Fighting fire with fire: Science must leave sexism behind to tackle the climate crisis

15 Oct 2019

Image: © Brent Hall/

Having witnessed a catastrophic forest fire sweep through her hometown, Dr Jessamyn Fairfield now sees similarities in how we are watching the world burn in the face of climate crisis, and the inequality preventing us from finding solutions.

Science is sexist, the world is on fire, and I want to do something about it. But, sometimes, the most important problems are the ones that feel the most intractable.

We know that it is desperately important to address the climate crisis before our planet is changed irrevocably. We also know that despite the decades-long efforts of activists, sexism in science limits the contributions and the success of those who don’t fit the scientific stereotype of straight white men. With the threat of a climate emergency looming, we need the skills of everyone. We can’t get by if we only allow some people into the fight.

Both these battles can feel unending, yet they are both of critical importance. If those with power make things so bad that everyone else gets tired of fighting, what do we do? Do we give up? How do we dismantle the structural oppression, and the environmental oppression, that seem to be woven into our society?

‘We evacuated under an apocalyptic column of smoke and a blood red sun, watching from our cars as the fire raced down the last mountains into the town’

The world is filled with problems that feel bigger than the actions that we, personally, can take. I learned this lesson as a teenager when my hometown nearly burned down.

I grew up in the mountains of New Mexico, and the forests there have fire as part of their natural ecological cycle. For a long time, people didn’t know that, and the US Forest Service spent the early part of the 20th century fighting all forest fires equally. They didn’t realise that some are needed to clear out excess underbrush, that some trees don’t seed properly without forest fire levels of heat, and that the whole growth balance of those forests relies on periodic small-scale fires.

The ponderosa pines in the forests of New Mexico are fire resistant. When they mature, their lower branches fall off and they can withstand low brush fires every few years in unmanaged forests. Not knowing the difference between ‘healthy’ and catastrophic fires, for decades we put out all the fires, until we realised that this just made the forest fires that did happen much bigger.

The Cerro Grande fire started as a controlled burn intended to clear out excess underbrush during a drought period. Unfortunately, it was not only incredibly dry but incredibly windy and the fire broke past the containment lines, surging through the dry forest directly for my hometown. We watched it approach for three days before being evacuated, and I remember our last night in town using my stepdad’s telescope to watch tall ponderosa pines go up like birthday candles as the fire crowned.

Green-tinged satellite image showing a large plume of smoke streaming into Oklahama and Texas from a burning red point labelled as New Mexico.

The smoke plume of the Cerro Grande forest fire captured via a satellite photo taken on 11 May 2000. Image: NOAA/Wikimedia Commons

We evacuated under an apocalyptic column of smoke and a blood red sun, watching from our cars as the fire raced down the last mountains into the town. The next few days were hellish, watching scattered news reports that tried to assess – from first responder reports and helicopter views through smoke – what parts of the town had or hadn’t burned. Everything was reported burned at one point or another – the high school, the national laboratory, the street I lived on. Many of these reports turned out to be inaccurate but the wait was agonising.

In the end, the fire burned nearly all the forest around the town and destroyed a few hundred homes. A terrible tragedy, but no lives were lost and things could have been much, much worse.

Residents were allowed to return a week later when the fire, still burning, had progressed further north into the mountains. By the time it was extinguished it was the largest forest fire in New Mexico state history.

After our return, we had to go back to some kind of normalcy – studying for exams, making plans for prom – with the mountains around us a blackened reminder of what had happened. Like most tragedies in life, it felt impossible to get through, until we got through it. The trees are growing back on those mountains now, and the town has recovered and rebuilt what was lost.

‘Environmental catastrophe is an unsettling backdrop for our day-to-day lives. So is the sexism that still permeates so many aspects of our culture’

When I look at the effects of the climate crisis on our planet, I can only hope that it will be like the Cerro Grande fire. We know that we are already in the realms of disaster but, if we act now, perhaps we can minimise the damage done, so that the existing climate change and species loss are tragic but not catastrophic.

This is not possible unless we use the talents of everyone on this planet. Women cannot be excluded from this work, and the sexism of science and society must be vanquished if we are to have any hope of real change.

Recent studies by the World Economic Forum show that if women were fully included in labour markets, the financial cost of addressing this climate emergency would be met. We can see that even now, inspirational female leaders such as Greta Thunberg and Christiana Figueres are part of a movement of women who are trying to change things for the better.

Environmental catastrophe is an unsettling backdrop for our day-to-day lives. So is the sexism that still permeates so many aspects of our culture. But we can and must fight these disasters, in our individual actions and with our collective power.

I have spent years trying to do my part to fight sexism and climate change with individual choices, and am now learning how to address the bigger picture through Homeward Bound. Homeward Bound is a leadership initiative for women in science that aims to address our global sustainability crisis by empowering 1,000 women across the world who have the skills to solve this problem. This global network of women will fight the climate crisis and change the face of leadership by addressing systemic issues and working together.

We need new approaches to tackle these complex issues – we cannot continue with business as usual.

A grid of six seedling pots with green shoots sprouting from them.

Three-month old ponderosa pine seedlings. Image: Jessamyn Fairfield

Once a forest is burned, like the one in my hometown, it takes many years to come back. My mom grew 50 ponderosa pine seedlings this year for planting in the mountains around our town. They grow incredibly slowly and it will be decades until they are the size of the trees we lost. Until then, the damaged ecosystem is far more vulnerable to further disruption (including more fires) than the healthy one was.

Our planet is similarly damaged already, by human actions that have changed the atmosphere, the ocean and, thus, the habitat for all living beings. We are already past the point of no return. What will you do to ensure our planetary legacy is not on fire?

By Dr Jessamyn Fairfield

Dr Jessamyn Fairfield is a nanoscientist and physics lecturer at NUI Galway, as well as a noted science communicator and the director of Bright Club Ireland. She is currently fundraising for her participation in Homeward Bound, and you can support her journey by donating here.