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International Women's Month: 20 inspiring women in climate

24 March 2021, 1:08 UTC 6 min read

This Women’s History Month we’re celebrating inspirational and influential women leaders in the climate community. Women, especially Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color, experience disproportionate impacts of climate change due to gender and racial inequalities that pervade communities around the world. While women face an unequal share of the burden, they are also leading on building a more equitable and sustainable future in response to the climate crisis. Across various industries globally, women have brought innovation and knowledge that has driven crucial advancement on equitable climate solutions.  

We’re highlighting 20 women in the climate community from across sectors, geographies and industries. This list is in no way comprehensive as there are countless women who are taking the lead in addressing crucial issues around the climate crisis.

Gloria Walton is the President and CEO of The Solutions Project and was Inside Philanthropy’s 2020 new President to watch. Gloria’s leadership journey is one marked with integrity and incredible impact. Before joining The Solutions Project team, she led SCOPE, one of their first frontline grantee partners focused on building power and elevating the voices within local communities in South Central Los Angeles and beyond. Gloria is informed by a deep understanding that our problems are interconnected, and therefore, so are our solutions. Gloria joined The Solutions Project board of directors in 2017 and helped create their vision – one that is radically inclusive and culture-led. Under her leadership, The Solutions Project has launched their inaugural Women’s Climate Week to celebrate fearless women leaders in the climate justice movement.  

“The solutions to the climate crisis interconnect across health, housing, work, disaster recovery, and more—just like the problems. Black, Indigenous, Immigrant, women, and other people of color, living at the intersection of these challenges, are developing secure, affordable, and localized energy, water, and food systems across the nation. With funding and amplification, these multi-faceted solutions will create the future we want—but only if we work together. As people—neighbors, organizers, innovators, consumers, voters, artists—drive change locally, industry leadership can also show up in new ways to support community climate solutions ready for scale.”

Gloria Walton, President and CEO, The Solutions Project

Rhiana Gunn-Wright first broke national attention as co-author of 'The Green New Deal'. She is also the Director of Climate Policy at the Roosevelt Institute and Former Policy Director at New Consensus.  

Christiana Figueres is Co-founder of Global Optimism and co-host of the Outrage & Optimism podcast, as well as co-author of The Future We Choose. Christiana has led the charge for years on establishing an international climate agenda and was the Executive Secretary of UNFCCC. 

Mary Annaise Heglar is a climate justice writer and co-creator and co-host of the Hot Take podcast and newsletter. Hot Take is available by email delivery directly into your inbox. 

Intersectional Environmentalist (IE) is an organization that emerged in 2020 with a main mantra to “dismantle systems of oppression in the environmental movement.” Founded by visionaries Leah ThomasDiandra Marizet and Sabs Katz as well as Phil Aiken, the IE platform launched within one week of conception and has already grown into a widespread movement and resource center. IE is disrupting business-as-usual to ensure that justice and equity are at the forefront of all climate conversations and solutions.

“Intersectional environmentalism, a term largely inspired by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw and her work with critical race theory, is an inclusive form of environmentalism that advocates for the protection of all people + the planet. It identifies the ways in which injustices affecting marginalized communities + Mother Earth are interconnected. Intersectional Environmentalism not only acknowledges these links, but brings them to the forefront of environmental activism without minimizing or silencing overt + discreet forms of oppression.”

Leah Thomas, Founder, Intersectional Environmentalist

Gina McCarthy is the Incoming White House National Climate Advisor and Former EPA Administrator. In her words, her goal as White House National Climate Advisor is to “marshal our entire government, engage every community, harness the forces of science and the values of environmental justice – all to build a healthier and more just world.” 

Melanie Nakagawa serves as Special Assistant to the President and NSC Senior Director for Climate and Energy at The White House. Prior to her recent appointment in the Biden administration, she was the Head of Climate Initiative with Princeville Global, an investment firm focused on backing rapidly-growing technology-related companies around the world. Previously, she served with the U.S. State Department as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Energy Transformation in the Bureau of Energy Resources, leading efforts to promote the global shift toward a low carbon economy as integral to economic development and addressing energy security and climate change. 

