Three women who battled environmental issues

By LAUREN PADILLA | October 18, 2018

Just last week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a new report with harsh warnings. 

“Limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” the report stated.

In its findings, the IPCC, a United Nations body and chief international organization dedicated to addressing climate change, emphasized that minimizing global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as opposed to a two degrees Celsius cap, could have extensive environmental impacts. Though a half-degree difference in global warming might seem trivial, the seemingly miniscule threshold will likely determine the severity of climate issues for years to come — from the complete devastation or survival of coral reefs to the potential of millions displaced by sea level rise.

When considering the current state of global climate issues, from the raging wildfires stretching across California this fall to Cape Town’s water crisis last May, it may seem tempting to feel powerless, especially in light of the slow international and domestic response to mounting environmental threats. Nevertheless, the IPCC has stressed that it is still possible to make the essential environmental, political and social changes necessary to curb climate change. 

Throughout history, women have played a critical role in confronting environmental crises. Many had to fight tirelessly to highlight the environmental problems they studied, often enduring gender-based critiques of both their personal and professional lives. It’s clear that protecting the future of the environment will require dedication from women across the planet. To help inspire a new generation of leaders, here is a list of three women who helped build the world’s understanding of the environment. 

1) Isabella Aiona Abbott — Formerly an ethnobotany professor emerita at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, Abbott blended her scientific research with her passion for Hawaiian culture. Born in 1919 in Hana, Maui to a Native Hawaiian mother and Chinese father, Abbott developed an early interest in Hawaiian plants, especially seaweed. 

Abbott attended the University of Hawaiʻi for her bachelor’s degree in Botany, and in 1950, she earned her PhD in Botany from the University of California, Berkeley. This made Abbott the first Native Hawaiian to graduate with a doctorate in science, ever. Two decades later, she became a tenured professor at Stanford, the first woman to serve as a member of the school’s biological sciences faculty. 

Over her lifetime, Abbott published over 150 papers and several books, garnering an international reputation as an expert on central-Pacific algae. 

“More than 200 algae owe their discovery and scientific names to Abbott,” Jennifer Crites, from University of Hawaiʻi’s Mālamalama magazine, wrote. As a scientist, Abbott emphasized the importance of approaching science from a Hawaiian perspective, stressing her wish to show the sophistication of Hawaiian culture. 

“Why is this necessary?” Abbott said in a video shot just before she died. “So that Hawaiians are not put in second- or third-class status of Native people who don’t know anything.” 

Her research often focused on invasive species of seaweed and their influences on the Hawaiian environment and people. Although Abbott passed away in October 2010, throughout the ‘90s she remained an active member of the scientific community, working as a member of the Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

2) Rachel Carson — Perhaps best known for her book Silent Spring, which helped to both catalyze the prohibition of the pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, better known as DDT, and the formation of America’s Environmental Protection Agency, Rachel Carson was a scientist, activist, civil servant and writer. Carson was born in Pennsylvania in 1907. Passionate about nature, Carson graduated magna cum laude in 1929 from Chatham University, before earning a Master’s degree from Hopkins in the early 1930s. In 1936, Carson started working for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, the second woman the bureau had ever hired. From the 1940s to the 1950s, Carson wrote a number of books, including The Edge of the Sea and The Sea Around Us, which won the 1952 National Book Award. 

In the late 1950s, Carson adopted her son while moving to Maryland to serve as her mother’s caretaker. Around the same time, Carson began to explore the pesticide DDT, studying its adverse impacts on environmental and human health.

Carson openly condemned the actions of chemical companies and the government for their refusal to disclose DDT’s risks to the public. Her fearless objections sparked a surge of criticisms, with many opponents attempting to dismiss Carson as another “crazed” woman or vilify her as a political traitor. One commentator attempted to undermine the validity of Carson’s research in a New Yorker letter.

“Miss Carson’s reference to the selfishness of insecticide manufacturers probably reflects her Communist sympathies, like a lot of our writers these days... isn’t it just like a woman to be scared to death of a few little bugs!” the letter read. 

Still Carson persisted, helping to safeguard Americans against DDT and other harmful pesticides. 

3) Margaret Murie — One of America’s first female conservationists, Murie was a critical figure in the establishment of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the 1964 Wilderness Act. Although she was born in Seattle in 1902, Murie spent most of her young life in Alaska. In 1924, Murie earned a degree in Business Administration from the University of Alaska, becoming the school’s first woman graduate. After her graduation, Murie married Olaus Murie, who was then an employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Murie went on to co-lead an expedition into Alaska’s Upper Sheenjek Valley, researching wildlife and gathering data to support federal protection. In 1960, Murie helped to sway President Eisenhower to create the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In the mid-1970s, Murie joined a group charged with studying land in Alaska for potential federal protection, and in 1980 she testified before Congress. Her work eventually helped to create the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which covers over 100 million acres of land in Alaska. In 1998, President Clinton awarded Murie the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of her contributions.

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