In 2016, I (Catherine) was slated to give Canada’s statement as minister for environment and climate change at the COP22 climate negotiations in Marrakesh. Instead, I decided to share that time with Maatalii Okalik, then the president of the National Inuit Youth Council of Canada. I knew this young Inuk woman would convey more compellingly than I how climate change was affecting her community—their land, the ice, culture, food, health, safety—and how it is threatening that community’s very existence. I wasn’t allowed to cede the stage to her, but I decided to break the rules. The delegates were inspired by Maatali’s story, and it really set the stage for negotiations and the stakes to get a successful outcome.
As world leaders gather this week at COP27, men and other allies should consider this example and cede podium time to women.* In addition, we need to break more conventions and rules to ensure that underrepresented women’s voices are heard throughout these negotiations. This is especially critical as attendees discuss how the countries of the Global North, responsible for most of the world’s carbon output, should help the Global South deal with the effects of that pollution. The perspectives of women, whose voices are underrepresented in climate discussions, are instrumental to solving the climate crisis in a more just and equitable fashion and can contribute powerfully to our understanding of climate action across the globe.
Ceding the floor to women at these meetings is more than just a gesture; it’s a matter of fairness. U.N. studies show that 80 percent of people displaced by climate change are women. The floods in Pakistan earlier this year are a prime example: huge numbers of rural women have lost their homes and their livelihoods, and about 650,000 women could now face disruptions in pregnancy-related health care. The effects of climate change on women compound existing gendered conditions that exist in many places. This includes higher income inequality and financial insecurity. And we know that with a changing climate, if we do not act decisively now, the situation will only get worse.
At the same time, women are leading the way around the world in advocating for climate action and providing solutions. Young women are on the streets demanding change. Indigenous women are mobilizing in their communities. Women scientists are doing critical climate research and innovating in labs. And many women parliamentarians are pushing for climate-positive laws in government.
But, when it comes to international climate negotiations, where policy changes are solidified and goals are set for climate-mitigating and adaptive actions, these women’s voices need to be amplified. And we need to not only hear more women’s voices, we need to hear a far greater diversity of women’s voices. That diversity reflects the experiences that women are experiencing in locations suffering the most, whether deforestation, economic hardship, displacement, extreme weather, food insecurity or any combination of these challenges.
The U.N.’s strong commitment to promote gender equality is making progress. Over the years, women have come to comprise a larger percentage of the delegates to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) constituted bodies, the chief technical and decision-making committees for global climate deliberations. For example, in 2021, the Adaptation Committee reached 68 percent women’s membership.
But at the main negotiating tables, major barriers to women remain. The Gender Action Plan calls for women's full, equal and meaningful participation in the U.N. climate process and to ensure a prominent role for women in decision-making and climate policies. However, fewer than 30 percent of the lead negotiators are women. This is despite progress; many country national climate action plans now cross-reference gender, and country delegations include more women. And at last year’s plenary sessions at the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP) in Glasgow, men had a disproportionately higher share of active speaking roles at the important plenary sessions and took up 74 percent of the speaking time. We hope this year and next year can be different.
It’s beyond time to acknowledge inside the halls of COPs—and not just on the streets outside the main venues—that grassroots movements, feminist collectives and women of color have historically spearheaded more equitable and inclusive solutions to climate change. We need traditional knowledge and different visions of sustainable development and community engagement rather than business as usual at the center of climate action deliberations. Women shouldn’t have to keep yelling from the bleachers.
Academic research on women’s participation in global negotiations points to more durable outcomes and greater ease in bridging cultural and sectarian divides. Research has also highlighted how higher women’s political participation contributes more robustly to spending on health and foreign aid, as well as expenditures targeting women’s needs, all of which is critical to this current round of climate negotiations. Women leaders also cultivate stronger ties to local community leaders and civic networks, which is particularly important for climate policy where knowledge of localized effects is evolving and is variable from place to place.
As delegates struggle to navigate the most difficult elements of global climate negotiations— loss and damage and climate finance for the Global South—women and Indigenous people deserve an outsized voice because it is their fate that is most in jeopardy.
We know that existing inequality and power imbalances in various societies can be deadly for women and girls when severe weather and other climatic events strike in those socioeconomic and cultural contexts. In many locations, women don’t own land or have access to economic assets that might protect them during natural disasters or enhance their mobility.
Indigenous women are at the front lines of protecting forests and biodiversity. Women have direct roles in promoting disaster response and climate adaptation. Younger activists, who have rejected the status quo, should not be asked to shoulder a burden created by previous generations.
Besides being more inclusive of who gets to speak at official meetings of the COP27, we urge delegates to target in their finance deliberations more specific funding to training women delegates, especially those from least developed countries, so they can participate actively in the negotiations. More funds need to be allocated to cover their travel to international meetings and to enable their active participation. Major donors to the U.N. system should step up to the plate to make sure more resources are being targeted to achieve gender equality in official climate meetings, both for COPs and for constituted body sessions. As the discussion moves more squarely onto adaptation finance and loss and damage, women’s voices must be louder and more salient, given women’s prominent role in small-scale agriculture, social care roles and disaster recovery around the globe.
If this week’s climate deliberations are to meet the moment, they will need to go beyond past paradigms and patterns of decision-making. What’s needed is a bolder vision for how to move forward, one that truly encompasses who is harmed by climate change, what they need to adapt and thrive, and how to heal the planet. So far, the traditional political hierarchies have failed to present real alternatives. It’s time to open the door to those who are most directly affected and who might have greater insights on the urgent response that is required.
*Editor’s Note (11/8/22): This sentence was edited after posting to clarify an issue of precedent.
This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.