Women Will Save the World from Climate Change

Climate change is an incredibly complex issue and presents enormous environmental, political, and developmental challenges to the entire world. Cooperation and collaboration across governments, international institutions, and the private sector has proven difficult but is necessary to save the planet. The issue has received increased attention in recent years, particularly with the signing of the Paris Agreement in 2016. Yet, issues of gender and the impact of climate change on women and girls are not often included in the discourse on climate change, despite the disproportionate effects climate change has on women and women’s leadership on the issue.


The 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) makes no specific reference to gender, women, or girls.[1] Only in 2001, at the 7th Conference of the Parties (COP) was climate change linked to gender, with the recognition that women’s participation in decision-making related to climate change needed to be increased. COP 16 called for “gender-sensitive adaption actions,” COP 18 included gender equality and climate as a standing agenda item. The Lima Work Program on Gender was adopted at COP 20, which promotes gender balance and gender-responsive climate policy and includes support for workshops, training, and capacity-building. The Paris Agreement, signed at COP 21, made major contributions to the inclusion of gender equality and women’s empowerment in climate initiatives. The agreement encourages signatories to include gender-responsive adaptation and capacity-building efforts in climate policy, and UN Women believes the Paris Agreement lays a solid foundation for “truly gender-responsive climate actions and centrally embed[s] women’s and girls’ needs, interests, and contributions.”[2] Yet, it is important to note that the Paris Agreement did not contain binding enforcement mechanisms and the gender discourse included in the agreement was not frequently included in the international discourse around the agreement.


Why is it so important to include gender issues in climate change action? The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has identified that climate change does not affect everyone equally: the “impacts on women and men often differ due to pervasive historical and existing inequalities and multidimensional social factors, including discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, age, and disability.”[3] The impacts of climate change, which include extreme weather, droughts, floods, increased incidence of disease, and food and water insecurity, disproportionately affect the world’s poor. 70% of the world’s poor are women, which means they are forced to bear a larger burden of the consequences of climate change.[4] Additionally, women are more likely to do agricultural work, be responsible for household food security, spend time retrieving water and fuel, and to rely on threatened natural resources: all roles that will be made more difficult on a warming planet.[5]Research shows that climate disasters lead to increases in gender-based violence, domestic violence, sexual exploitation of children, and human trafficking.[6] Furthermore, women are systematically excluded from decision-making processes and labor markets, and so their voices are not often included in the planning, policymaking, and implementation of climate initiatives.[7] Ecofeminists see a parallel between the exploitation of nature and the exploitation of women, and thus an inherent connection between efforts to protect the environment and to improve gender equality.[8]




Yet, women’s participation and leadership are critical to the success of climate policy: it will lead to sustainable resource management, greater responsiveness to the needs of citizens, more innovative and localized solutions, and improved outcomes of climate-related policies.[9] One study found that countries with higher proportions of women representatives in the legislature were more likely to ratify environmental treaties than other countries.[10] Other studies have found that when women have legal rights to own land, they are more likely to manage resources sustainably.[11] Without including women in the fight against climate change, policies will be less effective, existing inequalities will be magnified, and climate change will persist.


Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are many female leaders at the frontlines of the global fight against climate change. Christiana Figueres, a Costa Rican diplomat, made a significant impact during her tenure as head of the UNFCCC. Not only did she rebuild the UNFCCC’s negotiating process after the failed COP 15 in Copenhagen, but she is also responsible for bringing together governments, corporations, think tanks, NGOs, activists, financial institutions, and religious communities to implement the historic 2015 Paris Agreement. She describes her passion for environmental issues as tied to her being a mother and said, “we don’t become mothers to hand over something that is diminishing to our children.”[12] The importance of her leadership and “brand of collaborative diplomacy” cannot be understated in recent climate progress.[13] Other female political leaders around the world have demonstrated leadership on climate issues; a notable example is the president of the Marshall Islands, Hilda Heine. The Marshall Islands is one of many countries disproportionately affected by the climate crisis, and because of this Heine has set a radical example for other countries: the Marshall Islands is committed to reaching zero net carbon emissions by 2050. Heine was the country’s first female member of parliament and its first female president, as has mobilized dozens of female political leaders to become climate “champions” like herself.[14]



Women are also on the front lines of climate activism around the world. Greta Thunberg, of Sweden, has become the face of the youth activist movement through her Friday for the Future protests. India Logan-Riley, of New Zealand, advocates for indigenous land rights as an integral part of climate justice. Indigenous activism is a critical part of climate activism, and other indigenous activists like Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim of Chad work to bridge the gap between the reality on the ground and international decision-makers.[15] Sheila Watt-Cloutier, an Inuit activist nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, began a global dialogue on the impact of climate change on human rights. She urges leaders and policymakers to see the big picture: the most critical issues the world faces involving the environment, the economy, foreign policy, global health, and sustainability are all interconnected, and solutions must take this into account.[16]



