Mother Nature’s daughter
By Erin Peterson
When Minnesota native and environmental scientist Anne Christianson ’07 was selected in 2016 to be a part of Homeward Bound, a three-week leadership initiative and expedition to Antarctica for women in science, she was more prepared than most of her colleagues for the trip to the frozen continent. But she admits that not even her home state’s cold winters had sufficiently prepared her for the towering glaciers and subzero temperatures of the majestic, forbidding terrain.
“It’s hard to find words to do it justice — it was such an otherworldly experience, beautiful and harsh,” says Christianson, a Ph.D. student who has done biology fieldwork globally and helped develop environmental policy for members of Congress in Washington, D.C. Seventy-six women from around the world — six of them American, including Christianson — were selected for the Homeward Bound expedition for both their scientific accomplishments and their potential as leaders.
The expedition began at the southernmost tip of Argentina, where the women boarded a ship to Antarctica. Along the way, they encountered dozens of whales in the icy waters, and when they finally saw Antarctic shores — just crossing the Drake Passage took two days — they saw tens of thousands of gentoo, chinstrap, and Adelie penguins.
Once Christianson and her shipmates arrived, they visited several research stations on the continent, including the U.S. base, Palmer Station. They spoke with onsite scientists who were studying climate change, among many scientific phenomena. It was eye-opening in a way Christianson couldn’t have anticipated. Hearing from scientists who had seen glaciers vanishing with their own eyes brought the theoretical metrics and models on climate change to life. “For example,” she says, “they’d explain how there once was a glacier right out of the front steps of the base. Ten years later, that glacier was 300 yards up the hill.”
For Christianson, it was a chance to find new ways to bring awareness to a topic she is passionate about: the often troubling effects of climate change on women around the world. It was an opportunity to build a powerful network of allies as she seeks to call attention to — and alleviate — the burden that many of the world’s most vulnerable people face.
AN EYE ON THE IMPACT OF CLIMATE CHANGE ON WOMEN
In a way, Christianson had been preparing for that Antarctica trip — including her work with and for women — her whole life. She’s a fierce feminist, a trait that runs in her family. “My grandmother and great-grandmother called themselves feminists when it was very much a dirty word,” she says.
Stepping onto St. Olaf’s campus helped Christianson layer in additional interests in politics and the natural world: she double majored in environmental studies and political science, with a concentration in women’s studies.
But it was an Interim study abroad experience in Ecuador that helped solidify what would end up driving Christianson’s future career: the intersection of environment and politics. In Ecuador, she saw up close how short-term economic concerns often trump environmental ones. For example, she studied rain forest ecosystems and native tribes who had little contact with the wider world. She saw how quickly these fragile systems and communities could be upended by companies that wanted to build roads and pipelines to extract resources beneath the earth’s surface.
Christianson became fascinated by the way that the environment and political reality interacted in nuanced ways, but she wanted to do more than just write a paper about it. “I wanted to figure out how to apply the lessons of politics and policy to actual problems,” she says.
She was willing to go to great lengths to do just that. Three months after graduation, she headed to the University of Oxford in England to get a master’s degree in biodiversity, conservation, and management.
Her friend Greg Bohrer ’07 says Christianson’s instinct to go big to pursue what’s important to her is both typical of her and awe-inspiring. “I think a lot of students stay nearby after graduation, but she left the country. It just felt like she was adventurous on a whole different level,” he says.
As it turned out, that was just the beginning. Christianson, who excelled at Oxford, began contemplating whether to pursue a doctorate degree. To help make her decision, she took several short-term positions to conduct biology field research. She found herself climbing mountains in St. Lucia to track parrots, living in a Cambodian floating village to study sustainable fishing, and observing the cooperative breeding behavior of meerkats in the middle of the Kalahari Desert in South Africa.
Christianson knows that it sounds exciting and dramatic — but she admits that she couldn’t get passionate enough about a single species to offset the very real challenges of fieldwork. “It is a huge lifestyle choice,” she says. “You are in the field for months and months of the year, and it is very physically demanding. It’s often very lonely. At the same time, it’s important to try a lot of things and gain unique experiences before you start planning your next steps — whether that’s earning money, focusing your career, or having a family. Fieldwork also gave me an in-depth understanding of how scientific data is gathered, which has been instrumental to every one of my subsequent jobs.”
