. The authors of the paper soon found themselves embroiled in the Science Wars when they came under a significant amount of scorn for their so-called anti-science attitude, specifically their focus on gender representation, application of anecdotes and storytelling as method, insufficient objectivity, and general critique of patriarchal scientific practices. Critics of feminist scientific practice described in “Feminist Glaciology” argue for an inherent objectivity to which the traditional scientific methods have access and is, in turn, undermined by the political “biases” of feminist science. But what these criticisms misunderstand is that feminist climate science projects like that of Paterson and the authors of “Feminist Glaciology” illuminate ways that science can be both feminist and empirically rigorous.
One aspect of feminist science involves ensuring representation for women and gender minorities within science. In climate science, gender parity is far off. According to UNESCO, approximately 30 percent of working climate scientists are women. Contemporary climate science, however, is quite interdisciplinary, so when we look closely at the different disciplines that contribute to climate science, the numbers do not look much better, with only an average of 20 percent of women holding doctoral degrees in physics, paleoecology, atmospheric science, and computer engineering. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, their own representation of women scientists went from five percent in 1990 to 20 percent in 2018, which, while laudable, leaves ample room for improvement. In the United States, only five percent of scientists and engineers are Black (two percent women, three percent men), 13 percent are Asian men, and five percent are Asian women.
While representation is important, feminist climate science doesn’t just advocate for more women in the field; it goes beyond representation to develop new questions and methods of knowledge-making about the world around us. Science has never existed solely in a rarefied space—it has always been politically charged. Feminist climate science shows how scientific values, primarily masculine identified ones, have always underpinned scientific practice and are not immutable.
Philosopher of science Helen Longino argues in “Can There Be A Feminist Science” that feminist scientific values encourage a greater attendance to social interests and needs. By focusing on egalitarian forms of logic, diverse methods, diffuse relations of power, and generalized inclusiveness, feminist science strives to account for and include the experiences of marginalized groups, such as women and Indigenous communities—groups whose knowledge has been historically dismissed as “unscientific.” Western science tends to be based on methods that embrace stringent empiricism, objectivity, causality, instrumental reason, and domination and control, all of which are norms and values selected by scientists, not given from first principles. This has led to a form of science that is structurally and ideologically hierarchical and competitive. Divided into distinct and isolated disciplines, Western science treats nature and women as an exploitable source of profit.
While there are few widely disseminated applications of these feminist principles as yet, a few initiatives and examples come close. Recent applications of Indigenous forms of knowledge production demonstrate the utility of feminist principles of diversity, openness, equitable relations of power, and experiential knowledge that takes into account the conditions and identity of the observer. For instance, climate researcher E. Weatherhead incorporates the Inuit people’s knowledge of climate in relation to changes in weather. Inuit hunters challenged Western climate scientists who wouldn’t believe their accounts of wind changes based on their own observations of sea ice, animal behavior, and snow crusts. The weather stations of the climate scientists were not equipped to include these diverse, more experientially based variables. As a result of Weatherhead’s research, the scientists added more stations in hunting areas identified by the hunters and actually used the observational data about wind change, collected and furnished by the Inuit.
Successful applications of Indiginous knowledge and knowledge creation practices refute the most common criticism of feminist science—it’s subjective and, therefore, not empirically valuable. But critics of feminist science have also raised concerns that it might end up entrenching traditional gender norms. What is so compelling about feminist science studies, however, is that it avoids doing so by focusing on how to do science as a feminist rather than feminine forms of scientific practice. In fact, feminist science decenters the feminine as a set of characteristics, which women supposedly hold by way of their biology. Feminist science doesn’t assert that women have some sort of naturalistic affinity for the environment because they are innately caring or intuitive with an inherent connection to the earth. Rather, feminist science considers the collective experience women have had under patriarchy. These experiences have produced distinct ways of knowing and understanding the natural world, leading women to collect and organize information in different ways, ask different questions, and consider the impact of structures of power and politics on the production of knowledge.
As feminist science scholar Alison Wylie argues, a feminist approach to science serves as a “contingent [socially obtained] resource,” an “object of reflection: that can provide fruitful insights about existing theories of knowledge and alternatives that may have been overlooked by those working from other perspectives.” Which is to say that feminist science, as a result of its focus on and experience of marginalization, can more quickly take on and identify approaches individuals lacking these experiences are likely to overlook. Far from indulging in subjective or political biases, feminist science strives for an even more rigorous objectivity that attempts to account for as many approaches and perspectives as possible.
Paterson’s disappearing ice recordings—both the disappearing ice and the recordings themselves that melt away—demonstrate new presentations for information about climate change that can alter our perspectives. Going forward, a future in which feminist scientific practices are adopted into traditional climate science would result in a transformation in how we relate to each other as well as the earth. Because it calls for a new non-exploitative and heterogenous model of knowledge based on social relations, cultural embeddedness, human needs, equitable power relations and social justice, it might also bring us closer to a transformation of the mind necessary to make the changes required to tackle climate change.
Donna Haraway, "Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective," Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (1988): 575-599.
M. Moezzi, K.B. Janda, and S Rotmann, “Using stories, narratives, and storytelling in energy and climate change research.” Energy research & social science 31 (2017):1-10.
Melissa I. Pardi, Melissa and Felisa A. Smith, "Paleoecology in an era of climate change: how the past can provide insights into the future," in Paleontology in ecology and conservation (Springer, 2012), 93-116.
Nancy Tuana, "Gendering climate knowledge for justice: Catalyzing a new research agenda," in Research, action and policy: Addressing the gendered impacts of climate change (Springer, 2013) 17-31.
Image credit: Solheimajokull Glacier of Southern Iceland by Martin Peeks, 2007 (Wikimedia Commons | CC BY SA 3.0)