Eunice Newton Foote rarely gets the credit she’s due. In 1856, she theorized that changes in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could affect the Earth’s temperature, arriving at her breakthrough through experimentation. With an air pump, two glass cylinders, and four thermometers, she tested the impact of “carbonic acid gas” (the term for carbon dioxide in her day) against “common air.” When placed in the sun, she found the cylinder with carbon dioxide trapped more heat and stayed hot longer. From this simple experiment, Foote connected the dots between carbon dioxide and planetary warming—and she did it more than 160 years ago.
Her paper, “Circumstances Affecting the Heat of Sun’s Rays,” was presented in August 1856 at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and then published. That was three years before Irish physicist John Tyndall published his own more detailed work on heat-trapping gases, work typically credited as the foundation of climate science. Did Tyndall know about Foote’s research? It’s unclear, though he did have a paper on color blindness in the same issue of The American Journal of Science and Arts as hers. In any case, we have to wonder if Eunice Newton Foote ever found herself remarking, as so many women have: I literally just said that, dude.
Foote wasn’t only a scientist. She was involved in the early movement for women’s rights, too. Her name appears on the list of signatories to the 1848 Seneca Falls “Declaration of Sentiments”—a manifesto created during the first women’s rights convention in the United States—right below famed suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Faithful to both science and equality, Foote, it seems, was a climate feminist.
Climate feminism is exactly what we need, because our planetary crisis has never been gender neutral. Climate change is a powerful “threat multiplier,” making existing vulnerabilities and injustices worse. Especially under conditions of poverty, women and girls face greater risk of displacement or death from extreme weather disasters. Early marriage and sex work—sometimes last-resort survival strategies—have been tied to droughts and floods.
There is growing proof of the link between climate change and gender-based violence, including sexual assault, domestic abuse, and forced prostitution. Tasks core to survival, such as collecting water and wood or growing food, fall on female shoulders in many cultures. These are already challenging and time-consuming activities; climate change can deepen the burden, and with it struggles for health, education, and financial security. Such realities make gender-responsive strategies for climate resilience and adaptation critical. And they mean gender justice will be an unattainable dream without bold climate action.
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Why We Need More Women Leading the Fight for the Planet