A sepia-tone illustration of a woman in period dress facing away with lab items in front of her

Have you heard of Eunice Foote?

Apr 12, 2022

by Patricia Soochan

Feature image: Drawing by Carlyn Iverson, NOAA Climate.gov

Eunice Newton Foote was an American amateur scientist and women’s rights activist and the first person to report a correlation between CO2 and increased air temperature. Her finding, which led her to extrapolate that higher levels of atmospheric CO2 would increase Earth’s temperature, was published in her name in the American Journal of Arts and Sciences in 1856, but was presented on her behalf by Dr. Joseph Henry, physicist and the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference that year.

Despite her groundbreaking discovery and hypothesis, it is Irish scientist Dr. John Tyndall, who is recognized as the “father” of climate science and who published more sophisticated studies on the greenhouse gas effect in 1861. In July 2019, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration celebrated the 200th birthday of Eunice Newton Foote to bring overdue recognition to this “hidden climate science pioneer” whose “experiments foreshadowed the discovery of Earth’s greenhouse effect.”

This Earth Month, let us continue to celebrate women climate scientists and make sure that their contributions are not sidelined or forgotten.

The UN website on climate change features seven women scientists on the forefront of climate action in areas ranging from mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions (Dr. Yukiko Hirabayashi) to the importance of the integration of Indigenous knowledge into climate science (Dr. Sherilee Harper).

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s BioInteractive website features several prominent women climate scientists. The BioInteractive short film, The Science of Climate Change, highlights the research of fire scientist, Dr. Crystal Kolden, soil biogeochemist, Dr. Asmeret Asefaw Berhe (President Biden’s nominee to lead the Department of Energy’s Science Office), and ice core scientist, Dr. Kathleen Wendt. Dr. Liz Hadly and Dr. Megan Morikawa discuss their research in a video on the impact of climate change in Yellowstone National Park and a video on coral reef damage in American Samoa.

We still need more women in climate science

This February, environmental writer Renee Cho of Columbia Climate School published an article, Why Climate Science Needs More Women Scientists, which highlighted the gender imbalance in climate science. Cho referenced an article by science journalist Ayesha Tandon of CarbonBrief, which revealed that only 122 women were among 1,000 of the world’s most influential climate scientists identified on Reuter’s 2021 Hot List and that women accounted for only 22% of all authors and 12% of the lead authors of the 100 most-cited climate science papers between 2016 and 2020. [The underrepresentation was noted to be more glaring for scientists from the global South. For example, only five African scientists were on the List.]

Similarly, a 2018 PNAS paper on the United Nations (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) authorship cited a lack representation of women voices, developing countries, Indigenous knowledge, and a diversity of disciplines. However, a 2022 Nature paper on the results of a survey of gender bias in the IPCC showed that the percentage of women authors of IPCC reports increased steadily from less than 10% in 1990 to over 30% in 2021.

She also shared that “As the impacts of climate change worsen, conditions for women around the world are worsening.” Droughts, floods, and heat waves brought on by climate change make it more difficult for women who haul water and grow food. They have less access to education and resources as well as fewer rights like owning land and borrowing money.

Like Eunice Foote, women are often overlooked. Having more women scientists in the climate science arena would bring more focus to the issues impacting women – which would benefit all of society.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, if women farmers had access to the same resources as men, they could increase their yields by 20-30%. This in turn could raise total agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5-4%.

For another comparison, the International Monetary Fund reported that US GDP could increase by 5% if more women were able to participate in the labor force. Gender equity matters.

Patricia Soochan is a Program Officer and member of the multidisciplinary team at Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), with primary responsibility for the development and execution of the Inclusive Excellence (IE1&2) initiative. Previously she had lead responsibility for science education grants to primarily undergraduate institutions, a precursor of IE. She has served as a councilor for the Council on Undergraduate Research and is a contributing writer for AWIS Magazine and the Nucleus . Prior to joining HHMI, she was a science assistant at the National Science Foundation, a science writer for a consultant to the National Cancer Institute, and a research and development scientist at Life Technologies. She received her BS and MS degrees in biology from George Washington University.

Editor’s Note: The contents of this article are not affiliated with HHMI