Women in climate change: Beth Tellman

Woman standing in shallow water

Beth Tellman doing flood research in El Salvador.

Beth Tellman

During Woman's History Month, University of Arizona News is spotlighting some of the many women on campus who are working on climate change-related issues in various disciplines.

In a recent commentary published in Nature, world-renowned climate scientist and UArizona Regents Professor Diana Liverman and her co-authors write that climate change will have disproportional impacts on women, who in many societies have the responsibility to provide food, water and child care but are more likely than men to lack access to land, insurance and disaster relief. Liverman and her co-authors also write that women play crucial roles in climate change research, response and adaptation.

UArizona has a long legacy of women researching climate change, and today there are outstanding women researchers working on climate-related issues in nearly every college on campus, from early career scientists to Regents and Distinguished Professors. 

"I'm so proud of the number of amazing women working on climate issues at the University of Arizona," Liverman said. "We cover a wide range of expertise – from climate science and communication to policy and art. We are making a difference in what we know and what we can do from the local to global."

Beth Tellman

Beth Tellman

Beth Tellman joined the university of Arizona in 2021 and is an assistant professor in the School of Geography, Development, and Environment in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.   

Q: What is the focus of your climate research?

A: My research addresses the causes and consequences of global environmental change in vulnerable populations, with a focus on access to water, flood risk and land use change. One of the main data sources I use in my work is satellite imagery. I often describe what I do as "socializing the pixel" or understanding the social processes behind environmental change captured in satellite image pixels and leveraging satellite data to improve human well-being. I am increasingly using machine learning techniques to extract the highest fidelity information from these images.

Floods affect more people than any other type of disaster and are expected to grow as the climate changes. I use satellite data to improve our understanding of where floods have happened and are currently happening and develop applications of these satellite-based flood maps for emergency response, recovery, environmental justice and new types of disaster risk financing, like insurance. I co-founded a company, Cloud to Street, to develop some of these applications and the engineering required to make them useful, which can't be done in an academic context.

I recently published the Global Flood Database in Nature, a set of 913 flood maps available for public download, finding up to 86 million people from 2000 to 2015 have moved into areas we saw inundated by floods in the past two decades.

Q. What originally got you excited or worried about climate issues and where do you think your work can make a difference?

A: I experienced the impacts of climate change firsthand in 2009, when I was living in El Salvador researching coffee on a Fulbright Scholarship. The communities I planned to work with were devastated from landslides and flooding by Hurricane Ida – the first one from 2009, not 2021 Ida, which affected the U.S. – which was the strongest of the 2009 season. It was a strong El Niño year, followed by a strong La Niña year and caused unprecedented flooding. Everyone in El Salvador was talking about climate change and its lived impacts as we were helping people dig out of their homes. I couldn't imagine that climate change would make this situation more frequent or possibly worse and wanted to dedicate the rest of my career to building better social and financial systems to respond to floods.

My work cannot stop the flood waters from coming, but I can reshape who gets impacted by the water and to what degree it impacts their livelihoods. Satellite data can help us understand flood risk better by seeing water when it hits the ground anywhere in the world. I aim to increase access to the data and applications to build flood resilience, from forecast-based financing to new kinds of insurance or recovery programs where no one gets left behind.

Q: What's one thing you want everyone to understand about climate change? 

A: You can do something about climate change, and we all have a role to play. It affects everyone and every issue, so find a way you can get involved from where you sit. Can you reduce greenhouse gas emissions in your workplace or company? What is the climate adaptation and mitigation plan of your city, and can you get involving in shaping it by voting or showing up to town hall meetings? Read a book on what to do. I suggest "Under the Sky We Make," by Kimberly Nicholas or "This Changes Everything," by Naomi Klein. Sign up for the Hot Take newsletter by Mary Annaïse Heglar and Amy Westervelt. Read climate science fiction – I love and suggest Octavia Butler, for example – in a reading group and talk about climate change with your friends and family. Climate justice is linked with racial justice. How can you work on those efforts or get more involved? Donate to a climate justice organization. My new favorite is the Anthropocene Alliance, a coalition of community-based organizations fighting for climate justice in the U.S.

We had the power to change and warm the planet and we did and are doing it. That means we also have the power to cool the planet and slow this down.

Q: What advice do you have for young women or girls who may be interested in a career related to climate research or policy?

A: Find what you love. Think about what makes you light up and come alive, then apply that to climate change. We need more women and nonbinary folks in the climate movement to show up with their best selves. If you want to get involved in climate research, get started as early as possible doing science. You can be a citizen scientist or get experience as an undergraduate. You can be a climate researcher as a social scientist, geographer, economist, hydrologist, geologist, epidemiologist, ecologist, really from any field. Follow the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change and read the summaries. Consume climate science, policy and social movement news and immerse yourself in the issue. Consider rooting your experience in working with a community suffering the impact from climate change, if you don't already live in one. There are many opportunities through AmeriCorps or Peace Corps to spend physical time in places and with people impacted by the changing climate.

Find your climate lady or nonbinary friends. It's tough out there, and you need camaraderie, someone to laugh, complain or even cry to. We can build power together and keep feminizing climate science.