Diversity in STEM Fields Is Key to Stopping Climate Change

October 2, 2015

On November 30, representatives of 196 nations will converge on Paris to discuss how best to move forward in combating climate change, with the ultimate goal of keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius. At the same time, thousands of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) students throughout the United States will be preparing for final exams. Any one of these students could make the next big breakthrough in climate change mitigation technology. As such, promoting diversity in established and emerging STEM fields is no longer just a goal but rather an absolute necessity.

President Obama has said that ”when Americans are called on to innovate, that’s what we do—whether it’s making more fuel-efficient cars or more fuel-efficient appliances, or making sure that we are putting in place the kinds of equipment that prevents harm to the ozone layer and eliminates acid rain.” But in order to do that, we need scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians. Take, for example, the issue of green energy. By burning fewer greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels, we get ever closer to the goal of COP21, the aforementioned conference occurring this November in Paris. Innovations in nanoscience and nanotechnology increase the efficiency of solar cells, an important fossil fuel alternative, by providing cheaper and more efficient silicon. Continued innovation in these and other STEM fields will be required to achieve long-term progress.

Because of the nature of the problem they are trying to solve, the professionals developing these technologies should come from diverse backgrounds and identities. Climate change is a human rights issue because of its broad and indiscriminate effects as well as its disproportionate negative consequences for marginalized populations. Researchers and advocates have argued that we must examine not just where the most severe storms might hit, what locations will be flooded when sea levels rise, and so on, but also which groups of people are likely to be most affected by these trends. This vulnerability analysis shows that low-income communities that lack power and influence in society are in the greatest danger.

So far, we are not doing particularly well at achieving greater representation in these fields. An American Community Survey report issued in 2013 found that only 6 percent of our workforce were employed in a STEM occupation. Of those, only 26 percent were women (even though women as a whole make up half of the overall workforce) and 70.8 percent identified as non-Hispanic whites. This disparity seems to result, at least in part, from unequal education: The United States Department of Education reports that “women, underrepresented minorities, first generation college students, and students from low-income backgrounds leave STEM fields at higher rates than their counterparts.”

Confronting this issue of inequality at the professional level must start with confronting inequalities in our educational system. Mentorship in STEM, as in any professional occupation, is lacking. The primary responsibility for mentoring programs has not been given to any one body, and frequently starts too late in a professional’s development to have an effect on the attrition in STEM in primary, secondary, and post-secondary education. It is in the best interests of colleges, universities, and companies to leverage their considerable expertise toward this effort, as doing so will ultimately provide them with more qualified and numerous students and professionals.

In order to increase opportunity in STEM for current students, the way we teach these subjects must change. If STEM students come from a diverse background, instructors teaching these students cannot approach teaching with a one-size-fits-all approach. Research has shown that traditional lecture-and-textbook approaches do not cater to women and minorities, as these groups are more likely to show interest in people than in things, and showing these ideas in isolation rather than in context disengages underrepresented groups in STEM. This was known as far back as 1990, but the educational system is slow to change. In the same way that addressing climate change is urgent, increasing the talent pool of STEM professionals in the educational pipeline must be looked upon with the same necessity.

Until the people designing technologies to help alleviate the impact of climate change represent the populations affected by climate change, the technology will ultimately come up short of its full potential. STEM research and development will benefit immensely when the experiences of those who are doing the work are as diverse as the populations they aim to help. COP21 is working to establish the urgency of the fight to mitigate climate change, but in order to reduce global climate impacts, we first need to look at the educational system producing the minds that are working to do just that.