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Category: Feminism, Environment, International

Saving the Earth: What Science Can’t Accomplish

| April 22, 2010

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Alliance members in Copenhagen with dignitaries Finland President Tarja Halonen, Philippines Senator Pia Cayetano, and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi

As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, the author describes how women have worked to break through the seemingly impervious bureaucracy at the UN to finally impress on world leaders that saving the earth depends on guaranteeing women equal rights and status.

Hillary Rodham Clinton tells of traveling in Africa as secretary of state in a van with several Africa experts. Out the window she saw an unending line of women, many carrying babies on their backs, hauling water jars or bundles of wood on their heads, in fields hoeing, and selling produce in the marketplaces. Clinton commented to her companions that women seemed to work constantly. “Yes. But, it doesn’t count….It’s not part of the formal economy,” an economist volunteered. Clinton’s rejoinder: “Well if every woman who did all that work stopped tomorrow, the formal economy would collapse.”

Similarly, whether formally recognized or not—and it’s generally not—women around the world and gender equality are intimately connected with climate change concerns. So much so that how we go about treating both will affect how we face the expanding disaster of global warming.

Clinton related her story in her UN speech last month for the Conference on the Status of Women. She remarked that climate change will be felt by all of us but that women in developing countries “will be particularly hard hit” as heavier and more frequent floods and droughts will force them to work even harder to farm and walk ever farther to find wood and safe drinking water. By 2020 the United States and its allies are to contribute $100B annually for those countries most struck by the worsening weather disasters while having contributed little, if anything, to global warming. In addressing the crisis, Clinton said, “we must increase women’s access to adaptation and mitigation technologies and programs so that they can protect their families and help us all meet this global challenge.”

Clinton celebrates women as “key partners and problem solvers” capable of combining their own knowledge and experience with promised resources and training from the west. NGOs have been struggling for years to introduce women and gender equality into UN climate change negotiations. They have begun to see some progress. Secretary of State Clinton on their side should strengthen their case.

When the machinery for dealing with international climate change was assembled in Rio de Janeiro at the “Earth Summit” in 1992 through the new UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), it was believed that science held the solution, beginning with keeping inventories of green house gases and their removal. No mention of women or gender entered the document then or when it was ratified two years later. Nor did either appear in the frequently cited Kyoto Protocol of 1997—which dealt with mitigating green house gases through, for example, sequestering liquid carbon dioxide and pumping it deep underground or cap and trade agreements.

“While women’s groups tried to get in the door,” Cate Owren, program director of WEDO (Women’s Environment and Development Organization) explained, there was no space for social issues, only science, business and industry. The gender message was ignored, considered a “distraction” Owren said by many in government and civil society.

Finally, at Bali in 2007, came a breakthrough: the human side of the crisis was finally given a front center seat. With mitigation technologies proving inadequate, adaptation approaches—responses to severe or unusual climate changes to protect communities and the environment from long and short term damage—were becoming more important.

The recognition of the human costs of climate change and the fact that it spares no one and nothing in its path meant that now gender considerations might be heard. At Bali, WEDO and three other organizations formed a coalition, the Global Gender and Climate Alliance. Today it includes 25 NGOs and 13 UN agencies. Owren enumerated benefits of the alliance: sharing expertise, more staff and resources for more gender workshops for delegates and government ministers, and more access to higher levels of governments to advocate and win support.

At Copenhagen last December, the women’s cause met with several successes. The UNFCCC added a new category, “Women and Gender,” which gives the NGOs that cluster under the heading more influence. And the new alliance could claim real progress: a draft agreement they helped negotiate contained eight references to women and gender—a feat not to be underestimated. The right language attached to the $100B annual fund, which Clinton unveiled in Copenhagen, will mean both more women leaders at all levels and that gender initiatives will receive equitable resources. Work on the draft—which will modify or replace the Kyoto Protocol—will continue into the Cancun meeting in December. Will the final document contain more or fewer mentions of women and gender?

Meanwhile, a problem has already appeared. It was odd timing: in early March, just as the entire area of Manhattan around the UN was crawling with women wearing their blue Conference for the Status of Women tags, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced a “High-level Advisory Group on Climate Change Financing” composed exclusively of men. Disbelief and anger were palpable on streets and in meeting rooms. More than 150 organizations signed an open letter to the Secretary General urging him to appoint women to the advisory group.

Ban, a passionate crusader for women’s rights, was taken aback by this oversight.  Yet, by the first meeting of the committee, in London March 31, only one prominent woman had been added, French Finance Minister Christine Lagrande. Assistant Secretary General Rachel Mayanja told WEDO that the committee would not be expanded but that expert women would be recruited for specialized committees to assist the group.

The proposed solution of specialized committees—which really has the air of subcommittees—only seems to add injury to insult. Maybe this misstep by a true supporter of women’s rights and gender will help steel women for the Cancun meeting, where anything may happen.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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