A program field technician demonstrates good agricultural practices such as pruning and trellising to a female long bean farmer in Cambodia. [USAID Photo]

Why Gender Matters to the Global Effort to Tackle Climate Change

There’s a lot going on in the world this week. But the COP 22 climate conference stands out as a bright spot.

The conference will end with a clear path forward on including women and girls in global efforts on climate change. COP22’s renewal of a gender program ensures that women and gender equality will continue to be part of the global conversation on climate change, that people will be able to exchange best practices on gender and climate, that data will be collected on women’s participation in international climate negotiations.

But why should either the gender or the climate communities care whether or not women and girls were included in COP22 and its outcomes? To get to the heart of this issue, I reached out to Lorena Aguilar, the Global Senior Gender Adviser at International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and a climate change negotiator for Costa Rica.

Aguilar has a long legacy of championing gender equality and women’s perspectives when it comes to climate negotiations, making her a go-to expert on how these issues affect each other. Here is a lightly edited version of our exchange.

Lorena Aguilar, who is the Global Senior Gender Adviser at International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and a climate change negotiator for Costa Rica (second from right), joins a panel discussion on climate change.

Russell: Where do you see the conversation on gender equality and climate change? Is there an understanding that women and girls are often disproportionately affected by climate change, but also important players in mitigating it? How can we better make that argument?

The conversation on gender and climate change is one of the most important conversations we can and should be having right now.

Aguilar: The conversation on gender and climate change is one of the most important conversations we can and should be having right now.

The rhetoric around climate change is becoming more mainstream — but what is less known are the differentiated impacts it has on women and men and the value of a gender perspective in combatting climate change.

Women are incredible agents of change and solution-holders when it comes to combatting climate change. Women are farmers growing our food; they are the seed custodians protecting our planet’s biological diversity, they make up to 80 percent of the world’s consumption decisions, and — increasingly — they are the engineers installing our wind turbines and solar panels. Incorporating women in solving climate challenges is necessary — we make up half of the population and represent 3.5 billion ways to change the world.

Women and girls in every region of the world are experiencing some of the most severe effects of climate change due to the sociocultural, economic and political barriers they face. Women in most regions of the world have less access to things like land and land rights, credit and decision-making power, education and technical training opportunities, such as agricultural extensions services — so when natural disasters like droughts and floods strike, their safety net is non-existent and their capacity for resilience is undermined.

However, we are still somewhat lacking when it comes to understanding the intrinsic importance of advancing gender equality and recognizing women’s roles in the battle against climate change, and I think we can do a better job with highlighting women’s agency — moving beyond vulnerability to focus on incredible potential.

Today what I think we need to do is to transition from words to action and experience a true paradigm shift towards embracing the power of equality. Progress cannot happen until gender is an integral thread woven throughout all parts of climate change discourse — from policy to planning to programming and beyond.

Russell: How did you get involved in gender and climate change?

Aguilar: My background is in environmental anthropology, and I’ve been working on issues related to gender and the environment for many, many years, but about 15 years ago while doing field work with communities, I started to notice changes in the climate. Those of us working as technicians didn’t even fully understand what was happening, and both we and local people were puzzled — the migration of bird species was changing, weather patterns shifting; climate variability was becoming obvious.

At that moment in time, however, the concept of adaptation was not discussed or understood as it is now and we were barely focused on climate change at all, let alone its impacts. Global policymaking was slow to catch up to the reality people were living every day.

At IUCN, we provide support to connect the dots and ensure women’s and men’s lives and livelihoods are safeguarded.

Russell: I often meet with women who do their work in rooms full of men, whether that’s in Parliament or peace negotiations. Do you find that you’re the only woman in the room when you’re negotiating? What’s that experience been like for you?

Aguilar: As a young Latina woman that started working on gender equality and environment issues before I was 25 years old, I have always been an outlier or unable to be easily categorized. Very often, I am not only the sole woman in the room but the only one representing a developing country.

While this can be challenging, I also view it as an opportunity. I bring the perspective of a woman and a minority, both of which are much needed in the climate negotiation space.

For the past 30 years as I’ve been working on promoting gender equality, from the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and every UNFCCC COP since, I’ve seen the dial slowly begin to shift when it comes to women’s representation at decision-making table. However, while we are seeing more and more women getting involved, I’ve noticed that sometimes women are fearful of acknowledging themselves as a woman and offering that perspective because they don’t want to just check a gender box or meet a quota — they want to be there because they have worked hard and deserve to be.

Seeing more women is fundamental to advancing gender equality, but also we need more women and men who can embrace and champion principles like gender equality and human rights. It’s not only the quantity that matters — but the quality of who is sitting at the negotiating table.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and former Moroccan Ambassador to the U.S. Aziz Mekouar host the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate Ministerial Meeting at COP22 in Marrakech, Morocco, on November 16, 2016. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

Russell: IUCN has been working with the United States to tackle climate change by advancing gender equality. Can you tell me more about the project? Is there a single success story that stands out to you?

Aguilar: The Gender Equality for Climate Change Opportunities, or “GECCO”, initiative — a joint programme between us in the IUCN Global Gender Office and USAID — is one of our most incredible portfolios of work. The goal of GECCO is to leverage advancements in women’s empowerment and gender equality for the benefit of climate change and development outcomes.

GECCO manifests itself in targeted support in three areas — facilitating national climate change gender action plans; advancing gender-responsive REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation); and — and this is really exciting — knowledge creation and dissemination around and in support of an energy sector that can be truly transformative for women’s empowerment and gender equality.

The one aspect of our GECCO work that stands out most to me is our energy work and the fact that we are filling a gap in one of the least discussed areas of climate change — gender and mitigation. Women have such an important role to play when it comes to mitigating climate change, yet when considering possible low-emission development strategies, very few governments and institutions are thinking about how women can make contributions to this effort. In fact, if women are considered, it’s mostly in terms of their vulnerability and their contributions to emissions from cooking fires; disregarding the role they can play as key energy managers, whether at household level, or as key actors in the production, development, marketing, and servicing of new low-emission energy fuels and technologies.

While adaptation is crucial to building resilience and combatting climate change, I’m thrilled that, through GECCO, we are able to move beyond and tackle some of these issues that are really quite nascent on the global stage. It’s a new frontier but the interest and engagement we’re getting is incredible — Forbes magazine even rated GECCO’s G-REEN platform the number one source of information on gender and renewable energy last year!

Russell: This week, Morocco is hosting the 22nd Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, also known as COP 22. What does success look like moving forward?

Aguilar: We know that inclusive and equitable climate policies and programs can deliver social and economic development co-benefits and will support steps towards sustainable development. We have the data to prove this! In just the last few years, Parties to the UNFCCC have agreed on more than 50 decisions that integrate gender considerations — including the Paris Agreement, which is incredible and historic. But now we need to move this agenda forward. If we can do this, then we will effectively create a blueprint for Parties to address climate change in a gender-responsive manner.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks at the 22nd UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP22) in Marrakech, Morocco, on November 16, 2016. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]