A ‘Hyperactive’ Climate Activist on the Need for Women in Climate Leadership

‘You cannot talk about climate change without talking about justice,” says Alicia Pérez-Porro, PhD

Photo: www.aliciaperezporro.com

The climate activist and scientist Alicia Pérez-Porro is, in her own words, “hyperactive and does a lot of things.” But even that might be an understatement.

Though she used to study the effects of the climate on sea sponge genetics, the marine biologist now focuses on climate activism and justice, which she says enables her to directly engage in the climate conversation in a way that research did not. Now, she’s the president of an association of Spanish scientists in the United States called ECUSA; is the scientific coordinator at the Spanish research center CREAF; co-founded Ellas Lideran (“women lead”), a group connecting gender equality and climate change leadership; is part of the leadership team at the organization 500 Women Scientists; and wrote a children’s book called The Secret Life of Viruses. She’s also busy raising two kids.

Pérez-Porro sums it up like this: “What I do now is very related with justice because basically, I work connecting science and society at a lot of different levels. You cannot talk about climate change without talking about justice.”

Future Human talked to Pérez-Porro about her jump from climate research to activism, why we need women in climate leadership, and why she pushes back when people say climate change primarily affects the world’s vulnerable.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Yasmin Tayag: How did you get your start in climate activism?

Alicia Pérez-Porro: One of the reasons why I decided to become a marine biologist is because of my grandparents. They had a house on a beach in Spain. We still have the house, but my grandparents passed. I used to spend my summers with them and that’s my happy place. We used to go fishing, and diving, snorkeling. We used to spend the whole day. We used to have a boat. We used to spend the whole day sailing. My most dearest, happiest memories are from my summers with them in that beach house. That’s how I developed this passion and love for the ocean.

I have this memory of my grandma always taking a trash bag or a plastic bag or a whatever bag, every time that we were going on the boat. We were collecting trash from the ocean. I remember my grandparents always saying, “You need to let the ocean cleaner than you found it.”

They created this habit in me. I was very little. And I still do it every time that I go to the beach with my kids, I bring a bag with me and I take trash with me. I think that got somehow in my system, and I never forgot that learning, and I always cared about the relationship between humans and nature and how humans were affecting nature.

How did you jump from genetics research to activism?

I tried to add climate change as much as possible into my PhD, but when I ended my PhD, I was like, “Okay, now I really want to do more climate change. Genetics is really interesting, but I don’t want to do genetics just for genetics. I want to use this as a tool to answer ecological questions.” And that’s how I started doing more things related with climate change. I got a little frustrated with a lot of things. One of them was, “I don’t feel that this is useful for me because I don’t feel that I am having an impact or contributing to a change.”

And then, I became a mom, and that’s the most cliché thing ever, but my world changed and my priorities changed. I started thinking a lot about the planet that my daughter was going to inherit, and I was like, “What the actual fuck?” I’m so sorry, but I’m like, “What are we doing?”

And it got me. I started developing this feeling of urgency. Okay, this is a mom comment, but I was like, “If nobody’s going to do this, I am going to do it.” I know there’s hundreds and thousands of people working in fixing this issue, but that was more or less my feeling.

The climate activism work you’re doing now seems especially geared toward women and minorities. Tell me more about that.

[At] the Association for Spanish Scientists in the U.S. (ECUSA), we don’t work specifically on climate change, but we organize a lot of things related with science communication, and some of them are about climate change. I think that our role in the U.S. is important because we do science communication in Spanish, and I think that that’s very important because there’s a big community of Hispanic people in the U.S.

Linking this with justice, the Hispanic community in the U.S., most of them don’t have access to science. A lot of associations like SACNAS and 500 Women Scientists are making sure that minorities in general are getting the right information related with science, but not only about climate change. We make sure that 90% of our scientific education efforts are in Spanish. And we don’t forget about the kids, so we also go to schools. I do think that increasing science literacy in minorities is also a way to contribute to people understanding climate change.

It’s important, especially when you think about the fact that the people who are most affected by climate change tend to be minorities and marginalized groups.

