Fighting the Good Fight: Talking Climate Change with Dr Minal Pathak
Climate change is one of the biggest crises of our times. Research says that women are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change than men. However, when it comes to climate science and policy, men dominate the discourse. In fact, female climate scientists have been particularly targeted in recent years. Overcoming this disproportionate representation is a huge challenge. But there is hope!
“Believe in yourself and hang in there,” is the advice Dr. Minal Pathak gives to aspiring young women scientists. Dr. Pathak is the first Indian woman in the technical support unit of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and is the lead author on the forthcoming second assessment report on climate change and cities. She is a Professor at Ahmedabad University’s Global Centre for Environment and Energy and is also a member of IPCC’s task force on gender. A doctorate holder in environmental science, Dr. Pathak was a visiting scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Here’s how she describes her journey in an exclusive interview with The Weather Channel India.
Did science come naturally to you?
Many children have an inherent love for science. However, it needs to be nurtured for it to turn into a career option. I was driven by curiosity and asked a lot of questions while growing up, which helped me learn more. Being a voracious reader helped. After a while, I decided that I wanted to pursue a career in environment science.
Did that choice come with any challenges?
To start with, yes. There were very few good research institutions and Universities in Ahmedabad during my initial student years and environmental science was not very popular. I was strongly discouraged against pursuing environment science—several people told me that it wouldn’t lead to a stable career. In addition, my research associates struggled with low salaries in temporary positions even after receiving PhDs while friends in conventional careers were earning much more. Swimming against the tide wasn’t easy.
Was there a turning point in your career?
It was always a dream of mine to join an international university. At 40, I took a sabbatical to go to MIT. Subsequently, joining the IPCC was definitely a turning point in my career. Working in the multicultural environment within the IPCC has enhanced my professional abilities. I have learnt to appreciate diversity.
In addition, I had the good fortune to work alongside great women scientists— Valerie Masson-Delmotte (France), Cynthia Rosenzweig (USA) and Joyashree Roy from Jadavpur University— who’ve done remarkable work on climate change.
What keeps you motivated?
Being a woman, a mother and a teacher. I’ve had the opportunity to inspire many girls at the University to pursue careers in sustainability and climate change. My 12-year old daughter is my biggest inspiration! For her, I am compelled to work harder to leave behind a better planet.
What can India do for climate change mitigation to ensure a low-carbon future?
India’s commitment to addressing climate change is evident in its national policies and plans. For example, India’s National Action Plan on climate change sets out clear missions to address climate change. The National Solar Mission and the National Mission on Electric Mobility are showing great promise for a low-carbon future for India. Interestingly, sub-national actions including urban plans and policies are also shaping our sustainable future cities. There are significant opportunities to align climate change with sustainable development and we need to tap into, implement and upscale these. For example, electric vehicles can address the air pollution problem in the immediate term and climate change mitigation in the long-term. Similar opportunities exist for climate-smart buildings, urban planning and design, green and blue spaces in cities, urban farming, and green spaces.
How are women and climate change connected?
Women are more vulnerable to climate extremes due to various reasons. For instance, countless girls and women in India still spend hours collecting water (which has become increasingly scarce in many climate change hotspots). It is essential that climate plans account for these gendered impacts. India will see a huge transformation in the coming years and I feel women should be central to this transformation, both as drivers and beneficiaries. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change established a task group to improve gender balance and address gender-related issues within the IPCC. We are seeking inputs from member countries on strategies to achieve this. This is an important first step at a global level. I am hopeful that this agenda will trickle down to many countries and find a place in national and sub-national policies.
Why are there so few women scientists?
Yes, there are fewer women in specialised research compared to men. Research by Stanford University stated that the standard measures of academic performance are biased against women in quantitative fields due to the stereotype threat, rather than actual ability or potential. Women may feel less confident in their abilities not due to any inability but because of societal factors. We need to address this and create an environment of acceptance and ambition for future women scientists.
However, things are definitely getting better. Women now have more opportunities compared to when I began my career. However, there is still a long way to go in terms of gender parity. Encouraging and supporting women to opt for a career of their choice and establishing good role models in school, colleges and the industry can inspire women to take up a career in science. Building more research-oriented universities is another way. We are receiving an encouraging response from women at Ahmedabad University because of our research.
What is your advice to young women aspiring for careers in science?
The demand for science and technology graduates is continuously increasing. This is the age of innovation and disruptive change. Women can excel and choose new career paths from a range of different avenues in science. In addition to job satisfaction and good pay cheques, women can also contribute to society and create a virtuous cycle of inspiring more women.
My message is this: you are empowered to make your own choices; ask questions, especially difficult ones, and seek answers to those. Because, we need MORE WOMEN IN SCIENCE!
This article is a part of The Weather Channel India's week-long interview series marking the International Day of Women and Girls in Science.