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Are Women The Key To Solving Climate Change?

The world’s women are key to fighting climate change–but our policies rarely acknowledge them.

Are Women The Key To Solving Climate Change?
[Top Photo: Pierre-Yves Babelon via Shutterstock]

We know that the world’s poor feel the effects of climate change most acutely, but it turns out there is an even more vulnerable subset to that population: women.

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“Women and men do not experience climate change in the same way,” says Lorena Aguilar, senior advisor in the global gender office of IUCN, an international development NGO.

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Aguilar is one of a relatively small group of NGO leaders and diplomats that are advocating for greater inclusion of women at all levels of climate change work, and were pushing for gender equality and human rights mandates to be embedded in the final Paris agreement–ultimately to no avail. The UNFCCC designated December 8 as “gender day” at the conference, with a series of talks organized and reports released to help highlight work on the issue, but those involved in the negotiations say the final agreement fell well short of any meaningful commitment to address climate inequalities.

“This agreement fundamentally does not address the needs of the most vulnerable countries, communities, and people of the world. It fails to address the structures of injustice and inequality which have caused the climate crisis,” says Bridget Burns, co-coordinator of the UNFCCC Women and Gender Constituency, in a press release this weekend.

Around the world, women’s issues and climate change intersect in a variety of ways. At the broadest level, the effects of climate change on women, particularly in the developing world, are compounded by their lack of equal rights or access to financial and educational resources.

For example, women actually make up the majority of small farmers in the world, a trend that could grow as men increasingly migrate away from rural areas to find work. But they don’t have access to the same farming resources as men. The IUCN report estimates that if we could close the agricultural resource gap for women farmers, yields would increase enough to decrease world hunger by 12% to 17%.

Land rights are another issue: only 28 of the world’s countries give men and women the same legal rights to land. “Climate change will increase the severity or incidence of natural disasters in many parts of the world, and women often lack the resources and documents,” like titles, deeds and citizenship papers, “necessary to support their families after disasters,” says Mayesha Alam, Associate Director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, and author of a recent report on women and climate change.

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As resources like water and firewood become more scarce, poor women and children will have to travel further and longer to meet the needs of their families, increasing the risk of sexual assault in some places. Already, says Alam, women collectively spend 140 million hours per day gathering water around the world–time that could be otherwise spent earning money or going to school.

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There are less obvious ways, too, that climate change affects already-vulnerable women. They are more likely to die in natural disasters: 70% of the fatalities of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami were women. Rising sea levels have already started to increase the salinity of drinking water in many places, which is especially dangerous to pregnant women. A 2011 study in Bangladesh found that an increase in hypertension among pregnant women was linked to sea level rise.

But advocates are quick to point out that women are more than just victims of climate change. “What makes them vulnerable also makes them pivotal to climate change action. Women stand at the front lines in the battle against climate change: as providers of water, food, and energy or as leaders in businesses, communities and politics.” said Sarah Marchildon, communications officer at the United Nations Climate Change secretariat.

Alam points out that women take a different approach to the same problem: “Research and experience show that whereas men engaged in climate change adaptation and mitigation tend to favor technical solutions, women tend to be risk-aware and willing to change their habits”

Women-focused work on climate change also has the potential to tick the box on other development goals, like improving the economic and educational lot of women around the world. (In development-speak, this is called “co-benefits” or “multiple benefits”.) For example, cookstoves that run on solar power or biofuel reduce carbon emissions, as well as the amount of time women have to spend searching for fuel.

But some advocates caution that in the world of high-level climate work–where the two major goals are climate change adaptation and mitigation–women are too often portrayed only as victims of climate change who must learn to adapt, rather than potential leaders and decision-makers.

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“’Adaptation’ is where everyone wants to put women,” says Jeanette Gurung, Executive Director of Women Organizing for Change in Agriculture and Natural Resource Management (WOCAN). “At best women are associated with small-scale projects like solar lamps or cookstoves. Meanwhile the big boys get on with the ‘mitigation’ work and making money.”

Gurung says that female leaders should be more aggressive about pursuing large slices of the huge climate finance pie, rather than play it safe with small-scale projects. But she also highlighted the challenges women at all levels face–from farmers in the developing world to government ministers–in getting access to the financial and political resources they need to move the needle on climate change.

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“There’s an immense need for intermediaries between women farmers and these higher levels of sources of funding and decision making. That’s the level that no one wants to think about,” she said. “If women are involved we are almost expected to be volunteers, rather than valuing our work.”

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At the national and international governance levels, there is a striking gender gap. Women head just 12% of the nearly 900 environmental sector ministries in UN member countries, and on average only one-third of delegates to global negotiations like the Paris meeting are female.

New financial vehicles, like the Green Climate Fund, could breathe new life into women-focused climate work. The GCF, established in 2010, currently holds some $10 billion in government and private donations, and is aiming to reach $100 billion. It’s the first climate fund to include a mandate for gender policies and requires that any organization that receives money for climate work get accredited for its policies and track record on gender equality.

“This is game-changing,” says Gurung. “Advocates no longer have to convince somebody to link gender and climate change. These are the big boys, and they got it.”

Gurung’s organization, WOCAN, is also working on tapping into climate investments to support gender equality in the same way carbon offset credits have funded big reforestation and renewable energy projects. They are rolling out W+, the world’s first “women’s empowerment standard” that measures things like time saved, income generated and educational training to help quantify the benefits to women from development projects and then market the “credits” for sale to government or private investors. The goal, says Gurung, is to help fill the financing gaps that exist for on-the-ground organizations and advocates doing women-focused climate work.

WOCAN has already applied the W+ standard to two projects in Indonesia and Nepal and is working on setting a steady credit price. They are hoping to bundle the standard for sale with carbon offset projects and Gurung says she’s received a lot of interest so far from private companies doing sustainability work.

“It was developed as a system to incentivize those projects that are already working on climate change to do good things for women, and make a profit in doing so,” said Gurung.

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There are pockets of regional leadership on the issue, too, especially in areas where the impacts of climate change are already being felt. IUCN’s Aguilar, who is originally from Costa Rica, points to some Latin American countries like Guatemala, Costa Rica and Peru that have committed to gender-focused national climate change policies as reasons to be hopeful.

“For us a matter of life and death. That’s why we fight for it,” she said. “This is not something that we talk about, this is something that we live.”

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