Yep. But also, I’m going to correct you here.

Oh, yeah. Please.

Because I agree with you that the people that are most affected are minorities and that here, there’s a clear component of justice, but I think that we need to start saying very loud that climate change is affecting absolutely everyone.

There is a disconnection with people that don’t even define themselves as a minority or that think that, “Oh, climate change is only affecting,” — and forgive me for this — “to poor people.” And it’s like, this is not an issue affecting only minorities. This is an issue affecting absolutely everyone. No one is safe. Everyone needs to act. I think that the narrative of “climate change is affecting minorities more or is affecting developing countries more,” it is true, but it’s also semi-damaging the movement because somehow some people are thinking that this is not about them. And I do think that this is about everyone.

That’s such a great insight. Thank you for correcting me! A big part of your work focuses on female leadership and climate change. Can you tell me about the issues you’ve seen there and what you’d like to see happen?

I think that the climate change problem is also a leadership problem because I think that […] we need different leaders in the world that lead thinking long-term, and not only election-term.

That doesn’t mean that women do that better than men, not at all, but relating this to women, I think that, in general, women have this cathedral thinking more embedded in their leadership style than men. And I think that empathy is going to be very important in the leadership style that we need. Empathy is a key component. Leaders. Who is the most amazing leader nowadays in the world?

Jacinda!

Jacinda Ardern. I think that a high percentage of the people in the world are going to answer this question with the same name. And why is she so amazing? Why is everybody so in love with her and her leadership style? I think that empathy is one of the reasons. We don’t know if she is actually thinking about her reelection, but doesn’t seem like it because she cares beyond the reelection. I think that that’s very much the leadership style that we need because we’re not going to fix climate change in four years, or eight or 20, so we need to really think really long term, and we need a different type of leadership and that’s where women in leadership enter the conversation. Let’s see if they just lead and see if we can do things differently.

Somehow, you’ve also had time to write a children’s book. What’s that about?

I am a mom, I have two kids. At the beginning of the pandemic, my older — she is now four — she was coming home and she was very scared about coronavirus. She didn’t want to leave the room. She didn’t want to go to school. She didn’t want to go to the backyard. She was so scared that I realized that the information that she was getting at school was not very accurate.

I started talking to her about how viruses are actually very important for life, and on this planet, there’s millions of different viruses, they control blooms in the ocean, they help to the ecological equilibrium of the planet, and only a few of these viruses get you sick. We started talking about vaccines. I helped her to connect human health with environmental health and animal health, which is this trendy topic, nowadays: one health.

Other colleagues were basically saying, “Oh, this is the same problem that my kids are experiencing.” So we decided to write a book and that’s our book, where we explain exactly this: You need to take care of the planet, and you need to take care of animal health to be able to care and work towards human health.

And this is exactly what you’re saying, right? How can you work in care of climate change without working on justice or talking about justice? If you think about the 17 SDGs [United Nations Sustainable Development Goals], for instance, I see them and I think of climate change for absolutely all of them. How are you going to fix climate change without fixing gender equality or without fixing poverty or hunger? Everything is related.

Last question: What is your advice for people who feel stuck in the same way that you did in academia and want to feel like they’re making more of a difference?

I think that activism is very important. I do think that activism is key to engage with society and explaining to people why this is important and making them understand. And also voting. Voting. I say this in every talk, in every interview, voting is the most — it’s like the cherry on the cake of activism. You need to go out and vote and you need to understand what your voting means, and what your vote means and need to look for information about the candidates. This applies for every country and every election. It doesn’t have to be a national election. Is your candidate understanding climate change? Do they have a plan? What is the plan? It’s a real plan? It’s a plan that includes energy transition?

All these things are important because activism is fantastic and it’s very important. I do believe in this bottom-up change, but change is not going to happen only bottom-up. You also need the top-down. This is where voting is very important because you need this new type of leader leading the world. You need to see this change in leadership, and you need to take your responsibility on who is in charge of the world by voting.

Editor, Medium Coronavirus Blog. Senior editor at Future Human by OneZero. Previously: science at Inverse, genetics at NYU.

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