At the American Geophysical Union fall meeting in New Orleans last December, Sarah Myhre, PhD, joined with other scientists on a panel presenting and fielding questions on the science, economics, and politics of climate solutions.
Myhre (pronounced my-ree) delivered a message that may have been startling to some in the audience – that climate change cannot fully be addressed without also grappling with the misogyny and social injustice that have perpetuated the problem for decades. Myhre characteristically delivered her talk with a sense of urgency, confidence, and polish.
After the presentations, an audience member directed a comment to panelist Stefan Rahmstorf, PhD, of the Potsdam Institute. Rahmstorf had illustrated just how quickly the world will need to stop burning fossil fuels if warming is to be kept to no more than 2 degrees C, about 3.6 degrees F.
“You show that we’ll need to drop all the way to zero fossil fuel use within the next few decades,” the commenter said. “But I have a hard time even imagining a world without fossil fuels.”
As Rahmstorf prepared to answer, Myhre leaned over to the microphone. “Imagine a world where women are in charge,” she said wryly, “And then you’ll imagine a world without fossil fuels.”
Laughter echoed through the room – some of it no doubt nervous laughter. But Myhre’s comment was more than just a witty comeback. Myhre later mentioned that her intent was not to disrespect men, but to emphasize that only an entirely different leadership could bring about the radical change she says is needed to reverse reliance on fossil fuels. Her retort appeared to resonate because it acknowledged the potential of women as creative leaders at a time when there’s little optimism for “politics-as-usual” to get a handle on climate change.
‘What if women were in charge for a decade?’
Fast forward a few months, and Myhre spoke more about her work over a video call. She recounted that moment at AGU and filled in the backstory.
“I remember that very clearly, it was a laugh line. I was not saying, let’s take every man out of power,” she said. She switched from a tone of conversation to one of oration in explaining the reasoning behind her comment.
What if women were in charge for a decade? Just 10 years – and we would hand it all back to you after 10 years. I’m going to guarantee that after 10 years, you would be in a better place. You, man, would be in a better place if all of us women were running the show. Cause you know what we’re going to do? We’re going to give you health care. We’re going to give you education. We’re going to empower your communities. We’re going to work on affordable housing, we’re going to work on diversity and inclusivity so that your queer son can go to an institution and not be, you know, bullied and harassed. Like … it’s gonna be good for you.
Myhre argues that addressing climate change requires a humanist perspective. In other words, one empathizing with people who are marginalized by the effects of climate change but lacking a powerful voice in brokering solutions. She points to “indigenous people, people from small island nations and polar communities, and the global population of the poor and vulnerable. And to people living in the future – our descendants.” Women, Myhre posits, are leaders in extending empathy to different populations, in part because many women, particularly women of color, have experienced discrimination themselves.
But Myhre also described the darker side of that AGU moment. “Afterwards, I received two messages from men. Both of the messages were, ‘I was on board with your presentation until you made that joke.’ One was a threatening note: ‘You need to watch your back because people are paying attention to you, and they’re ready to take you down.’”
“It shows you that women making jokes are unpalatable,” Myhre said.
So, here’s what some might see as an inevitable dilemma: On one hand, Myhre fiercely wants the world to be a better, more equal, more caring place. And on the other hand, she finds herself embroiled in controversy for saying so.
‘I wanted to do things that were adventurous’
Myhre grew up in Seattle and flourished in the Pacific Northwest. “I came from a background of ski instructing, river guiding, kayaking, and I had a lot of time out in the natural world.”
Many in her family are engineers, her aunt a marine scientist. “I would go tidepooling with her as a kid. Those were formative experiences.”
She developed an interest in natural science. “I realized you could go scuba diving and get paid for it. I wanted to see the world. I wanted to go places. I wanted to have adventures.”
Her undergraduate work in marine ecology led her to Costa Rica, where she dove in, quite literally, to underwater research tracking the recovery of a sea urchin species beneficial to coral reefs. But a larger lesson emerged when she experienced horrifying episodes of sexual assault, physical abuse, and institutional negligence.
“That showed me how vulnerable I was as a woman in the world. And how the stakes were not the same for a young woman trying to do science as they were for a male colleague of mine,” Myhre recalled.
A ‘come to Jesus moment’ led to studying climate change
Up until this point, climate science had not been the focus of Myhre’s work. After Costa Rica, Myhre continued her seafloor research in Bermuda, and then Hawaii, where she worked for NOAA’s Coral Reef Ecosystem Program. That proved to be the catalyst to refocus her career on climate science.
