This week, in tandem with the UN General Assembly, many students, politicians and scientists will participate in “climate week”, a campaign aimed at engaging “international leaders from business, government and civil society to showcase the unstoppable momentum of global climate action.” The Kerry Initiative at Yale is an official host for an affiliated event — a series of panels on climate change. It is one of the few events to be held outside of New York and has a killer line-up of high-level experts in the energy and climate field coming to speak. Ernest Moniz? Jonathan Pershing? Be still my beating heart! It really doesn’t get any better than that.
Except if you are not a white male.
Of the 14 speakers to speak on expert panels, 11 are white men, 3 are women and Dr. Kim Jim is the only person of color represented. Without a doubt, these speakers have contributed immense amounts of work toward a progressive climate agenda. However, John Kerry’s ‘66 conference unfortunately also highlights a more obscure undercurrent in environmental science at large and the climate movement in particular: the unstoppable momentum of whiteness. The biggest hindrance to building a progressive climate movement is not a lack of expertise — it is a lack of meaningful representation.
It is no secret that the climate movement is disproportionately represented by white people, and disproportionally male at that. From Al Gore to Bill McKibben to Bill Nye, a shocking number of climate leaders are white males. And a large part of the reason for that can be found right here in our universities. The National Science Foundation’s report, “Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering,” clearly shows that while diversity among the student body in STEM fields is increasing, it has barely changed where it matters most: tenured professor positions. Tenured professors direct the future of their fields: they choose and supervise Ph.D. students, design curricula, attract grants and are the faces of their departments. And in the past 20 years, the faces have not changed much.
An article published in Science last Friday, “Without inclusion, diversity initiatives may not be enough,” brings home this point. Co-authored by Maclovia Quintana ’11 FES ‘14, the article highlights the challenge of retaining underrepresented minority graduate students in science, which is a fundamental part of many faculty diversity plans, such as Yale’s own $50 million roadmap.
Unsurprisingly, the article points to the importance of mentors, networks, and role models in their respective fields. It is a disturbing fact, then, that last year’s Graduate and Professional Student Senate report from Yale surveying diversity in our graduate schools on campus showed that 40 percent of respondents said they didn’t have a faculty mentor that could serve as a role model in their program. As a recent graduate from the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, this doesn’t surprise me — I had to look far and wide for a tenured female professor in my field. And I am a white female.
I’m highlighting this because in the end it isn’t just about increasing diversity superficially; it’s about inclusion of underrepresented minorities where it matters: in tenured positions, in our politics — and on our expert panels when possible
The International Conference of Sustainable Development at Columbia, an event similar to Kerry’s and happening at the same time, shows us what a diverse expert speaker set can look like. Obviously there are differences in these two events, in terms of scope, size and scale. The Yale conference is a smaller, one-time event with significantly less planning and resources. The Columbia conference, pulled together by Jeffery Sachs, is an institution in its own right. I also know from having organized conferences at the University myself that Yale’s policy of not offering honorariums to speakers deters many who cannot — or do not want to —speak for free from the Yale brand.
I do not mean to say that the speakers at Kerry’s climate conference do not have valuable and important expertise: They do, and we would do well to heed what they have to say. These people have been front and center in fighting for renewable energy and better climate policy. But if we truly want a more progressive and inclusive — and ultimately more effective — climate movement, we need to work harder at putting others at the movement’s center, along with their expertise. And we need to do it now — our climate and our future depend on it.
Sarah Sax is a 2017 graduate of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Science. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .