Women in climate change: Kirsten Engel

Kirsten Engle

Kirsten Engle

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."

Kirsten Engel joined the University of Arizona in 2005 and is a professor in the James E. Rogers College of Law. While continuing to carry out her university responsibilities, Engel served as an elected official in the Arizona Legislature, with two terms in the Arizona House (2016 though 2020) and one year in the Arizona Senate (2020 through 2021).

Q: What is the focus of your climate research?

A: I research the role of state and local governments in catalyzing climate action at a larger geographic scale. Specifically, I research the how, why and when of the spread of climate policies adopted by state or local government, whether the spread is "horizontal" – to other state and local jurisdictions – or "vertical" – to the federal government in the form of congressional or agency action.

My interest in climate action extends beyond the classroom, however, and into the political arena with my service to the state as an elected member of the Arizona Legislature. My political experience has enriched my teaching as I have now created courses on the legislative process for law and undergraduate students.

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

A: Moving to Arizona almost 20 years ago, I was struck by how Arizona is ground zero in terms of climate impacts, from extreme heat, drought and wildfires to the loss of biodiversity. Arizona also reveals the manner in which the costs of climate change do not fall evenly, but instead fall disproportionately upon persons on fixed incomes, people of color and members of our tribal nations who are particularly hard hit by the resulting financial strain of crippling utility bills and drought. Nevertheless, it is also clear that many in the state can benefit from climate action, making use of its plentiful sunshine to lead the nation in renewable energy while creating jobs in the clean energy sector. My research helps identify the economic benefits of state and local action in Arizona and how such action can catalyze action on the federal level.

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

A: Climate change is a global problem, but solutions to climate change are not limited to actions at the international level. Indeed, climate action is not the "property" of any one level of government. In a federal system of government like the United States, state and local governments can function as laboratories of innovative climate policies that can be copied or amended by other jurisdictions and can trigger action at the federal level.

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: Just as there is no one solution to climate change, there is no one career path in climate research and policy. It is a field open to the science major and the English major alike. The important point is that you are excited about what you can discover and show the world about how the climate works, how it is changing, and the pathways for human responses to those changes.