Twenty-five trailblazing women leading the fight against climate change
March 7 - With so many extraordinary women engaged in the battle against climate change, the biggest task in compiling Reuters Impact's list of trailblazing women for International Women's Day was whittling down our long list to only 25. We reluctantly decided not to include the likes of Christiana Figueres, Greta Thunberg, and U.N. Environment Programme chief Inger Andersen, who already have a high global profile for their work, in order to shine the light on women whose contributions may have flown under the radar.
We’ve included activists and academics, corporates and entrepreneurs, women of different ages working in finance and policymaking from around the world. And of course, the women we’ve named here are just the tip of the iceberg. There are many, many thousands of women working at the coalface of climate action whose achievements deserve to be recognised and celebrated.
Marina Silva, environment minister of Brazil
Brazil’s new environment minister is the daughter of poverty-stricken Amazonian rubber tappers. As a teenager, Silva lost her two sisters and mother to disease introduced after bulldozers arrived to construct a highway near their hamlet. She founded the independent trade union movement with Chico Mendes, and in the 1980s the pair began the empates movement, peaceful demonstrations by rubber-tapping communities refusing to be expelled from their forest homes.
Mendes was assassinated by cattle ranchers, but Silva continued the battle, which ended in the state protecting thousands of hectares of tropical forests as sustainable extractive reserves, managed by the communities. She was appointed as Brazil’s environment minister by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in his first term as president in 2003, and was credited with reducing Amazonian deforestation by 70%, but left in 2008, frustrated that he was not doing enough. Now she is back in the same role in Lula’s government, after he agreed to toughen his pledges to end deforestation.
Jennifer Morgan, Germany’s climate secretary
Germany’s state secretary for climate is U.S.-born Jennifer Morgan, a long-time resident of Berlin, who had to take out German citizenship last year to take up the job. Morgan, who was inspired to become a climate activist after reading the book Fighting for Hope by Green Party founder Petra Kelly, has been a fixture at U.N. climate conferences since the mid-90s, when she was coordinator for the U.S. section of Climate Action Network. She directed WWF’s global climate change programme from 1998 to 2006, and had stints heading up climate programmes at think-tank E3G and the World Resources Institute, before joining Greenpeace International as co-executive director in 2016.
Jumping the fence into politics has been a baptism of fire for Morgan, particularly having to defend her government’s heavy-handed reaction to demonstrations against expanding coal, but she hasn’t shirked tough questions and is credited with helping to bring about the ground-breaking agreement at COP27 on loss and damage.
Mia Mottley, Barbados prime minister
One of the most electrifying moments at COP27 was when Mia Mottley, Barbados prime minister, said it was fundamentally unfair that the poor people in the Global South, whose “blood, sweat and tears financed the industrial revolution” now face the “double jeopardy” of having to bear the brunt of climate change, while rich countries failed to live up to their promises.
In the run-up to COP27, Mottley built up a coalition of countries committed to overhauling the financial system to unleash trillions of dollars of investments to the climate frontlines, called the Bridgetown Initiative. Mottley, who was elected in 2018 with 70% of the popular vote, has an ambitious plan to phase out fossil fuels by 2030. Her vision is for every home to have solar panels and electric vehicles. At Mottley’s urging, Latin America and the Caribbean became the first regions in the world to agree an action plan for the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. She is also the co-chair of the Global Leaders Group on Antimicrobial Resistance.
Susana Muhamad, Colombia environment minister
Colombian president Gustav Petro has made combatting deforestation a top priority, and like his counterpart in Brazil, has appointed a firebrand environmentalist to deliver on his pledge.
The new Colombian environment minister is a political scientist and environmentalist who first became known for her fierce defence of a nature reserve that a former mayor of Bogota wanted to develop. She was one of the founders of the Fracking-Free Colombia Alliance, and served as secretary of environment for Bogota.
As the former director of climate action planning for Latin America at the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, she has worked with local governments to develop climate action plans under the Paris Agreement. She is an advocate for communities affected by development and land rights and has fought for the protection of environmental defenders as well as against deforestation in the Amazon region. As environment minister she has made opposition to fracking one of the pillars of her agenda.
Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, deputy executive director of UN Environment Programme
A Tanzanian lawyer and career diplomat, Elizabeth Mrema was chief executive of the Convention on Biological Diversity until the end of last year, and steered through the historic agreement to protect nature achieved at the COP15 biodiversity talks in December. Mrema is also co-chair of the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TFND), which is creating a framework for companies and investors to report on their nature-related risks: both the impact they have on nature, and their dependencies on nature to conduct their businesses.