As she was working out her feelings on fieldwork, the sudden death of a cousin in the 2010 Haiti earthquake led her to leave her work in Africa months before it finished. That devastating loss also caused her to rethink her priorities. She was ready for something new.
She decided that an environment-linked job designed for impact would be a better fit, so she opted to pursue a policy-related position in Washington, D.C. Christianson landed a position with Congressman Tim Walz, who represents Minnesota’s First Congressional District (which includes Northfield). She then parlayed that work into a role with Congressman Keith Ellison (Minnesota’s Fifth Congressional District, which includes Minneapolis), where she was working on an array of projects, including environmental and energy policy. One issue particularly drew her attention: mounting research showed that climate change was having a disproportionate impact on women around the world — both in developed nations such as the United States and, even more profoundly, in developing nations.
It’s not necessarily an intuitive idea, Christianson admits. But a 2013 article published in WIREs (Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews) Climate Change addressing the uneven impacts of climate change on women suggested that the impact of climate change stems from a series of interconnected issues. Take for example the fact that women in the United States still have fewer economic resources than men.
As a result, they’re more likely to live in impoverished urban areas. These areas are subject to the “urban heat island” effect — extreme temperatures in cities due to steamy roof and pavement surfaces. This effect will likely grow stronger because of climate change, which will make already-hot city summers even more scorching, leading to more cases of heat stress and respiratory ailments among its poorest residents, who are primarily women. Women are also less likely to have the resources to combat the effects of extreme weather events linked to climate change: in one chilling statistic from Oxfam America, 83 percent of poor single mothers in New Orleans were displaced after Hurricane Katrina.
In countries where women rely more directly on natural resources to keep their households running, the effects of climate change can be even more dramatic. “If women are already walking three miles a day to gather water and fuel to clean and cook, which in many societies are gendered household tasks, climate events like wildfires and droughts can increase the amount of time spent on these tasks. Will this put women at physical risk? Will they be taken out of school to support their families? We know that lack of education leads to higher birth rates and higher income poverty, which further increases climate vulnerabilities. There are all sorts of cascading effects,” explains Christianson.
Following her work with Ellison, Christianson lobbied for the Ocean Conservancy, advocating for ocean policy — specifically involving marine spatial planning, arctic issues, and marine debris — in Congress, the Obama administration, and federal agencies. Today, she’s working toward a Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota in natural resources science and management while still keeping her toes in the Washington, D.C., waters. Last summer, she took two short-term positions: one as a policy fellow on the Committee on Natural Resources for the U.S. House of Representatives and the second as an intern for the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
PARTICIPATING IN THE HOMEWARD BOUND EXPEDITION
It was while she was working for the Ocean Conservancy that Christianson landed a spot in the Homeward Bound expedition, which energized her to continue her own work linked to climate change while also supporting the efforts of other scientists doing related work.
Between the stunning scenery and talks from experts, the cohort of women covered significant career-linked ground and zeroed in on the ways that they could push their work in science and technology further. They also got coaching to help them become better leaders and strategists, and they learned the fundamentals of science communication so they could share their research more effectively with the media and the world. Just as valuable, the women connected with one another, finding ways to collaborate and support each other’s work in meaningful ways.
While such topics could have just as easily been taught in a conference room in Atlanta as they were in Antarctica, Christianson says that working in such an isolated environment made a real impact. “The experience forced us all to be present and appreciate what we were seeing,” she says. “It was challenging and personal, but it was also very powerful.” And it helped her see the enormous environmental diversity of the planet up close, and internalize why it’s worth taking big, if sometimes politically difficult, steps to preserve it.
While Christianson expects to have some sort of future in the political world, she is careful not to look too far ahead. The new presidential administration — which has taken a stand against national and global climate initiatives — makes funding for her work murkier than it would have been a year ago.
That said, Christianson believes that she and women like her are well positioned to lead the pursuit of important environmental policy as years of scientific research and consensus are being dismissed.
“The work that’s being done on climate change — and particularly in the relatively pristine, untouched wilderness I saw in Antarctica — is a reminder of how important it is for women to stay in our scientific fields despite the challenges facing us in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math]. Women have always had to work harder to prove ourselves, so perhaps we are better prepared to lead the fight for science and climate change action. It’s worth it to find ways to protect our environment and prepare for future challenges.”