"Policy signals are truly driving young entrepreneurs coming out of schools, business schools and engineering schools to try to deliver into this economy. But it's also driving investment into [climate] solutions because they see a real policy signal pulling those solutions into the marketplace." (NEI)

Melanie Nakagawa, Special Assistant to the President and NSC Senior Director for Climate and Energy, The White House

Michelle De Pass builds from a background as a community organizer and civil rights lawyer and was former Assistant Administrator of Office of International and Tribal Affairs at the EPA. She is currently President and Chief Executive Officer of Meyer Memorial Trust and also serves on The Nature Conservancy’s board of directors.  

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is Co-founder of Urban Ocean Lab, co-creator and co-host of podcast How to Save a Planet and co-editor of All We Can Save.  

Vanessa Nakate is a Ugandan climate activist who was inspired to take action on behalf of her country and her continent by the example of her parents, who work within their communities to combat hunger, health care issues, and deforestation, and also by other young climate activists. Her new book A Bigger Picture: My Fight to Bring a New African Voice to the Climate Crisis is to be released in November 2021.  

Dominique Drakeford and Whitney McGuire are co-founders of Sustainable Brooklyn. Sustainable BK “works to bridge gaps between the sustainability movement and targeted communities through various modalities, including education and events” with a focus on fashion, food and wellness.  

Peggy Shepherd is the Founder and Executive Director of WE ACT for EJ. She has a long history of organizing and engaging people in community-based planning and campaigns to address environmental protection and environmental health policy locally and nationally. She is a national leader in advancing environmental policy and the perspective of environmental justice in urban communities — to ensure that the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment extends to all. 

“So when we talk about environmental racism and environmental injustice, we're also talking  about being engaged in environmental decision-making. If people of color and low-income  people who are most affected by the issues are never in the rooms where the decisions are being made and the solutions are being recommended, we are going to continue to have two different worlds, two different realities, like we're seeing right now today. Two different realities do not make a unified country.” (CBS News)

Peggy Shepard, Founder and Executive Director, WE ACT for EJ

Lolita Jackson is the new Executive Director of Communications & Sustainable Cities at Sustainable Development Capital, LLP. She was previously at the NYC Mayor’s Office of Sustainability as the climate diplomat for NYC working with cities around the world, as well as the United Nations and climate networks to share NYC's work on climate.  

Sunita Narain is currently the Director General of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), the treasurer of the Society for Environmental Communications and editor of the fortnightly magazine, Down To Earth. As a writer and longtime researcher, she has continued to cover how environment must become the basis of livelihood security of people in India. 

Nemonte Nenquimo co-founded the Indigenous-led nonprofit organization Ceibo Alliance in 2015 to protect Indigenous lands and livelihoods from resource extraction and was elected the first female president of CONCONAWEP, the Waorani organization of Pastaza province. Nemonte led a historic legal victory against the Ecuadorian government, protecting half-a-million acres of primary rainforest in the Amazon, setting a precedent for Indigenous rights across the region. 

“The government tried to sell our lands to the oil companies without our permission. Our  rainforest is our life. We decide what happens in our lands. We will never sell our rainforest  to the oil companies.” (One Earth)

Nemonte Nenquimo, Co-founder, Ceibo Alliance

Deb Haaland made history when she became the first Indigenous person to serve as a cabinet secretary. Prior to her appointment as Secretary of Interior, she was one of the first Native American Secretary to serve in Congress where she has a track record of championing environmental justice and climate change issues. She is a member of the Pueblo of Laguna and a 35th generation New Mexican. 

Patricia Espinosa is Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). As former Ambassador of Mexico and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Mexico, she brings more than 30 years of experience at the highest levels in international relations, specialized in climate change, global governance, sustainable development, gender equality and protection of human rights. 

Riddhima Yadav works with Goldman Sachs’ Sustainable Finance Group to drive sustainable solutions related to climate transition and inclusive growth. She is also a non-residential fellow at The Aspen Institute.  

Marilyn Waite is a Program Officer in Environment at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. She manages the foundation’s grantmaking on climate and clean energy finance with the ambitious goal of addressing climate change by accelerating the transition to a climate-friendly economy. 

Xiye Bastida is a climate justice activist and Co-founder of the Re-Earth Initiative. Xiye is one of the lead organizers of the Fridays For Future youth climate strike movement. For the first climate strike in March 2019, she mobilized 600 students from her school and has taken a citywide leadership role in organizing climate strikes.