Jane Goodall spoke about hope during the opening evening of the International Women's Earth and Climate Summit on September 20 in New York. Photo by Lori Waselchuk/Magazines OUT.
Where are women's voices on the issue of climate change?
I met a woman last week during the UN General Assembly in New York who impressed upon me how deeply interconnected climate change is with global development. "If we don't address climate change, any gains in infrastructure, health, education, women's empowerment, you name it, can be wiped out an instant," said Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, in a briefing with UN Foundation Press Fellows.
"Women around the world are facing the impacts of a changing climate every day, and we are coming together to say 'enough is enough' and it is time for action that addresses the roots of this crisis and fosters just solutions," said Osprey Orielle Lake, co-founder of the International Women's Earth and Climate Initiative (IWECI), which hosted a big summit in New York last week directly before the convention of the UN General Assembly and New York City's annual Climate Week.
All of this is on top of mind since we know now there is no longer any room for doubt that climate change is occurring and humans are the cause.
Last week in Stockholm, the world's leading climate scientists came together for a week of all-night sessions preparing a report that evaluates what's truly going on with our climate. This UN-convened body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), evaluated nearly seven years of new research on climate science. Their findings: global warming is indeed happening and human activity (i.e. pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere) is the main culprit.
Speaking at the opening of the UN General Assembly last week in New York, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon invited world leaders to an unprecedented summit on climate change during next year's General Assembly. The IPCC report will be a mainstay in the conversations and will guide critical negotiations on emissions policy. The pledges that evolve from the summit will frame the next evolution of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (set to expire in 2015), which are have unofficially been named the Sustainable Development Goals. While this all looks like progress, there are some who are concerned that time is running out and that emissions are racing ahead of Mother Nature's ability (and willingness) to absorb their impact.
"If we do not address climate change in a timely fashion, everything we have done in development in the past 25 years is in the dust," said Christiana Figueres in a UN Foundation briefing that I attended. Christiana posits that climate change and development are two sides of the same paper.
In the past 13 years, we have added 1 billion people to the planet. While we have made progress in solving some of the world's most serious issues, including reducing poverty (according to the World Bank, in 1980, 1 in 2 people lived in poverty -- today that number is 1 in 5), we now have a much bigger footprint than ever. And guess what? Eighty five percent of the fuel we are using is carbon-based.
According to the IPCC report, these carbon-based fuels are what are contributing to the warmest decade we've ever seen. Add to this, we have been overgrazing, overfishing, and depleting our fresh water. Now as a global society, we are seeing unpredictable temperatures and a disruption of rainfall patterns causing floods, droughts, tsunamis and wicked tropical storms. The seasonal cycles of agriculture are being disrupted. This obviously has huge repercussions on human life, as farmers lose their ability to farm, people lose access to food, and entire communities are wiped out.
So what to do?
Thus far, a top-down approach has been the "go-to" solution: how can we strengthen policy and legislation that regulates greenhouse gas emissions so that we can keep the world below dangerous levels of global warming. While this is a critical ingredient to a solution, I think we also need to have a ground-up approach so that we are actually connecting with the essence of Mother Nature herself.
In other words, instead of the top-down Father Sky approach, how about we combine that with the feeling state of Mother Earth?
Just as women and girls the world over are suffering in massive numbers from rape, pillage and plunder (1 out of 3 women will be abused, beaten or violated in some way in her lifetime), so too is Mother Earth. Her body is being ravaged and polluted by a cultural mindset of domination, otherwise known as "power over," rather than power with. It seems to me that the earth and the female body have become devalued and dominated together. The feminine archetypes have merged.
"Violence against women is one of the biggest challenges that we face in the 21st century," said Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women, last week at the Social Good Summit in New York City. Mother Earth also seems to be a victim of this violence against the feminine, which I think needs to be considered as discussions ensue on the climate crisis.
There is hope as a group of powerful women leaders from more than 35 countries around the world gathered recently to address the climate crisis at the International Women's Earth and Climate Summit. Among them were Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Jody Williams, former President of Ireland Mary Robinson, former Brazilian Minister of Environment Marina Silva, primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall, and the UN's Christiana Figueres. Their purpose was to create new strategies (and amplify existing ones that are working) to draft a Women's Climate Action Agenda.
The International Women's Earth and Climate Summit stands as just one example of women claiming their authority and voice as leaders and stewards of our earth.
Mothers Out Front is a grassroots group in Boston made up of mothers, grandmothers, and other caregivers who say they no longer can be silent about the very real danger that climate change poses on their children and grandchildren's future. The group is bringing a whole new constituency of women's voices to the forefront of the conversation. "We are now an organized constituency whose moral voice, energy and determination will become an unstoppable force for political and societal change," they say.
Women's leadership is essential in this movement to address the crisis of climate change. Not only do we need women's voices to lead the conversation around how we relate to our earth, we need the Mother archetype present to help us reframe our relationship with our home planet.
For those who need substantive evidence, a study of 130 countries found that countries with higher female parliamentary representation are more prone to ratify international environmental treaties.
When there are more women involved in political decision-making (i.e. equal gender representation), this reshapes the conversation by bringing a feminine consciousness to the tables of power.
As the UN looks ahead at the new vision for the world, how we want to live with each other, and what kind of global society do we really want, climate change is going to be a centerpiece of the conversation. But how can we help Mother Nature weigh in? How can we help her voice be heard? I think we have to start working with her, instead of against her. And that starts with listening to her.
Tabby Biddle is a women's leadership expert and writer covering women's rights and the empowerment of women and girls. She was the recipient of a United Nations Foundation Global Issues Press Fellowship during the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly.