3 Very Real Wonder Women Leading The Way To Climate Justice

Clockwise from left: Mary Robinson, Jennifer Morgan, Laurence Tubiana.
It’s ironic how a US president’s decision to push climate change down the political agenda has achieved the exact opposite. Since Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement in June, climate change has been a hot topic of discussion in the press. Recently, France celebrated Bastille Day with new president Emmanuel Macron inviting Trump to watch the festivities and dine at a Michelin-starred restaurant atop the Eiffel Tower. The Paris Agreement was brought up, of course, with Macron hopeful that he had convinced Trump to rejoin.
But amid these smartly suited politicians and fancy dinners, what concrete impact does Trump's decision to withdraw from the treaty – a landmark international agreement on climate change – have on our daily lives? And how do his actions hinder women on a global scale?
I put these questions to three of the most influential frontrunners of the climate movement: Laurence Tubiana, France’s climate change ambassador and special representative for COP21 (and, as such, a key architect of the Paris Agreement), now CEO of the European Climate Foundation; Jennifer Morgan, Greenpeace International's executive director; and Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and founder of the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice, which aims to secure global justice for those impacted by climate change who are usually forgotten.
Tubiana is resolute on the phone: Trump's decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement is a distraction and delays action, as can already be seen, with some governments feeling less enthusiastic to invest in climate change. She adds: “There is no doubt that this affects women particularly – primarily those living in poor households who do not have protection against extreme events.”
This is echoed by Robinson, who argues that not taking urgent climate action means that the rights of people living in vulnerable situations, both in developing and developed countries, are undermined: “In the US, as elsewhere, the injustice of climate change means the most vulnerable people in society are most affected by climate impacts. Given existing gender inequalities and development gaps, climate change ultimately places a greater burden on women.”
The effects of climate change are certainly not gender-neutral. Trump’s decision is not in the interests of the millions of people who are demanding urgent action and already working to reduce emissions. Morgan explains that worldwide, and especially in the global south, women are on the front lines of climate change, with food insecurity increasing as temperatures rise, weather patterns become less predictable and climate-related disasters grow more frequent. Rural women in particular, often responsible for ensuring adequate nutrition for their families, are at the centre of this challenge. Yet their voices are muted, their choices restricted. Women own less than 20% of the world's land, and they have limited access to resources such as credits, climate-smart technologies and finance. Whether they stay behind to care for their families and communities when climate disasters strike, or migrate to find food, safety and decent work, rural women are much more vulnerable and marginalised.

Research shows that natural disasters – which are expected to become more severe as the world heats up – are more likely to kill women than men.

Jennifer Morgan
“It is also women and girls who collect the water. So when rains fail, or water tables drop, they must walk further and further to find it. For every hour a girl must spend collecting water, she cannot be in school, so her education suffers too. Furthermore, research shows that natural disasters — which are expected to become more severe as the world heats up — are more likely to kill women than men and that in the future, women and children will form the majority of people forced out of their homes due to climate change,” Morgan explains. An analysis of 25 countries in sub-Saharan Africa revealed that 71% of the water-collectors in the region are women and girls, and, in just one day, women spend an estimated 16 million hours fetching water (compared to the 6 million spent by men).
Three references to gender and women’s empowerment appear in the text of the Paris Agreement. These include asking countries to "respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity" and acknowledge that "adaptation action should follow a country-driven, gender-responsive, participatory and fully transparent approach". When I ask Tubiana if this is enough to protect women from climate change, she retorts: “Well by definition the text is a text, so in itself cannot protect women! What's crucial, though, is that gender is indeed mentioned very clearly in several places, so governments have to respond to that. They have to implement what's said when they review their activities and action plans – for example in their national contributions, their financial support plans, and overall policy actions that address climate impacts and when building solutions.”
But how can governments become gender-responsive and deal with the multilayered impacts of climate change, which acutely affect vulnerable communities? As a crucial first step, Robinson says that women’s voices must be heard and their priorities supported in climate action: “This involves ensuring the participation of women, especially those at the grassroots level, in international fora, in order to facilitate more gender-responsive action and policy.” She stresses that policy development and implementation should be informed by the lived experience of those on the front lines of the climate challenge.
Morgan agrees, commending the Paris Agreement for its acknowledgement of gender while insisting that countries go further: “The nearly 200 countries that signed the Agreement have a continued responsibility to demonstrate leadership by ensuring more women have equal participation in the decision-making process.”
So are minds changing quickly enough? Are there already women sat at the negotiating table – and beyond – playing a vital role in implementing local solutions and helping their communities to better respond and adapt to climate change?
I ask Tubiana whether, in her capacity as a diplomat in charge of negotiating the text, she felt gender was still seen as a side issue: “Mentalities are changing – if not, gender wouldn’t even be mentioned in the text. Perhaps it's not changing as rapidly in the negotiation context as in some global discussions, but it’s come a long way.”

In the village of Yirca, in Turkey, women have been at the forefront of the struggle to stop the construction of a new coal power plant.

She explains that, during the Paris Agreement negotiations, various countries had a high number of women in their delegation and placed high priority on their leadership. Latin American countries and some African countries in particular insisted that gender was taken into account: “Many women involved with high-level responsibility facilitated the agreement. Can I say that gender is mainstreamed in climate talks? Yes and no. It’s not mainstream in the sense that all governments are keen to have equal treatment and value women’s contributions, but the space for gender is now widely recognised and cannot be rebuffed.” Importantly, Tubiana reminds me, the two individuals elected to lead the negotiations for Paris were women – this in itself is a good sign.
Tubiana further lauds COP21 (the United Nations climate change conference in December 2015, where the Paris Agreement was drawn up) for fostering new visions on climate justice and involving civil society in defining new climate plans. Important debates took place around gender, health and indigenous rights, enabling women to stand up, make proposals and be recognised for their contributions: “That's the Paris logic, and you already see a lot of women invested in climate justice. That in itself is important to note.”
Morgan says she feels inspired by women worldwide who are coming together to support their communities and improve their resilience to climate change. “Women are now at the forefront of many of our campaigns. Earlier this year we helped a hardworking women’s agricultural cooperative in the south of Lebanon to shift to solar energy. They freed themselves from relying on expensive, dirty energy and the chronic electricity shortages that came from their old diesel generator. Their new solar panel, installed on 8th March, International Women's Day, made it possible for them to increase their business’s productivity, expanding it, and to set up new food production outlets. In the village of Yirca, in Turkey, women have been at the forefront of the Greenpeace-supported struggle to stop the construction of a new coal power plant. These local projects all come together and reinforce the global campaign to #breakfree from fossil fuels.”
Robinson insists, however, that women must not be seen as victims of climate change: “They are increasingly building their resilience and adapting to the impacts of climate change, becoming empowered as agents of change.” She believes that Trump's decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement is shortsighted, yet, while it will undoubtedly make achieving the commitments of the Agreement more difficult, it has motivated a broad range of stakeholders to engage in climate action more urgently than before. This is echoed by Morgan, who says that because the Trump administration is determined to stand on the sidelines, people must stay resolved and work diligently to resist their efforts and build strong coalitions to go further: “Women are clearly a big part of that movement, whether at the local level or through their leadership at the highest levels of government. We need them to be resolute more than ever.”
These female leaders are practising what they preach, as Morgan makes clear: “Last year, Bunny McDiarmid and myself took up the role of leading, together, Greenpeace International. This unique shared-leadership model has been inspired by our belief in the power of women to collaborate, share and lead. It is our hope that through this leadership we may be able to empower young women to dream about their futures – that they can do anything and rise to any challenge.”

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