Mrema and her co-chair David Craig have modelled the TNFD on the Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosures, and are driving it through at warp speed, in collaboration with financial institutions and corporates, with a final iteration to be published this year. The TNFD’s technical director, Emily McKenzie, was also a strong contender for our list, having previously helped produce the seminal Dasgupta Review on the economics of biodiversity while at the UK’s Treasury.
Sandrine Dixson-Declève, co-president of the Club of Rome
Sandrine Dixson-Declève has spent more than 30 years working in European and international policy, focusing on climate change, sustainable development, green growth and sustainable finance. She and her co-president Mamphela Ramphele are the first women to lead the Club of Rome, which in 1972 warned that resource depletion would put the brakes on economic growth in its prescient report The Limits to Growth.
Dixson-Declève is co-author of “Earth for All – a survival guide for humanity”, and one of the project leaders of Earth4All, a group of leading economic thinkers, scientists and advocates calling for capitalism to move beyond GDP. Among her numerous appointments, Dixson-Declève currently chairs the European Commission’s Expert Group on Economic and Societal Impact of Research & Innovation and sits on its Sustainable Finance Platform. She is an ambassador for the Energy Transition Commission and the Well Being Alliance. She also co-founded the Women Enablers Change Agent Network.
TRAILBLAZING CORPORATES AND ENTREPRENEURS
Ezgi Barcenas, chief sustainability officer, Anheuser-Busch InBev
Ezgi Barcenas is on the senior leadership team at AB InBev. Together with Maisie Devine Sherman, executive director of sustainable innovation for the company, she was behind the 2018 launch of the 100+ Accelerator, a global incubator program to solve supply chain sustainability challenges by supporting innovative start-ups across water stewardship, circular economy, sustainable agriculture, climate action, inclusive growth, and biodiversity.
The programme’s impact was amplified in 2021, when Coca-Cola, Colgate Palmolive and Unilever joined. Seventy start-ups across nearly 30 countries have participated in the programme so far, and close to half are scaling globally. Barcenas is also the architect of AB InBev’s ambitious 2025 Sustainability Goals and 2040 Net Zero ambition, which she designed by rallying colleagues across disciplines and geographies to come together and set an actionable roadmap. She was recognised as a 2022 Sustainability Trailblazer by Reuters Events Responsible Business Awards.
Geraldine Matchett, co-CEO and chief financial officer of Royal DSM
Geraldine Matchett is both co-CEO and CFO of Dutch animal nutrition company Royal DSM, a dual role that she says has allowed her to lead the company’s ambitious climate goals from the top. She has been one of the leading corporate advocates for sustainable finance, in particular for robust carbon pricing. DSM has one of the highest and most long-standing internal carbon prices, which started at 50 euros per tonne and has risen to 100 euros. It is used to inform investment decisions, and led the company, more than a decade ago, to develop a feed additive to reduce the methane emissions of cattle.
In 2021 DSM was ranked first in the European Women on Boards gender diversity index, in recognition of Matchett's leadership and the fact that women make up 54% of DSM’s executive-level employees. She is co-chair of the HRH the Prince of Wales’ Accounting for Sustainability (A4S) CFO Leadership Network.
Esther An, Chief Sustainability Officer, City Developments Ltd (CDL)
For more than two decades, Esther An has helped the Singapore-based real estate business set global benchmarks for green construction and sustainability. An was an initiator of sustainability reporting in Singapore a decade ago and moved to align CDL with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) two years ago. Last year, she created the CDL Future Value 2030 sustainability blueprint, which aligns the company’s long-term ESG goals and targets with 10 SDGs.
An has served on dozens of international and local sustainability organisations, including on the World Green Building Council. In 2011 she developed the Young CSR Leaders Award in collaboration with Global Compact Network Singapore.
Melanie Nakagawa, chief sustainability officer, Microsoft
Melanie Nakagawa joined Microsoft in January, charged with delivering its goals to be carbon negative by 2030 and to remove its historical carbon emissions by 2050. She brings almost two decades of environmental sustainability experience in policy, business and technology. Most recently Nakagawa was at the White House, where she served as special assistant to President Joe Biden and senior director for climate and energy on the National Security Council.
