Women in climate change: Jessica Tierney

Jessica Tierney

Jessica Tierney

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."

Jessica Tierney joined the University of Arizona in 2015 and is an associate professor in the Department of Geosciences in the College of Science. She was a lead author on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Sixth Assessment Report's Working Group I report.

Q: What is the focus of your climate research?

A: My research focuses on understanding climate change in the geological past, so that we can better prepare for the future. Studying past climate change is important, because humans have already raised carbon dioxide levels well above anything seen in documented history, so our short observational record of climate can't tell us what the Earth does when greenhouse gasses are high. We have to go back over 2 million years to find the last time that carbon dioxide levels were this high. Ancient warm climates in particular are helpful, because by studying how the patterns of ocean temperature and rainfall changed during these times, we can better predict what might happen by the end of the century. But how do we study these old climates? Obviously, we don't have a time machine, so we have to rely on clues written in natural archives of climate change. In my lab, we analyze the organic chemical properties of sediments deposited in the deep ocean or in lake basins on land. We have techniques that can tell us how hot or cold or how wet or dry it was. By putting this information together with climate model simulations, we can get a good view of how the Earth's climate behaved.

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

A: I got into studying past climates because of my interest in history, and how the study of the past informs our social, political and economic behavior today. Similarly, the Earth's history tells us how the climate system will react in the upcoming decades. However, despite knowing how the Earth can reconfigure itself in warm climates, I was shocked when, in summer of 2021, we saw a series of extreme climate and weather events including heat waves, megafires, record-breaking flood events and powerful hurricanes. For the first time, I felt like, "Wow, this is really happening!" The latest IPCC report has, for the first time, linked extreme events like these to human-caused climate change. It got me thinking about how little we know about extreme events in the past. Because climate extremes happen over days, they are hard to reconstruct from the geological record. However, there are some special archives that capture ancient flood events, for example, and computational power has gone up to the point where we can simulate ancient climates at higher spatial and temporal resolution than ever before. I'm interested in this challenge of understanding paleoweather, which would directly connect to climate changes that are happening to people all around the world, right now.

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

A: I want to encourage everyone to stay hopeful. Climate change is a huge challenge to address, and it can be overwhelming to process that and also figure out where you fit in. However, humans got us into this, and we can get ourselves out of it as well. There is a lot of talk in the media about warming levels, like 1.5 degrees Celsius for example, and many people are worried about what happens if we pass those. It is important to know that there isn't a single threshold out there beyond which there is no point of return. Things get incrementally worse as you keep warming, but we can stop at any time and avoid the worst case scenarios. The problem ultimately has to be addressed at a community and government level, but as an individual there are a lot of things you can do, like get involved in local efforts to improve access to renewable energy – like community solar projects – or public transportation. It's also important to vote, so that candidates – from local to national – that have climate change on their agenda are in positions of power. We definitely have the technology to limit climate change, so I'm optimistic. Science gives me hope.

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: The great thing about climate science is that it is everywhere and so interdisciplinary. You can be a climate scientist in academia, industry, governmental offices, tech startups and more. There are so many opportunities.

We clearly need more women and nonbinary folks in climate science and policy across the board. Working on the IPCC AR6 report, I was really struck by the fact that only about a quarter of the authors were women. Although there were some prominent women leading the working groups and chapters, the process is very much dominated by men from Europe and North America. There are a lot of voices missing and perspectives left out. We have to ask ourselves why climate science has pushed people away and break down those barriers where they exist.

To aspiring women in climate sciences, I would say built a support group of mentors, peers and friends who will root for you and have your back when times get tough. Believe in yourself and your science. We need you!