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Women: Your planet needs you

The climate and nature crisis needs everyone. But from NGOs and community groups to businesses and governments, it’s womxn who are leading the way.

Written by:
Clare Saxon Ghauri

You know climate change is catastrophic. But did you know it’s also sexist?

Our living planet is in a climate and nature emergency which will impact each of us, yet half of humanity - womxn and girls - are suffering more. This is the reality of systemic gender inequality.

Women are more vulnerable to the impacts of the climate emergency. It is estimated that 8 in 10 climate refugees are women, with displacement also exacerbating domestic and sexual violence towards them. And because climate impacts are worse for the world’s poorest, they again carry the climate burden, with women aged 25-34 25% more likely to live in extreme poverty than men.

Central to this injustice is the fact that climate change compounds all existing inequalities. This means risks to livelihoods, health and safety are even greater for the most vulnerable groups of women: Black and Brown communities, refugees, LGBTIQ+ people, older women, and those with disabilities.

According to Julia Minnear, Co-Director & Head of Programmes at Wen (Women’s Environmental Network), “Women are disproportionately negatively impacted by environmental issues due to structural gender inequality, which intersects with other forms of discrimination such as race, ethnicity, disability, class, sexuality and language. Women are not equally involved, or are routinely excluded, from environmental decision-making, leading to less effective solutions. At Wen, we advocate for a 'feminist leadership' approach to addressing environmental issues. This is not just about women occupying positions of leadership, but of leading in ways that actively challenge dominant systems of oppression and work towards a transformed society.”

50:50 Vision

It’s arguable that the only way we can secure a liveable planet is by ending the injustice that impacts every person, and as part of this, platforming marginalised voices. As you might expect though, women are underrepresented in climate decision-making where it matters most, at the international level.

Nowhere was this more obvious than at the COP27 climate talks in 2022. Only seven out of 110 leaders at the talks were women, due to systemic and discriminatory barriers limiting women’s options to run for office in many countries. National delegation teams were not much better, with barely a third of delegates women, with some teams having a mere 10%. Previous COPs have had similar or even worse gender disparity. 

Not only is this an unfair representation of the global population, but it is a massive missed opportunity to deliver on the emissions cuts needed for a safe planet. Research shows that when countries have women in power they adopt better climate policies and subsequently lower their carbon emissions.

“The lack of women in the world’s leadership is severely damaging our ability to successfully deal with the planetary climate crisis”

says Bianca Pitt, CEO of SHE Changes Climate. “Gender equality is critical for climate action and imperative for building a sustainable future. Women’s ingenuity, creativity, vision and experience has the power to transform what is currently in dire need of change. We now need 50:50 vision at the top: men and women to co-lead climate negotiations together.” This is something we can all agree needs to happen, fast. Until it does, women will continue to suffer on the frontlines of climate disaster. 

Leading the way

Yet despite their lives being at risk, it is women from climate-vulnerable and rural communities who are often leading the way – especially indigenous women, who are ancestrally connected to nature.

In 2019, Nemonte Nenquimo drove a successful lawsuit against Ecuadorian government plans to sell off swathes of Amazon rainforest to oil companies, which set a precedent for other indigenous groups battling exploitation. More than 40 years before her, the late Wangari Maathai planted a ‘green wall’ in Kenya which led to the planting of 11 billion trees worldwide.

On the global stage too, indigenous women are finally being heard. For the first time in the UN climate talks’ history, at COP26 in Glasgow in 2021, 28 indigenous people were nominated to share their wisdom with governments. Here, Chadian indigenous advocate Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim warned world leaders that indigenous people must be equal partners in the climate fight, for all of us to succeed. Across the world, nature protection movements guided by women are becoming tipping points for global change. 

Women are also highly involved at the community level in the Global North. In the UK, mothers in particular are increasingly focused on fighting for their children’s future, through local activist groups like Parents For Future, Mums For Lungs and Mothers Rise Up. Run by tired parents with the tiny slivers of free time they have, these groups have impacts far beyond their neighbourhoods. Parents For Future UK and Mothers Rise Up recently arranged a meeting with the Chairman of LLoyds of London, one of the UK’s biggest fossil fuel insurers.

Rowan Ryrie, lawyer and founding mother of Parents For Future UK says: “We give our time because we understand that the health of the planet we hand on to our children – and to future generations – depends on the actions we take right now. Women are incredible, resilient multi-taskers, we work best in community together with other women and we know that tackling environmental breakdown has to be a collective effort if we’re to have impact. We want to be able to look our children in the eye and tell them we did all we could. To stand with them and face this together.”

Despite having, on average, less free time and a greater burden of care on top of (under-) paid work, mothers are often painfully invested in the future, which could be why they are frequently able to see the bigger picture: that climate activism is non-negotiable. If they don’t do it, perhaps nobody else will. 

