Women are more likely to live in poverty, be vulnerable to natural disasters, and experience the direct impacts of flooding and drought. But as activists Greta Thunberg, Naomi Klein, and Vanessa Nakate can attest, they also hold the keys to fighting the deep impact of climate change.
Evidence shows investing in girls and women is a promising climate solution. Women can use strong ties to their communities to advocate and gain trust for renewable energy technologies, for example.
And experts say educating girls, empowering women in leadership, and involving women in agricultural decisions are also hopeful routes, but they are often overlooked.
Educated Women Can Share Resources and Skills Needed to Tackle Climate Change
Countries are preparing to submit their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) — national strategies to reduce emissions proposed every five years. Sociological contributors to climate change from gender equality to education must be considered alongside technical solutions, Christina Kwauk, global economy and development fellow at the Brookings Institution's Center for Universal Education, says.
"Investing in girls' education could be a potentially powerful solution to some of the adaptation strategies and mitigation strategies that many climate actors are really invested in," Kwauk told Global Citizen.
A young girl in grade four listens during class at Phonsivilay Primary School, Meun District, Lao PDR.
When Kwuak and her colleagues analyzed 160 NDCs from 2015, they noticed only one of them mentioned girls' education.
"It's very clear people who are in climate policymaking are not thinking about education, and they're not thinking about girls' education," she said.
Part of the problem is that the climate community is narrowly focused on reducing carbon emissions — one of the largest contributors to climate change — with technical solutions, Kwauk explained.
"There's also the challenge that people think that the outcomes of education can only really be seen in several years' time, whereas you can see the immediate impact on carbon," she added. "If we look at other models of education that are much more transformative, problem-based, community-based, you can see the impact of the education efforts tomorrow — on the lives and livelihoods of our communities."
Investing in girls' education can ensure the next generation has the STEM and ecologically-oriented skills necessary to transition to a green economy, Kwuak says.
A lot of climate efforts are focused on women who are in agricultural sectors, but Kwuak cautions against only targeting women, not girls.
"We're going to continue to have to put this band-aid solution on at the mid to latter parts of their lives, as opposed to ensuring that they can enter into these fields," she said.
Women Have the Background Knowledge to Implement Climate-Smart Agriculture
Women on average account for 43% of the agricultural labor force in developing countries. Despite their invaluable contributions, they hardly receive as much credit, land, agricultural education, information, or as many resources compared to men. Instead, their work often goes unpaid or underpaid.
Women’s active roles in the community equip them with the knowledge to help find solutions to adapt to the effects of climate change. They are traditionally responsible for fetching water, cooking fuel and other household necessities, and oversee food production — which puts them in direct contact with the effects of climate change daily.
Investing in women through education and better access to information could immensely improve agricultural productivity, Joky François, gender lead at the Rainforest Alliance says.
If women in agriculture received more support, "it would not be needed to cut more forests and change them into agricultural lands, it would be possible to remain on the same piece of land," she told Global Citizen.
Elena Sam Pec lives in Puente Viejo, Guatemala, a mostly agrarian indigenous community. The women of the village participate in a joint program empowering more than 1,600 rural women to become economically self-reliant.
Women have the advantage of staying in one place, whereas men often migrate, sometimes for months at a time for work, François explained. Since women tend to stay on the land all the time, they can implement new methods and tools effectively. They can look out for early climate change warning signs in the weather and among animals.
"We should not see them as victims, but rather as agents of change," François said. "Make them visible and invest in them and give them the opportunity to grow."
Women Leaders and Decision-Makers Make More Sustainable Choices
Women are often excluded from major government and decision-making, but when they are empowered to participate, they bring more empathy and inclusiveness to the table. Equal leadership representation benefits both men and women.
Research shows that companies with more women executives on their boards are more likely to reduce carbon emissions, improve energy efficiency, and invest in renewable energy. According to one study by researchers at the University of Oregon and University of California, Davis, countries with higher female parliamentary representation are more likely to ratify international environmental treaties. And when women have secure rights and access to land, they use their resources sustainably.
The organization Mothers Out Front aims to unite mothers, grandmothers, and other caregivers to use their expertise to support the climate movement. Kim Sudderth, senior organizer at Mothers Out Front’s Virginia chapter, works to encourage women who are not used to being in leadership roles to step up for their communities.
"Typically women and mothers are more in tune with what's happening with our children in particular and our family as a whole," Sudderth told Global Citizen. "Having us left out of the conversation, you lose that important perspective that should be involved in helping to shape decisions."
Sudderth worked with one group of mothers who live in a public housing community in Virginia. Whenever it rained, the field in front of an elementary school flooded and children could not get to school. With support from Mothers Out Front, they were able to reach out to the Department of Transportation and advocate for public schools to implement a special bus route during heavy rain.
"Had they not been invited into that conversation about climate justice, we would probably still be making that difficult choice of whether to go to school or not," she said.
"For decision-makers, folks who are in elected positions, what they can do is make a special effort to prepare women and people of color to be ready to serve on those boards and commissions to be part of the process," she added.