“I had a come to Jesus moment where I realized I was not equipped to understand the planetary scale of climate change.”
Myhre continued, “There’s another aspect of why I went back to graduate school – it’s because I had a problem with authority,” she said with a chuckle. “I wanted intellectual freedom, which I’ve now earned. And it’s exhilarating.”
Myhre earned her PhD in 2014 and uses a geologic perspective to understand how ancient marine ecosystems have responded to past episodes of abrupt climate change.
She has more than a dozen peer-reviewed publications to her name, along with a string of invited talks, awards, honors, and a recent TEDx talk. She’s a research associate at the University of Washington where she continues to contribute to the scientific understanding of climate change through her research, writing, and public speaking.
‘What I receive is misogyny … Shut up, lady’
Myhre has achieved scientific successes, but she recognizes the playing field is far from level. “When I contribute in public, what I receive is misogyny,” she said. “People say, ‘Shut up, lady.’” She’s seen firsthand the inequities harbored within science, academic institutions, and the public sphere.
Myhre says she has received rape threats on the internet, and she feels her expertise is dismissed through putdowns like “someone named Sarah Myhre” or “someone I’ve never heard of named Sarah Myhre.”
Furthermore, Myhre says “women inside of academic institutions have to fight for the basic right of freedom from harassment and right to access to maternity leave. Even within our academic homes, our bodies and our genders are viewed as a liability to be managed, rather than an inherent right to be protected.”
“This is about power. Who wields that power? Who gets to say what they want? Who is allowed to broker public authority?” By relying mostly on the voices of white males, Myhre argues, “scientific institutions are less effective.”
Science is ‘a career, but it’s also a calling.’ Not having to compromise on one’s values is ‘priceless.’
Her well-established concerns have led Myhre to tackle discrimination head-on. She’s a founding board member for 500 Women Scientists, and she was a speaker at Seattle’s recent Women’s March. She’s an in-demand public speaker, traversing topics from paleoecology to climate policy to communications strategies.
Myhre also engages with a non-science audience through her regular columns in The Stranger, an alternative weekly newspaper in Seattle. Through her articles, Myhre shares her passionate and sometimes feather-ruffling approach to topics such as climate impacts on the Puget Sound, responses to Trump-era politics, and personal narratives.
Her many public-facing activities landed her a slot as one of Seattle magazine’s Most Influential People of 2017. Not surprisingly, Myhre’s public admonition of misogynists and bad-faith actors in the climate change arena has drawn the ire of detractors. Even though some public sparring has ensued, she doesn’t shy away from conflict.
“Science is a career but it’s also a calling,” she said. “It’s a difficult and necessary career path right now. But the benefit is that I get to walk through the world with integrity, and I don’t have to compromise on my values.” A confident smile spread across her face. “And that’s priceless.”
Myhre’s new Rowan institute* initiative
Myhre expresses confidence that a new nonprofit she launched in early May will provide her still more opportunities to voice her strongly held principles and values. With co-founder Guiliana Isaksen, she says the new Rowan Institute will “view compassion, information, and equity as fundamental core principles in leading and communicating.” It will seek to develop “a future of strong and resilient leaders, grounded in human rights, integrity, and planetary stewardship.”
“One of the most immediate and revolutionary ways to change the world is to change who leads and how,” says Myhre, who says she will remain at the University of Washington. A key goal of the new Rowan Institute is to integrate science and social justice into public leadership. Myhre aims to help scientists and public leaders hone their communications strategies so they can become effective advocates for change.
“Leadership and communication, in a hot and dangerous world, is more important than ever,” she writes. “We all want a safer, cooler world.”
Myhre’s approach is as certain to motivate some as it is to inflame others. Given the diversity of climate change messengers and messages, there likely is no single path forward that can be universally effective. Some will be mild and empathetic, others acerbic and challenging, and different themes will connect with different audiences. For some, progress may arise only once all voices have been heard and considered, and all have felt welcome.
*The Rowan name comes from the Rowan tree, the “tree of life symbolizing courage, wisdom and protection.” Rowan is also the name of Myhre’s son.
Learn more about Sarah Myhre:
- The Story Collider Women in Science: Stories about defying expectations
- Collection of articles by Sarah Myhre in the Stranger, an alternative newspaper in Seattle
- See further exchanges in the Q&A she conducted with the writer of this piece.
- Follow her on Twitter – @SarahEMyhre