Gender and Climate Engineering: A View From Feminist Science

Tina SikkaGuest post by Tina Sikka, Newcastle University / 27 February 2020

Dr. Tina Sikka’s current research interests include the ways in which gender culture, and race intersects with science and technology. Read her recent monograph Climate Technology, Gender, and Justice: The Standpoint of the Vulnerable (published in 2019 by Springer) here. Further information, including publications can be found here

[The views of guest post authors are their own. C2G does not necessarily endorse the opinions stated in guest posts. We do, however, encourage a constructive conversation involving multiple viewpoints and voices.]


Climate engineering and its relationship to gender has been a topic of some discussion over the past few years, and yet is still not adequately addressed in governance discussions.

There is a lack of women actively involved in conducting research on the subject (Joanna Haigh and Marcia McNutt are two notable exceptions), and technological designs have so far tended to reinforce masculine-identified norms, such as interventionism, hierarchy, control, and dominance.

This is particularly important in light of recent work in the social study of science and technology, in which gender inequalities are seen as embedded into technological design – and subsequently reflected back into the social world.

This argument is often used to support the inclusion of women designers in information and communication technologies, for example with respect to feminist software which affords more room for collaboration, experiential learning, and expression, so gendered needs and expectations are built into the technologies themselves.

Climate engineering technologies should to be taken up in ways that attend to gender-specific concerns. These could take account of differentiated impacts on women, their lack of power in decision-making, and the gendered nature of vulnerability.


What is feminist science?

Feminist science studies take up gender in ways that centre on the inequalities felt by women, from the standpoint of women’s lives. When applied to climate engineering, this would provide a more robust, multifaceted, and capacious scientific practice.

As the philosopher Helen Longino argues, it is “not just a rejection of the sexist bias in the description of the phenomena… but of the limitations on human capacity imposed by the analytic model underlying such research.”

My own work seeks to examine how the practice of climate engineering research overlooks, to its detriment, Helen Longino’s feminist scientific values such as:

  • Empirical adequacy, which reflects the fit between the observed outcomes of an experiment and the data collected;
  • Ontological heterogeneity, which encourages an embrace of difference – whether it be in relation to findings, outcomes, or methods;
  • Complexity of relationships, which embraces interaction and multiple kinds of causality;
  • Diffusion of power, which favours models that “incorporate interactive rather than dominant-subordinate relationship in explanatory models”;
  • Novelty, which resists the traditional tendency of some scientific work to reject differing explanations, out-of-the-box thinking, and divergent explanations;
  • Applicability to human needs, which rests decision-making about the kind of science we should pursue on the alleviation of suffering.
What does feminist science look like in practice?

A prime example of science that does this is feminist glaciology, as defined by Mark Carey, M. Jackson, Alessandro Antonello and Jaclyn Rushing in “Glaciers, Gender, and Science: A Feminist Glaciology Framework for Global Environmental Change Research.”

The authors approach the study of glaciers with an eye towards instituting feminist scientific principles including:

  • The centring of marginalized knowledge and alternative narratives (e.g. local and indigenous knowledge);
  • A transformation in the norms by which methods are chosen and evidence collected (e.g. by including lived experience, storytelling, narratives, and visual knowledge);
  • The due consideration of who relies on glaciers for things like drinking water, electricity, recreation, and life – both human and non-human.

These are placed in opposition to the traditionally accepted scientific values asserted by Thomas Kuhn of accuracy, consistency, broad scope, simplicity, and fruitfulness.

It should be noted, however, that these feminist values should not be seen as feminine, i.e. as reflected of some feminine essence, but emerging out of the specific experience of marginalization that allows those who identify as female to offer a unique perspective on the practice of science.

Feminist science sees science as value-laden and empirically grounded, meaning that values determine everything from the questions asked, methods used, and conclusions reached, and as supported by a rigorous process of consensus formation within scientific communities.


5 ways in which a feminist approach could help climate engineering research

In practice, as I outline in my book Climate Technology, Gender, and Justice: The Standpoint of the Vulnerable (2019), a feminist approach could encourage a more open, diverse, diffuse, novel, and pro-social science with respect to climate engineering.

Here are five ideas – although there are many more examples in the book!

1. Feminist science can improve data and modelling

One major shortcoming of current models is a lack of direct observation and historical data reflected in literature, storytelling, and songs . Where such data exists (since climate engineering specific historical data is non-existent), it tends not to be incorporated, as it is often seen as less credible than theory.

A better approach could include data, for example, about how poor women would be affected by particular approaches, or the direct observation of environmental change by indigenous communities.

2. Questioning the 280ppm baseline

Current approaches see 280ppm as the baseline from which to compare current CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere.

This is based on data from the start of industrialization, yet deforestation practices and early forms of agriculture were quite also disruptive. These practices, when utilising feminist science, would be considered in light of the principles of novelty and ontological heterogeneity. It would also open us up to questions about the roots of the human-nature practices that have led to climate change.

3. More granular approaches to measuring temperature change

Focusing on global averages rather than local temperatures can mask important details. A more granular approach may provide a more powerful picture of gendered and other forms of marginalization (often referred to as the politics of scale).

The binaries of male/female often map onto the global/local wherein the global (like male) is the dominant factor.  As J.K. Gibson-Graham argues: “Globalism is synonymous with abstract space, the frictionless movement of money and commodities, the expansiveness and inventiveness of capitalism and the market [male]. But its Other, localism, is coded as place, community, defensiveness, bounded identity, in situ labor, noncapitalism, the traditional [female].”

A more localized lens might provide evidence of risk and reward for marginalized groups that are often left out of climate engineering research.

Granular data on impact with respect to race, gender and class could – for example – not only include a discussion of how monsoons might be effected by solar engineering, but what that means for people who are racialised, poor, disabled, and identify as female.

4. More representative maps and visualizations

One striking example of bias in visualisation in climate engineering science, is that it often uses the Mercator map to present data. This is very Eurocentric, in that countries identified as representing the West are disproportionately larger. Feminist and postcolonial cartography offer alternatives.

5. The consideration of aesthetics

A white sky as a result solar engineering would impact how we see, represent, and move through the world. These aesthetic considerations of deploying many climate engineering approaches could have a massive impact in terms of societal support and governance, and yet have so far received limited consideration in the discourse.

These points are far from exhaustive, but would provide a good start.

If you want to continue this discussion, please get in touch!

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