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Climate crisis

Climate change: women must be heard at COP26

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Amazonian women march on International Women's Day in 2020. Photo: Karen Toro / Climate Visuals Countdown

The growing climate crisis affects more women than men, and its solutions must reflect the fact that it is a feminist issue, writes Mary Robinson.

First published in Chatham House's The World Today.

The world has witnessed tectonic shifts over the past 21 months. The COVID-19 pandemic has both exposed and exacerbated fundamental cracks in our societies. A phrase commonly used about differing experiences of the pandemic is, ‘the same storm but different boats’.

This analogy is just as apt for the climate crisis. We are all riding the terrible waves of the climate crisis, but we are not all in the same boat. Some are not in a boat at all, but already feel as though they are clinging to a lifebelt and at the mercy of the tide.

The climate crisis affects countries and communities disproportionately and it affects women more than men.

The climate crisis is unquestionably a feminist issue. A 2020 mapping analysis of 130 peer-reviewed studies published by Carbon Brief shows that women and girls often face disproportionately high health risks from the effects of climate change when compared with men and boys.

“80% of the studies show women as more likely to suffer from climate-driven food insecurity.”

- Mary Robinson


As the latest report from the International Panel on Climate Change shows, there is growing evidence of the role climate change plays in complex extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, droughts and wildfires.

Nearly two thirds of the studies Carbon Brief scrutinised in 2020 show women as more likely to suffer an injury or to die in an extreme weather event. Additionally, 80% of the studies show women as more likely to suffer from climate-driven food insecurity.

Women more vulnerable to impacts of climate change

Climate change threatens reproductive and maternal health by raising the risks for pregnant women and their unborn babies and by limiting access to quality reproductive and maternal health services.

Women’s roles as caregivers and providers of food, water and fuel often means they are first to be affected by the slower changes brought on by the climate crisis.

“We must be careful not to view women and girls through a lens of vulnerability but appreciate them as the vital agents of change they are.”

- Mary Robinson

I once described African farmers as the ‘barometers and first detectors of climate change’. But what was once happening slowly is now happening at pace.

Lake Chad was one of the largest lakes in the world, but as much as 90% of it has disappeared in the past 50 years. Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, an environmental activist from Chad, speaks of the burden this places on women. As the shoreline recedes, women have to walk further and further to collect water.

We must be careful though not to view women and girls only through a lens of vulnerability. We need to appreciate them as the vital agents of change that they are.

Women must play a crucial role in the climate change adaptation and mitigation needed to navigate a path to calmer waters. It is often women who have the understanding of what is needed to adapt to changing environmental conditions and to come up with practical solutions – but they remain a largely untapped resource.

The United Nations has highlighted the need for gender-sensitive responses to the effects of climate change, yet the average representation of women in national and global climate negotiating bodies is below 30%. More needs to be done to ensure women are heard; that climate finance is accessible to both men and women; and that those responses are designed to redress and not exacerbate patterns of inequity.

All voices must be heard at COP26

As we approach COP26 in Glasgow, it is important that national plans and policies to counter climate change do not further entrench gender-based inequalities.

Targets must ensure the transformation of societies and economies in a way that leaves no one behind. Therefore, it is so important that there is space given at COP26 for all voices to be heard.

These voices must include the voices of women and girls, particularly the voices of those from the Global South, climate-vulnerable nations and from marginalised groups or communities.

The window of opportunity to limit global temperature rise to 1.5C is very narrow but still scientifically possible. The global community must grasp this opportunity to not only move urgently away from fossil fuels but to aim towards societies that put care, social justice and human rights for all at the centre.

“If we are one of the privileged few to be on a well-maintained ship, then we should be doing all we can to reach out to those in the most treacherous waters.”

- Mary Robinson

We are not all in the same boat. If we are one of the privileged few to be seated on a steady, well-maintained ship as we watch the calamity around us then we should be doing all we can to reach out to those in the most treacherous waters.

We must throw out life rafts, not only because of the moral imperative to do so but because we need each and every one of us in this fight. Only if we face this storm together will we come through it.

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