Geoengineering’s Gender Problem Could Put the Planet at Risk

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A group of British scientists had a plan for a groundbreaking geoengineering test. Working from a disused military airstrip in Norfolk, UK, they would attach a 3,000-foot hose to a helium balloon, pump water into it, and spray the liquid into the atmosphere, where it would evaporate. The hardware test was part of a bigger plan to see if strategically releasing aerosols might help cool the planet by reflecting sunlight. Known as the Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering, or Spice, project, it was run by three UK research councils and backed by four universities, several government departments, and the private company Marshall Aerospace.

They presented their plans to the public at the British Science Festival in the fall of 2011—and triggered a “fiasco,” as an editorial in the journal Nature described it. Scientists bickered over it, newspapers ran negative headlines, and a Canadian NGO launched a campaign to urge the UK government to cancel the trial. Within months, the project was dead.

Solar radiation management is one of the more controversial geoengineering tactics under development, and some critics faulted the group for not trying hard enough to inform the public of its plans or of the potential risks. Jack Stilgoe, a sociologist at University College London, says he joined the Spice project in 2012 to help the scientists make sense of what had gone wrong. “What is clear is that most of the research has been done by a very small, exclusive group of people,” Stilgoe says.

As scientists continue to advocate for further development of such technologies, the field’s demographics are drawing more scrutiny. Some researchers argue the lack of diversity affects both which geoengineering projects get discussed—whether Spice-style solar radiation management, spreading glass beads over Arctic ice, or iron fertilization of oceans, to name a few—and how their risks get calculated. They highlight the “white male effect,” a well-documented phenomenon of white men showing significantly less aversion to perceived risk than any other demographic group. Indeed, the Spice scientists were overwhelmingly white and male—a trend that continues among researchers in geoengineering today. Given geoengineering’s potential to disrupt the natural systems that all life depends on, skewed attitudes toward risk could have globe-spanning significance.

The lack of diversity is easy to quantify. In a 2013 analysis of news coverage of climate engineering, “around 97 percent of the assertions about geoengineering were being made by men, only 3 percent by women,” says Holly Buck, a research fellow at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability who conducted the work. “It has gotten a bit better since then,” she says, “but it’s not great.”

At the Climate Engineering Conference in 2014, the first large international conference of its kind, participants noted in a survey that 90 percent of plenary speakers were male, and that not a single panel had more than one woman on it. Three years later, only two-thirds of the plenary speakers were men—a significant change—although participants again flagged gender as an area for improvement in their feedback.

Part of the problem is the underrepresentation of women in science, where systemic failures amount to fewer women in tenure-track positions. According to a TIAA Institute study published in 2016, fewer than one in 10 women faculty are full professors. Other research has shown that many of those female faculty members tick more than one diversity box. Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program, one of the field’s most advanced programs, is no exception; while graduate students and affiliated researchers working on the projects are relatively diverse, of the eight faculty supported by grants and leading projects, six are white and male.

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