Women in climate change: Courtney Crosson

Courtney Crosson

Courtney Crosson

Fair representation and broad expertise are essential when tackling an issue as global and urgent as climate change, says University of Arizona researcher Diana Liverman.

A world-renowned climate scientist, Liverman co-authored a recent commentary in Nature about gender bias and barriers experienced by authors for the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.   

She and her commentary co-authors, including UArizona alumni Miriam Gay-Antaki and Niki vonHedemann, write that although the number of women researching climate change has grown over the last 30 years – including the number of women who have served as authors on IPCC reports – there remains a need for greater gender balance and reduced barriers to advancement in the field.

In the article, Liverman and her co-authors argue that climate change will have disproportional impacts on women. The responsibility to provide food, water and child care often falls to women in many societies, they write, but women are more likely than men to lack access to land, insurance and disaster relief. As caregivers, farmers, community leaders and more, women also play crucial roles in climate change response and adaptation, Liverman and her co-authors write. Women are also critical to advancing research on climate change and to providing scientific expertise on how climate is changing, what the impacts are and how society can respond.

For women working in climate science, there can be several challenges, including unequal access to training and funding, fewer promotions and research citations, lower wages and greater family responsibilities. Women are also less likely than men to be nominated for awards or senior leadership positions, and additional barriers are faced by women from developing countries and women of color, Liverman and her co-authors write.

The IPCC has now created a working group to promote equal opportunities for participation and leadership, a gender-inclusive environment and awareness training.

The University of Arizona 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," said Liverman, a Regents Professor in the School of Geography and Development in the UArizona College of Social and Behavioral Science. "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."

During Woman's History Month, University of Arizona News will spotlight a few of these women and what motivates their work. 

Courtney Crosson joined the University of Arizona in 2016 and is an assistant professor in the School of Architecture and director of the Drachman Institute in the College of Architecture, Planning, and Landscape Architecture.

Q: What is the focus of your climate research?

A: My current research advances decentralized water systems to address pressing problems facing cities – whether water scarcity in the U.S. Southwest or safe and affordable water access in informal settlements in Nairobi, Kenya. These water issues are all part of the impacts of climate change. I seek to understand a city's ability to move toward a net zero or net positive water futures – meaning a future where we replace the same amount of water, or more, than we use – by using analytical models of various adaptations across built, natural and social systems. I am excited by the unique opportunity architects have to make a large impact on water use by connecting across indoor and outdoor uses and across the building and urban scale. Increasingly, we see that solutions to diversify the urban water supply toward increased resilience against acute and chronic shocks are decentralized and at the scale at which most architects work. More broadly, I have spent my career working in the areas of net zero and net positive carbon and water design. For example, as the director of the Drachman Institute at the University of Arizona, I am currently a consultant on Tucson's upcoming Climate Adaptation and Action Plan.

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

A: Since I was a kid, I enjoyed the natural world. I suppose you can't help but want to fight for the things that bring you joy. More specifically, I got into net zero and net positive energy and water design when I was hired to design and construct a secondary girls boarding school in rural Kenya. It was a place where girls normally did not make it past primary school due to household demands, cultural norms and pregnancy. In this rural location, there were no power lines or water pipes to connect to. If the school was to have energy and water, I had to figure out how to harvest it through architecture, and design a sustainable system so that the resources would continue to be there far into the future.  

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

A: The built environment – buildings, infrastructure, landscape – has long been seen as a main contributor to climate change. Through thoughtful design that is performance-based and able to adapt and respond to conjoined natural and social systems, the built environment can be one of the main solutions, not just reducing its impact but participating as a regenerative solution toward a net positive carbon and water future.

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: When you walk into a room, the world may see and respond to you one way in the first five minutes of meeting you. You can't control that. That's been my experience as a woman in architecture. If you hold to your convictions and belief in your talents, that's what the world remembers and advances. That's what you can control. And I also say that some of my most amazing mentors have come from surprising places. Stay open.