These women are just a few examples of hundreds of women who are leading the climate movement. Female leaders on climate come from all backgrounds and sectors; they are politicians, scientists, researchers, businesswomen, students, teachers, activists, diplomats, lawyers, actors, and architects. They are bringing a critical perspective and much-needed leadership to the climate discourse and advocating for the protection of the world’s most vulnerable people and places. The global advocacy organization Women Deliver puts it quite succinctly: women are the world’s best bet in the fight for a clean, healthy, and sustainable planet.[17]


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– L.B.


Image Sources:

No Climate Justice Without Gender Justice: https://virchowvillerme.eu/newsletter-2/cvv-contribution-women-climate-change/

Women gathering water: https://washmatters.wateraid.org/blog/business-has-a-key-role-to-play-in-helping-communities-withstand-climate-change

Hilda Heine: https://marshallislandsjournal.com/heine-praises-climate-summit/

India Logan-Riley: https://www.vogue.in/culture-and-living/content/greta-thunberg-and-the-young-climate-change-activists-who-are-determined-to-save-the-planet

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim: https://www.flickr.com/photos/un_photo/30057905418

Women Climate Defenders: https://www.madre.org/climatedefenders



[1] UN Women. Climate change and the environment. https://www.unwomen.org/en/how-we-work/intergovernmental-support/climate-change-and-the-environment.

[2] UN Women. Climate change and the environment. https://www.unwomen.org/en/how-we-work/intergovernmental-support/climate-change-and-the-environment.

[3] United Nations Climate Change. 2019. Bonn Conference Urges More Gender-Responsive Climate Action. July 11, 2019. https://unfccc.int/news/bonn-conference-urges-more-gender-responsive-climate-action.

[4] Alam, Mayesha, Rukmani Bhatia, and Briana Mawby. 2015. Women and Climate Change: Impact and Agency in Human Rights, Security, and Economic Development.

Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security.https://giwps.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Women-and-Climate-Change.pdf.

[5] Nelleman, Christian, Ritu Verma, and Lawrence Hislop. 2011. Women at the Frontline of Climate Change: Gender Risks and Hopes. A Rapid Response Assessment. United Nations Environmental Programme. https://gridarendal-website-live.s3.amazonaws.com/production/documents/:s_document/165/original/rra_gender_screen.pdf?1484143050.

[6] Women Deliver. Invest in Women to Tackle Climate Change and Conserve the Environment.


[7] United Nations Climate Change. Introduction to Gender and Climate Change. https://unfccc.int/gender.

[8] Capriccio, Megan. 2017. What is Ecofeminism? February 13, 2017. https://www.1millionwomen.com.au/blog/what-ecofeminism/.

[9] United Nations Climate Change. Introduction to Gender and Climate Change. https://unfccc.int/gender.

[10] Norgaard, Kari and Richard York. 2005. Gender Equality and State Environmentalism. GENDER & SOCIETY, Vol. 19 No. 4, August 2005 506-522. https://pages.uoregon.edu/norgaard/pdf/Gender-Equality-Norgaard-York-2005.pdf

[11] Women Deliver. Invest in Women to Tackle Climate Change and Conserve the Environment.https://womendeliver.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Deliver_For_Good_Brief_10_09.17.17.pdf.

[12] Waxman, Olivia. 2019. U.N. Climate Change Advocate Shares Her Negotiating Secret. April 16, 2016. Time Magazine. https://time.com/4308760/christiana-figueres-time-100-gala/.

[13] Figueres, Christiana. World Resources Institute. https://www.wri.org/profile/christiana-figueres.

[14] Murphy, Beth. 2018. The Battle Against Climate Change Needs More Women. Specifically, Hilda Heine. November 21, 2018. Bright Magazine. https://brightthemag.com/battle-against-climate-change-needs-women-hilda-heine-marshall-islands-environment-pacific-c8872892274e.

[15] Time Staff. 2019. Meet 15 Women Leading the Fight Against Climate Change. September 12, 2019. Time Magazine. https://time.com/5669038/women-climate-change-leaders/.

[16] Sheila Watt-Cloutier: Environmental, Cultural, and Human Rights Advocate. Speakers’ Spotlight. https://www.speakers.ca/speakers/sheila-watt-cloutier/.

[17] Women Deliver. Invest in Women to Tackle Climate Change and Conserve the Environment.



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