“Women belong in all places where decisions are made” - Ruth Bader Ginsburg
The climate crisis affects everyone – albeit in different ways, and to different extents. However, we cannot ignore the fact that our earth, and its inhabitants, are facing this global level threat. So, why isn’t everyone included in negotiations, discussions, and strategy? There is a stark underrepresentation of women in climate negotiations – as we can see from the latest conference of the parties under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP). The 26th COP (COP26) recently took place in Glasgow, Scotland
Earlier this year, it was found that in the UK COP26 team, 10 out of 12 leadership roles would be filled by men. This more than pitiful figure was obscured by another– 45% of the whole team were female (1). While this may seem progressive on the surface, women were found to be working in event organisation and advisory positions – lower and less direct roles which hindered their ability to create inclusive, anti-hierarchal solutions for climate change (1).
Women must be given seats in negotiation and leadership positions since that is where they can have the most impact and influence and make a difference in terms of gender inclusivity. Anything other than equality in top negotiation boardrooms, becomes performative.
Of course, like climate change, gender inequality is not a national issue – the UN reports that only 30% of national and global climate negotiating teams are, on average, comprised of women (2). Climate change is one of the most pressing issues of the day, and yet again we see the exclusion of women from the top tables discussing its mitigation.
Rather than governmental positions, women participating in COPs are more likely to be found in civil society (3). Civil society is necessary at climate conferences, with NGOs, advocacy groups and community associations usually allowed to observe key negotiations. Speaking of their recent performance at COP26 though, executive director of the Climate Action Network said that “We have not been able to do our jobs” (4). The unwelcoming and exclusive nature of COP26 was further demonstrated by the recent protests in Glasgow. This does not improve the negotiations, cutting out well-needed local community and third sector voices, many of whom are women. The disregard of civil society in climate conferences also shows a lack of interest in their work, which can involve including women in projects to mitigate climate damage where their voices were previously unheard. Organisations such as EmpoderaClima also raise awareness about climate change to women in the global south, providing educational materials in native languages.
Other organisations exploring the crisis also see underrepresentation, for example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the commission which creates highest authority level reports on climate change, has found that women account for only 20% of writers (5).
In the journalism sector, we see only 28% of climate change focused news articles being written by women, as found by Oxfam/Australian Aid (6). This raises the question of what we are not hearing about the crisis – with so many women’s voices and experiences shut out of the conversation, is it any wonder women remain most affected by climate change? We can only change what we know, and so women’s experiences must be elevated, heard and altered for the better.
SHE Changes Climate, a campaign promoting gender equality in climate mitigation, advocates for 50% of contributors to these direct reports to the CEO and Presidents in future climate negotiations and COPs, to be women (7). These roles typically include directors, lead negotiators, champions, and ambassadors. This is where women need to be, if we are to be given a chance to contribute to solutions.
Gender equality is very much a pressing issue and priority on its own but it becomes absolutely critical when discussing climate change.
This crisis affects women and girls more than men. Studies from the UN show the vast majority (80%) of those displaced by the climate crisis are women (8). This is further compounded by the fact that women tend to be poorer – due to lack of financial dependence and gendered divisions of labour – and poorer people are affected by the crisis even more. Action Aid estimates that by 2030, 120 million more people could face poverty due to climate change and that “the effects of climate change are hitting many of the world’s poorest first”(9). This highlights another inherent inequality in climate issues – the poorest nations release the lowest emissions yet are worst affected.
Why are women affected more by climate change? It’s largely a social issue. Gendered roles in society and power imbalances mean disenfranchisement and weakness are imposed on women. One example of this is the impact of extreme weather/disaster events – which are often felt more by women due to a lack of financial/social power to improve their now-devastated situation. The BBC reports that after Hurricane Katrina (2005), the most affected group was African American women in cities like New Orleans (2). A combination of racial, sexual and class factors can bring one closer to the climate crisis destruction.
The connection between many women’s livelihoods in low and lower-middle income countries and the climate crisis is strong. Globally, agriculture, forestry and fishing make up almost a third of women’s employment (10). Under frightening circumstances, some of the most vulnerable women are seeing their means of support lifted cruelly away, facing a precarious future.
Another example comes from the increase in violence against women and girls in times of instability, intensified by climate change (11). This can come from organisations including human trafficking groups, terrorist organisations, and companies looking for profit. It can also occur in the household, with imminent poverty and lack of resources creating tensions. This can manifest in various forms, such as intimate partner violence, early marriage and female genital mutilation.
“It is that negotiation of power, and negotiation of access to natural resources in unequal structures, that makes gender-based violence a tool.” – Cate Owren, senior gender programme manager at International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). (11)
There are proven positive effects on sustainability and development in countries with higher levels of gender equality.
A study reported by the Guardian found a correlation between female political representation and stricter environmental policies and lower emissions (3). A diverse decision-making body can highlight the issues affecting everyone. It becomes even more urgent that women must have a seat at the table, if we want efficient changes for everyone.
A review of 17 studies found that when women were involved in conservation and resource management, they contributed to eco-friendlier and more stringent rules regarding mineral extraction. This was accompanied by increased transparency and accountability (12). This showcases women’s abilities and talents to ameliorate political decision-making for everyone’s good.
Finally, it’s pertinent to note which women influenced the historic Paris Agreement (2015). Christina Figueres “successfully steered world leaders to reach the Paris Agreement in 2015” in her role as head of the UNFCCC (UN agency in charge of climate change negotiations) (13). Head of the World Bank’s climate programme at the time, Rachel Kyte, ensured funding for poorer countries who wished to tackle the climate crisis but were hindered by financing (13). These women have contributed to brilliant work in the world, but there is a desperate need for more. When women are present, when the people in the room are balanced and diverse, effective and targeted change happens.
A statement from Nicola Sturgeon told of the “huge appetite to centre women and girls in climate action” (14) but until this is matched with actual equal representation in the key, critical decisions on climate action, it does not mean much.
We must ensure more women are involved, not just in big conferences like next year’s COP27, but in leadership positions where people work against the crisis every day. Whether it’s formulating solutions, pitching ideas, or reporting issues – women must be given seats at the highest table.
I’m an International Relations student at the University of Glasgow, due to graduate in 2024. I’m interested in foreign policy, with a particular interest in women’s issues both inside the field and in FP’s effects. As well as writing for FemLegal, I curate the newsletter for the Food and Body society at my university. In my spare time, I enjoy reading, travelling and a good hot chocolate.