The story of climate change is often told in far-off and large-scale ways — global greenhouse gas emissions will someday make sea levels rise, storms more extreme, droughts more withering, and heat waves more intense. It’s also told as a story of doom, an irrevocable shift that could upend human life.
But the full picture is more complex. For many people around the world, major environmental disruptions are already being felt, and they’re also being dealt with in resilient ways.
That’s what’s happening in the coastal village of La Ensenada, Colombia, where the environmental organization Conservation International recently traveled to document how women and girls are being affected by rising sea levels. The organization is actively working to protect coastlines throughout the country.
When the team arrived, it encountered a young girl named Dulce, and she became the protagonist of a short film called Dulce produced by CI and directed by Guille Isa and Angello Faccini featured on the New York Times website.
In both the film and their time with Dulce, a central, metaphorical problem quickly revealed itself: Dulce couldn’t swim. For her mother, Betty Arboleda, that’s a frightening prospect. She’s seen sea levels rise throughout her life and knows that storm surges and floods have become powerful. Dulce’s inability to stay afloat is also a crisp allegory for the uncertainty created by climate change and the potential need for people to learn basic survival skills.
As the film explores this fraught tension, it never once mentions climate change, but the phenomenon saturates the film with a sense of dread.
The cinematography is meditative, moving slowly through scenes and allowing natural sounds like raindrops plunking and footsteps on stones and into mud to gain greater depth.
At the center of everything is the tender relationship between Arboleda and Dulce, a parent trying to safely guide her child into the future.
“How do you get people across the world to care about people on the coasts threatened by rising sea levels?” Anastasia Khoo, chief marketing officer at Conservation International, told Global Citizen.
“This is a story about universal values,” she added. ”There’s nothing stronger than the value between a parent and a child. That is something no matter where you live, most people understand the power of love. This is about a mother who will do anything to protect her child.”
The film follows Dulce as she learns to swim and Arboleda as she collects mollusks embedded in the mud around a mangrove forest to sell to merchants. They have to take a boat to get there, and Dulce often accompanies her mom, magnifying the need for her to learn how to swim.
Arboleda doesn't know how much longer she’ll be able to do this job, which has been around for generations, because the mangrove forests are being destroyed by overdevelopment. Mangroves harbor vibrant ecosystems, store carbon in their soil, and provide a bulwark against rising sea levels and storms.
As the mangroves disappear in La Ensenada, the coastal community is being threatened by storm surges and Dulce’s mother acknowledges that they may have to move and learn a new way of life.
It’s a prospect that other women experiencing environmental disruptions know well.
“Women's roles are often related to natural resources,” Shyla Raghav, climate lead at Conservation International, told Global Citizen. “They’re usually the providers for families, so there tends to be a closer connection to impacts like sea level rise or impacts that directly affect their ability to interact with nature.”
“Dulce is a powerful example of sea level rise threatening homes of this coastal community,” she added.
Around the world, women and girls are disproportionately harmed by climate change. One reason is because women are often tasked with collecting water, food, and other natural resources for their families. Oftentimes, women have to trek hours to collect clean water and as droughts become more common and severe, collecting water will become an increasingly precarious endeavor.
Women are also more likely to live in poverty, and climate change exacerbates existing inequalities, according to a 2017 report from the European Parliament. In fact, women make up 70% of the 1.2 billion people earning less than $1 a day, largely because home and caretaking responsibilities often go unpaid. In the UK alone, $1.6 trillion of domestic work goes unpaid each year.
Natural disasters have the biggest impact on people living in poverty because they’re less able to buy necessary supplies and safely move in the aftermath. As powerful storms and flooding becoming more common in the decades ahead, women are most vulnerable to their damage.
“More women than men are killed by natural disasters, and women and girls are often last to receive humanitarian assistance in the event of climate shocks,” Christiana Figueres, the former head of UN Environment, wrote in a blog post earlier this year. “Sourcing water, fuel, and wood — often the responsibility of women — is a greater struggle both during extreme weather events and with more incremental climatic changes.”
Girls are also more likely to be forced into early marriages after natural disasters because families desperate for income sell off their daughters.
To make matters worse, women have less political power in countries around the world and are consequently less able to advocate for sustainable policies.
On the flipside, two of the most effective ways to mitigate climate change include giving women control over their bodies through access to family planning because it could help control the global population and providing girls 12 years of free education because it allows women to gain more opportunity in their lives. And despite political marginalization, women and girls are often leading grassroots movements against climate change.
While those issues aren’t explicitly explored in Dulce, it’s clear that the women in the documentary are deeply connected to the environment in which they live and work.
“Fundamentally, conservation is about people," Raghav said. "It’s about the well-being of people — a deep understanding that we as humanity cannot sustain ourselves and our lives without protection the planet."