Her work included the U.S. return to the Paris Agreement and advancing the Biden-Harris policy of integrating climate change into U.S. foreign policy and national security. She served in the Obama-Biden administration as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Energy Transformation at the U.S. State Department and was a strategic advisor on climate change to the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
Her previous work included director of climate strategy for Princeville Capital, a climate tech-focused private equity firm, and experience in the nonprofit and academic sectors on environmental and energy policy.
Jennifer Holmgren, CEO, LanzaTech
Dr Jennifer Holmgren has been a pioneering figure in the development of alternative aviation fuels over the past two decades. Under Holmgren’s guidance, carbon recycling company LanzaTech has created a proprietary process to convert carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide into ethanol, which can then be transformed into aviation fuel or polyethylene (also known as plastic). Feedstocks include industrial waste processes, “stranded” methane, waste forest biomass and municipal solid waste.
According to LanzaTech, the carbon-reducing capacity of each operational plant is the equivalent of removing 120,000 cars off the road annually. The Illinois-based company achieved a major breakthrough towards commercialization last month when it merged with AMCI Acquisition Corp and got a listing on Nasdaq.
Jennifer holds a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an MBA from the University of Chicago.
Ajaita Shah, Founder and CEO, Frontier Markets
For more than 15 years, Ajaita Shah has been committed to empowering rural women in India and across the developing world through business models and financial inclusion. She is the founder of Frontier Markets, a social tech commerce enterprise that focuses on rural India and believes that investing in women is a way of alleviating poverty at scale.
Frontier Markets provides last-mile products and services, delivered to consumers in 2,000 villages through an assisted commerce model run by 10,000 rural women entrepreneurs, called Saral Jeevan Sahelis. The initiative uses a customised e-commerce app to facilitate access to products and services in agriculture, digital inclusion, home appliances, clean-energy solutions, essential services, and finance to more than 700,000 households.
Shah has won a clutch of awards, including the Fintech Innovation Challenge Winner UNCDF, the SDG Finance Summit’s Highest Impact Award and Forbes 30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneur of the Year.
Miranda Wang, co-founder and CEO, Novoloop
Miranda Wang is a venture-backed climate tech entrepreneur intent on building and scaling new technologies to reinvent the chemical value chain. She is co-founder of Novoloop, an emerging leader in plastic circularity, transforming post-consumer plastic waste into the world’s first chemically upcycled performance materials. Headquartered in Menlo Park, California, the venture-backed start-up has raised $25m to date.
Miranda was born in Qingdao, China and grew up in Vancouver, Canada. Her work in the plastics circular economy space began after visiting the Vancouver South Waste Transfer. What started as a science fair project with school friend Jeanny Yao, who later became her cofounder, led to a speaking opportunity at the TED2013 conference on an idea to break down plastic waste. In 2015, Novoloop was founded.
Miranda’s was awarded the Forbes 30 Under 30 award in 2018 at the age of 24 and was named in TIME magazine’s “Women Who Will Save The World” and Entrepreneur magazine’s “100 Women of Influence.”
TRAILBLAZERS IN FINANCE
Cate Lamb, global director of water security, CDP
As global director of water security at carbon disclosure nonprofit CDP, Cate Lamb has steered the organisation and the wider finance community to recognising that nature-based risk cannot take a back seat to climate risk, and if anything needs to be addressed with greater urgency. Some 680 financial institutions controlling $130 trillion in assets are using a program she designed to gather water-related data from over 7,000 of the world’s companies that have the greatest impacts on water. The data disclosed provides unique insights into the water-related risks, opportunities and impacts these companies have.
She is a strategic advisor to the UNFCCCC’s High Level Climate Champions on water, raising water’s profile so it is seen not just as a sector threatened by climate change, but as one with untapped potential to provide mitigation solutions. Lamb is also the co-chair of the Science Based Target Network Council, a knowledge partner of the TNFD, a founder of the Fair Water Footprints Coalition and an advisor to Stockholm World Water Week.
Geeta Aiyer, founder and president, Boston Common Asset Management
Born and raised in Chennai, Kolkata and Delhi in India, Geeta Aiyer has clocked up more than 30 years of leadership experience in finance, with a passion for environmental and social justice.
In 2003, she founded Boston Common Asset Management, an independent, women-led and majority women- and employee-owned firm. Today the Boston-based asset manager has $4.7 billion in assets under management, and is a recognised stalwart in global impact initiatives dedicated to the pursuit of ﬁnancial return and social change. She has built a strong investment record, and improved the policies and practices of portfolio companies through impactful, proactive shareowner engagement. Aiyer says climate change is top of mind at her firm today.
