Grassroots 2022: Katharine Wilkinson on transformational climate leadership

Katharine Wilkinson

The next decade will be the most pivotal in human history.

That’s what climate advocate and self-described climate feminist Katharine Wilkinson emphasized at the beginning of her keynote speech at AIA’s 2022 Grassroots conference.

Wilkinson circled back to that statement later, but first, she made sure to highlight the often-overlooked contributions of scientist Eunice Newton Foote to present-day climate change research.

“In 1856, Eunice Newton Foote theorized that changes in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could affect the Earth's temperature,” Wilkinson said. Through a simple experiment using an air pump, two glass cylinders, and four thermometers, Foote tested “carbonic acid gas” (the 1800s term for what we now call carbon dioxide) against common air. When placed in the sun, Foote found that the cylinder with carbon dioxide trapped more heat and stayed hot longer. This allowed her to connect the dots between carbon dioxide and planetary warming.

Despite Foote publishing her findings in a paper and presenting them at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science the same year, it is the Irish physicist John Tyndall who most often gets credit for laying the groundwork for our modern-day understanding of climate change.

Foote was also a women’s rights activist and a signatory of the 1848 Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments.

“We kind of have to wonder if Eunice Newton Foote found herself remarking, as very many women have, ‘Dude, I literally just said that,’” Wilkinson said.

The anthology that Wilkinson co-edited, All We Can Save: Truth, Courage and Solutions for the Climate Crisis, released in 2020, also begins with this story–because, Wilkinson said, “It has everything to do with our prospects for securing a just and livable future today.” The anthology collects the contributions of 60 women who are leading the way on climate in different ways.

The anthology, she said, was born out of inspiration, but also frustration about “the imbalance of voices that have shaped the climate conversation to date … Because there are better futures that are possible, but they keep getting delayed or denied because we have a fractured and incomplete ‘we’.”

What’s missing at the very center of the conversation, she says, are the work and wisdom of women. “I want to unpack that and draw out some insights that apply to transformational climate leadership broadly,” Wilkinson said.

“Gender equality itself is a critical climate solution”

While no one is invulnerable to the impacts of climate change, those who benefit from greater societal privilege may have more built-in resilience at their disposal. Women and girls, Wilkinson pointed out, face greater risk of displacement and death from extreme weather disasters. Dozens of studies also show that people of color and women are more concerned about the risk that climate change poses.

“Climate change quite literally turns up the heat on the existing vulnerabilities and injustices that people face,” she said.

Even as women are more likely to be impacted by climate change, Wilkinson said, they are also more likely to be excluded in virtually every climate related decision-making space and denied access to platforms to speak about climate. White women made up only about a quarter of the guests interviewed on climate on broadcast TV news in 2020, and women of color were under 7%.

“Who’s communicating, who’s shaping the public narrative, has everything to do with what we see as right and wrong, possible and impossible,” Wilkinson said. Women bring a kind of leadership that is critical for securing a just and livable future–a kind of leadership, Wilkinson notes, that is wide open to people of any gender identity.

“So in other words, it’s not just about who is leading, but about how we, all of us, are leading in this moment,” she said.

Four key qualities that define transformational climate leadership

Wilkinson outlined what she believes are four key qualities for “transformational climate leadership”–elaborating on what she believes is a leadership crisis at the heart of the climate crisis.

“I firmly believe that growing, nurturing, expanding this kind of climate leadership is vital,” she said.

The first quality is “a clear focus on making change rather than just being in charge”–moving beyond ego, competition, and control, dynamics that impede good work.

The second is strong leadership in the area of healing systemic injustices, rather than deepening them. “That means no more calculated sacrifice zones for drilling mining, fracking, and refining pipelines–no one casually left behind, no profiteering as if it’s progress,” Wilkinson said.

The third is “embracing heart-centered and not just head-centered approaches.” That may mean fear, grief, indignation, “fiery courage, wracking uncertainty, all of it.” Doing the inner work, she said, is often critical to effecting change in our work in the world.

The fourth is recognizing that building community is a requisite foundation for building a better world. “Individualism has always been a myth,” she said.

“We can’t hold climate grief alone. We can’t do the work alone. And oftentimes it is that sense of partnership and collaboration that can actually keep us going when the work is hard and it feels like the boulder is rolling back down the mountain,” she said.

“What can I do?”

In a closing Q and A with 2022 Grassroots chair Emily Grandstaff-Rice, FAIA, Wilkinson said that in answer to a question that she frequently receives – “What can I do?” – the framework that she finds most helpful is asking yourself what you can do personally, professionally, and politically. “It’s like a little three-ring circus,” she said, laughing.

As climate change relates to the work of architects, Wilkinson said that one of the things that she thinks about is “how much of our challenge is a challenge of imagination" -- a challenge that architects face in their work every day.

“Part of what you all have to do in your work is help people imagine a thing that doesn’t exist, and then will exist, in the most tangible, visceral way,” she said. So this is what she would like architects to think about moving forward: "How can those of us who are not designers by training or trade still be purveyors of imagination?" Helping to answer that question could play a key role in helping to solve the climate crisis.

Image credits

Katharine Wilkinson

Katharine Wilkinson

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