Representation of women is also stronger in the wider climate charity sector. While government delegates may be men-heavy, NGO representatives at climate talks often have a much higher percentage of women. And while they still earn less than male peers, women make up 75% of the general non-profit workforce. Higher charity and activism involvement could be down to gender socialisation. Women have arguably become equipped to paint a more optimistic vision for – and drive to create – a better future, due to skills picked up from gendered social learning. For example, women assess risk differently and prioritise the welfare of the collective, such as their families and communities, more than men. These skills have an economic value too, as they are often applied successfully in business. Among other positives, where there is a higher percentage of women on corporate boards, there is a greater correlation with the disclosure of carbon emissions.

Thankfully, across the world, women and other marginalised groups are beginning to spearhead the ambitious action needed to respond to climate and ecological collapse. Julia Minnear from Wen outlines the approaches we can all take, as women (and non-women!), to address this injustice - as the leaders the planet has been waiting for. She explains: “It is about sharing power and resources, developing collective leadership, strengthening networks and building solidarity, rather than leading through force and control.

Redesigning systems

“Our current economic system has delivered the intersecting crises of climate breakdown and inequality. So redesigning our economy in ways that centre care for people and our environment is foundational to addressing the injustices of our time. This is something Wen has been advocating for through the Feminist Green New Deal campaign. But even in our daily lives, simple activities like growing food together and sharing seeds with neighbours can be positive, and arguably feminist, acts of resistance in the face of a global industrial food system that has devastated communities and the natural world.”

While we all need to play our part in different ways, we can’t avoid the fact that our economic, political and social systems have, for aeons, been built and led by men. It is only fair for the historically dominant sex to make room so climate spaces can be made more accessible for women to take the lead alongside them. 

Imagine a world that has not only dismantled its most heinous systems of oppression, but transitioned to a regenerative economy in such a fair way, that everybody has fair and equal opportunities. There is little trace of the unjust societies we grew up with. It’s as if they never existed in the first place. A world where an equal number of governments, businesses and communities are run by womxn, as by men. Where the ancient wisdom of nature is planted by indigenous wisdom-keepers at the heart of society. Where one group of people is no less safe than another. It doesn’t have to be a fantasy.

A safer, kinder future for all is possible if we centre the fair treatment and opportunity for participation of everyone, regardless of gender, race, age or socio-economic status. As the famous quote from Mahatma Gandhi goes: “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members”. We may not measure up today, but if we work together to defend and elevate our most vulnerable, we are one giant and inclusive step closer to protecting every life on Earth - human and non-human.

So where do we start? A crucial first step we can all take to help drive intersectional climate action is through education. By equipping ourselves with knowledge and skills - and then sharing them with those who need them most.

A key lesson we ought to educate the world with as a matter of urgency is simple: intersectional gender equity is fundamental for building a  safer, more prosperous future. As SHE Changes Climate Co-Founder, Elise Buckle, says: “We have solutions to raise climate ambition and regenerate ecosystems. But we need 50% of women at every level to make it happen."

Women: you are the leaders we have been waiting for. Your planet needs YOU.

Conversation Starters

Want to talk about what’s in this blog, but don’t know where to start? Try these conversation starters.

For more conservatively-minded folks:

Women are, on average, worse off economically and socially, so it makes sense that women are also the most impacted by extreme weather events. It’s fair that we create safer urban and rural areas able to withstand disasters, and more effective climate policies that treat women, families and communities with kindness and respect. There are many ways we can contribute to a world where our wives, sisters, daughters and friends will feel safer. Putting women on corporate boards also makes business sense: research shows that their policies are more innovative and get the job done to follow the law in reducing emissions, in line with a safer global temperature - which also means a more stable economy.

For more liberally-minded folks:

Climate action will not succeed unless it is inclusive and intersectional, and puts gender and human rights at its heart. If we want to create meaningful and sustainable change, we all have a role to play in contributing to the empowerment of women and marginalised voices. We can’t sit by as women are worse impacted by the climate and nature crisis. And we can no longer ignore the wisdom of indigenous people who know more about the Earth than most governments and businesses do. How we fight for a liveable planet will not only define a generation, it will shape a future that we are borrowing from our children.

For a climate denier or sceptic:

We know local pollution is real. Policies from women have been proven to reduce pollution. Women are also better at getting laws enacted for their country that will otherwise be pushed through by intergovernmental organisations anyway at a greater cost. Even if the planet is not warming up, extreme weather events still happen all the time. And if they impact people of colour and women more, then we should do what we can to protect them.

For someone with climate anxiety:

While the climate and nature crisis can be overwhelming, looking at the role womxn play shows that there are hopeful solutions that contribute to making the transition better for everyone. It’s possible that with the right leadership, guided by nature and indigenous peoples, we can co-create an entirely new system. Our best hope is to move from extractive to regenerative societies, and by centering our most vulnerable, we are more likely to be able to come together as one interconnected global community.