Elizabeth L. Littlefield, senior partner, West Africa Blue
Elizabeth Littlefield has brought decades of expertise in the finance and insurance industry to support private investment in the developing world. At West Africa Blue, a community-centric blue carbon project developer, she is working with communities to preserve, restore and sustainably manage large-scale coastal ecosystems across West Africa, financed through the issuance of high-quality carbon credits. Since 2021 she has also been a senior advisor at climate change investment and advisory firm Pollination.
Previously she headed up the US Development Finance Corporation (formerly OPIC), where she managed its $24 billion portfolio to support private investment in more than 100 developing countries.
From 2000 until 2010, Littlefield was a director at the World Bank and the CEO of the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP), the global policy and advisory partnership charged with building and professionalising the microfinance/inclusive finance sector. Littlefield currently chairs the board of M-Kopa, a leading pay-as-you-go solar company in Africa and also serves on the boards of World Wildlife Fund and numerous other conservation and environmental institutions.
Eva Zabey, CEO of Business for Nature
Eva Zabey leads Business for Nature, a global coalition aiming to unify the business voice to call for action to reverse nature loss. At the COP15 biodiversity conference late last year, Zabey earned a rare standing ovation from negotiators. Business for Nature had organised a petition, signed by more than 330 companies and investors, calling on negotiators to make Target 15, which would require companies to report on their nature impacts, mandatory for all companies. She led a delegation of some 700-1,000 companies and investors to Montreal, the first time the private sector had turn out in force for a biodiversity COP.
Previously, Zabey led multiple projects at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) for 15 years. She led the development of the Natural Capital Protocol on behalf of the Natural Capital Coalition, as well as the establishment of the new Social & Human Capital Coalition.
TRAILBLAZING ACTIVISTS AND ACADEMICS
Wanjira Mathai, managing director, Africa and global partnerships at World Resources Institute
The Kenyan environmentalist Wanjira Mathai is a senior advisor at the World Resources Institute, championing issues including deforestation and energy access. She is inheritor of the mantel of her late mother, Wangari Maathai, the activist who won the Nobel peace prize for founding Kenya’s pioneering green belt movement, which made the hard-fought link between fighting deforestation, empowering women, and protecting democracy.
After Wangaris’s death in 2011, Wanjira took over leading the green belt movement. She is also head of the Wangari Maathai Foundation, which promotes a culture of purpose among young people, preparing them for leadership roles and fighting a culture of corruption in Kenya, which she has said is the biggest barrier to progress.
Among her many voluntary positions, Mathai currently serves on the board of the World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF), as a leadership council member of the Clean Cooking Alliance and a member of the High-Level Group of the Africa-Europe Foundation. She was named one of the 100 most influential African Women in 2018, 2020 and 2021.
Katharine Hayhoe, chief scientist, The Nature Conservancy
Katherine Hayhoe is a renowned Canadian atmospheric scientist, communicator, and evangelical Christian whose 2021 book, Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World, has been described as one of the most important books about climate change ever written.
She is a Paul Whitfield Horn Distinguished Professor and an Endowed Chair in Public Policy and Public Law at Texas Tech University , and spends a great deal of time speaking about climate change to audiences in the U.S. and around the world, reaching across the most partisan of political divides.
In 1997, she founded ATMOS Research, which aimed to provide relevant information on how climate change will affect lives to a broad range of non-profit, industry and government clients. In 2017 she was named one of FORTUNE’s world’s greatest leaders. Today, she leads and coordinates The Nature Conservancy’s scientific efforts.
Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, president of the Association for Indigenous Women and Peoples of Chad
A member of the Mbororo pastoralist people in Chad, Hindou Oumarou Ibahim is an expert in the adaptation and mitigation of indigenous peoples to climate change.
A powerful and persuasive speaker at international forums, she has repeatedly warned of the consequences of wide-scale climate migration by indigenous communities. Chosen to represent civil society at the signing of the Paris Climate agreement in 2016, she said at the time that: "Climate change is adding poverty to poverty every day, forcing many to leave home for a better future.".
Among many accolades, Oumarou Ibrahim received the Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award and was appointed as one of 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals advocates. She serves as a member of the United Nations Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues; the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee (IPACC); the Advisory Committee to the Secretary-General’s 2019 Climate Action Summit; and Conservation International Senior Indigenous Fellow. In 2019, she was listed by Time Magazine as one of 15 women championing action on climate change.
