Sandra Díaz: "I prefer to speak of a global environmental crisis, rather than a climate crisis: a crisis of nature, the climate, and the increasingly unequal social fabric."
Sandra Díaz is a global expert in biodiversity and ecology. This Argentine biologist goes further in her work, as she establishes a connection between the preservation of nature and the economic and social models that threaten it. Designating her as a "guardian of biodiversity," in 2019, Nature magazine included her in its top 10 most influential personalities in science. She also received two important awards: the Princess of Asturias Award for Technical and Scientific Research and the Bunge y Born Award. In 2021 she was recognized with the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award for classifying the traits of 200,000 plant species and their functions in ecosystems around the planet.
She is currently a senior researcher at the National Council for Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET) at the Multidisciplinary Institute of Plant Biology. She is a tenured professor of Ecology of Communities and Ecosystems at the National University of Córdoba and directs the DiverSus Nucleus for Research in Diversity and Sustainability. Since 2019 she has been a visiting professor (ad honorem) at the University of Oxford (UK). She has written over 200 articles in scientific journals and nine books and reports, which ranks her among a prestigious group representing the top 1% of the most cited and referenced scientists on the planet within her specialty.
How does climate change affect nature and biodiversity?
Climate change is not a separate problem from the destruction of nature and the accelerated loss of biodiversity. They are presented as separate problems - with climate having more media visibility - but they are inextricably linked. Atmosphere and climate are the results of living things. And on the other hand, the tapestry of life - plants, animals, microorganisms - on which we depend for our physical, symbolic, and social continuity is severely affected by climate change. For this reason, I prefer to speak of a global environmental crisis rather than a climate crisis: a crisis of nature, climate, and also the increasingly unequal global social fabric.
What is the differential impact of climate change on girls and women?
These crises have a more significant impact on the most vulnerable regions, social sectors, and people who, in most cases, have contributed the least to the current situation because they are the ones who consume the least, demand the least, or pollute the least. But they are the ones who are in the most exposed conditions, in the places most vulnerable to climate disasters or pollution, in the sectors of the cities where services are the most precarious, with the worst access to healthcare systems or water and land in the rural sectors. These people have the least leverage to negotiate for better conditions.
This differential vulnerability includes women, and even more so poor, elderly or very young women, and heads of household, those responsible for the health and essential maintenance of the family, particularly in the most deprived sectors.
Why is it important to promote gender equality in the climate crisis and disaster risk reduction?
All sectors - including the most historically underprivileged - can do a lot for a better future, both to mitigate avoidable negative changes and adapt to those already inevitable. There is talk in different environmental forums of the need for transformative, profound, social, economic, political change, of how we position ourselves before the rest of living things, including humans and non-humans, and how we appropriate their lives. This change is not just superficial "green patches."
As such, movements for greater equality and access, including those for gender equality, have the enormous value of making visible the differential vulnerabilities and strengths associated with different genders intertwined with other social actors.
How important are plants for biodiversity protection?
Far from being a passive green scenery, plants are the pulsating heart of the biosphere. They are an essential part of biodiversity; they are practically the only energy source for the rest of life on earth.
Photosynthetic organisms, including plants, created millions of years ago the oxygen-rich atmosphere we enjoy today; they regulate the climate like a giant air conditioner and provide food for animals. In addition, they generate innumerable food, medicinal, fiber, and building material benefits and represent a huge portion of the symbolic world of all societies. Without plants, we literally would not be human; we would not be human at all.
What are the contributions of women scientists to a more sustainable and resilient world in the face of climate change?
The contributions are many and diverse. The ones I know best have to do with ecology and the environment. For example, in Argentina, the restoration of ecosystems, the implementation of the so-called "nature-based solutions", the promotion of technologies and policies for a more efficient and equitable use of energy, the survey and defense of natural heritage, the fight for food sovereignty and for a healthier environment for those of us who are now and the next generations, the field study of vector-borne diseases, the joint study with local stakeholders of how to deal with climate change, the rescue of ancestral management techniques, the design of more socially and ecologically sustainable urban spaces, the sustainable and fair management of wildlife, ethnoecology and the dialogue with indigenous and local knowledge, to name a few concrete practical contributions.
And of course, all these applications are based on fundamental knowledge and discoveries in ecology, climatology, physics and chemistry, economics, anthropology, and philosophy of nature. These advances are more theoretical, but without them, practical advances would not be possible. In all these advances, there is a significant presence of women scientists and technologists. In this sense, Argentina, although there is still a long way to go, has a unique position in Latin America and in the world.
How can we incorporate more women in decision-making to create environmental policies with a gender perspective?
Women have also gained access to some of the highest positions in national science and technology organizations. For example, in recent years, we have seen women become the first female presidents of CONICET (Marta Rovira and Ana María Franchi), the first female chief of staff of the National Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation (Carolina Vera), and the first female president of the National Academy of Sciences (Beatriz Caputto). But it is also true that these eminent examples do not disprove the fact that, numerically, the female presence in science and technology -very important in the early stages of the career- is "rarified" towards higher hierarchical and responsible positions and is still unsatisfactory at all levels in many disciplines.
Access to scientific careers and positions of power within the scientific and technical system involves two things. First, there are the legal and regulatory frameworks that create the space for participation, rights, and guarantees and are therefore essential. But to fully occupy this space, it is necessary to act on the social models and narratives in which these models are framed.
These narratives are the stories we tell ourselves and others about what happiness, success, fulfillment, duties, and what we should be, as a person and as a society mean, and which determine profoundly what we do, what we do not do, and what we value and prioritize. A transformative change such as the one I mentioned above is of course, a change at the level of rights and material conditions, but it is also a change at the level of social narratives, including those that are woven and are woven around women.
Did you have a female scientist as a reference?
When it comes to choosing 'role models,' I have always been attracted to ideas, especially originality and the ability to synthesize, and personal integrity. I can mention Georgina Mace, an extraordinary biodiversity specialist who combined great theoretical acumen, leadership, humility, and respect and care for people, but unfortunately, she died in 2020. At present, I have many Argentinian colleagues in different scientific fields, some much younger than me (others not) who are my constant inspiration, whom I prefer not to name individually because this note is brief, and I do not want to commit the injustice of forgetting any of them.