Rumaitha Al Busaidi, climate change and womens rights activist, founder of WomeX
A marine scientist who is a passionate advocate for gender equity in the Arab world, sustainability and sports, Rumaitha Al Busaidi is also one of the most prominent radio personalities in Oman. The former footballer, who was capped for her national women’s side, has served as an adviser to the Omani government and as director of Projects and Environmental Affairs and Fisheries Development in Oman.
Al Busaidi is the youngest Omani woman to step foot on the South Pole. She founded WomeX, a platform to teach negotiation skills for Arab women in order to facilitate emerging female entrepreneurs in the Arab region.
She was part of the World Economic Forums’ Global Shapers Community from 2013 to 2020. In 2017, she was named as One Young World Peace Ambassador by the European Commission and also ambassador for the Institute for Economics and Peace. Rumaitha holds MSc degrees in environmental sciences and aquaculture, and is pursuing a third master’s, in public administration, at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Gail Whiteman, executive director, Arctic Basecamp
Professor Gail Whiteman is professor of sustainability at the University of Exeter Business School, and an expert on global risk arising from the systemic changes occurring in the natural environment. Whiteman, who holds both Canadian and UK citizenship, is the founder of Arctic Basecamp, a team of experts and scientists who, for the last seven years, have brought the Arctic to the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting at Davos, setting up a real science basecamp, with an expedition tent to bring a message of global risk to the world leaders at the WEF.
Whiteman has authored more than 60 peer-reviewed scientific papers and has been the professor-in-residence at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development since 2012.
At Davos this year she joined Reuters Editor-at Large Axel Threlfall in launching a new Reuters video series, Arctic Warning, which engages leaders from business and politics, activists and changemakers, to explore exciting new approaches to the climate challenge.
Lucie Pinson, founder, Reclaim Finance
Lucie Pinson has been instrumental in persuading some of the world’s biggest insurers, bankers and investors to stop investing in coal.
She founded Reclaim Finance in 2020 after several years of campaigning on how financial institutions impact human rights and the environment. From 2013 to 2017, Lucie worked as a campaigner for Friends of the Earth France, convincing some of the largest French insurers, banks and investors to adopt the first policies to restrict support for several fossil fuel sub-sectors.
In 2018, she started working for the Sunrise Project as the European coordinator of an international anti-coal campaign targeting insurers. By 2019, 15 of the world’s biggest insurers and reinsurers had stopped supporting new coal mines and plants. Two years later French investors managing more than 7 trillion euros in assets had adopted stringent restrictions on the coal sector, with 16 French financial actors adopting robust coal exit policies.
In 2020, Pinson received the Goldman Prize for the environment in recognition of her work on coal.
Mina Susana Setra, activist Indigenous People's Alliance of the Archipelago
Mina Susana Setra is a member of the Dayak Pompakng people of West Kalimantan in Indonesia. When she was five years old, her home was converted to a palm oil plantation, forcing the displacement of her community, which led to poverty, social problems and loss of cultural identity.
She has worked in the areas of policy and advocacy at the Indigenous Peoples' Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN) since it was founded in 1999, and was instrumental in securing a ruling from the Constitutional Court in 2012 recognising customary land rights of indigenous people. She has worked on the global program Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) and led a protest against the exclusion of indigenous people from Indonesia’s negotiations with donor nations on forest and climate initiatives.
She is president of the board of If Not Us Then Who, a U.S. charity that publicises the role indigenous and local peoples play in protecting the planet, and co-founder of Ruai TV, a television outlet providing media access to marginalised communities in West Kalimantan.
Nemonte Nenquimo, co-founder Ceibo Alliance in Ecuador
Nemonte Nenquimo, 33, is an indigenous Waorani woman who co-founded the Ceibo Alliance in 2015 in order to fight back against planned oil concessions on indigenous land in Ecuador.
Nenquimo held regionwide assemblies and helped her people launch a digital campaign targeting potential investors with the slogan “Our rainforest is not for sale”. At the same time, she helped communities maintain their independence from oil company handouts by installing rainwater harvesting systems and solar panels and supporting a woman-led organic cacao and chocolate production business.
Nenquimo helped bring the Waorani case to the courts and served as the lead plaintiff in a successful lawsuit against the Ecuadorian government for violating the Waorani’s right to free, prior, and informed consent. She was awarded the Goldman environmental prize for South and Central America in 2020.