Many today still vehemently deny Climate Change, but it is, to use good old Al Gore’s phrase, “An Inconvenient Truth.” It will impact all life on earth, from the may-fly up to the blue whale. It will impact people of all races. It doesn’t care if you’re one-sixteenth Cherokee, or what language you speak. And it certainly doesn’t care if you can’t afford enough air-conditioning to see you through this impending apocalypse. But if Climate Change is the mother of all issues, then Climate Injustice is the aunt you cant ignore.
Climate Injustice has happened because the developed nations of the world have powered through on the back of fossil fuels (and colonies, but that’s for another time) leaving too many regions in the Global South to deal with carbon emissions not of their own making. But all the finger pointing and diplomatic back-and-forth mean nothing to the world’s most vulnerable communities. Which is exactly what the 21st Conferences of Parties on Climate Change (COP) has tried to address in Paris this year.
For many climate activists, the time to start was yesterday, and the result of COP21 could certainly have come sooner. But at long last, the Paris Agreement is finally here. It appears to take a well-rounded look at “the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity.”
But even though the words “gender equality,” “gender balance” and “gender-responsive” come up a handful of times in the Agreement, a strong voice from COP21 itself raised some red flags about gender as a concern.
This voice belongs to Mary Robinson, former Irish president and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who said: “If you don’t have women here, how can you say this is about people?” What she was pointing to was the embarrassingly low presence of women at these ‘historic‘ talks: there were only 26%-33% female heads of national delegations!
To echo Robinson, without adequate representation of women’s perspectives at such high level and sensitive talks, the unique problems of women in agriculture in African and Asian countries will just not be factored in. It means that the women in island-nation communities (Tuvalu, Fiji, Marshall Islands and others) must be that much more vigilant in the face of cyclones, protecting their children and getting them to safety.
If you’ve read Audrey Quinn’s comic, ‘Syria’s Climate Conflict,’ you’ll know what the long-term impacts of Climate Change can mean for a people. And for women, it does not bode well; worse in fact. The unequal division of labour means women with little or no resources in their name have it bad on a regular day. What happens to a primary caregiver with limited tools at hand in times of disaster or social unrest? When we talk of the world’s most vulnerable communities, we have to count the vast number of disempowered women among them.
On behalf of the National Organization of Andean and Amazonian Indigenous Women of Peru (ONAMIAP), Gladis Vila Pihue had also written that these talks have the responsibility of reflecting indigenous women’s experiences.
“If you undermine poor livelihoods,” said Robinson, “who has to pick up the pieces? Who has to put food on the table? Who has to go further in drought for firewood? The agents of—those who are trying to adapt and be resilient, the vast majority of farmers in the developed world, are women.”
So why shouldn’t the most historic climate agreement of our times also be about these women?
It seems ridiculous to exclude women from this most crucial stage for all human societies, when women have brought something amazing to the table. Without essentializing women as ‘nurturing,’ ‘patient,’ ‘labouring’ presences, we should take cognizance of their contributions to sustainable energy. In Thailand, Wandee Khunchornyakong runs the country’s largest solar power generation company. Seven thousand miles away, Ghanian women are meeting daily transport needs with organic, non-polluting construction material in the Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative. Priscilla Achakpa and her organization Women’s Environmental Program developed solar dryers for women in Nigeria to store their harvest. And there’s also Wanjira Mathai’s AFR100 and Green Belt Movement that seeks to restore forests. And yet, despite planning and executing, these women’s sustainability projects go unnoticed, when ideally they ought to be reproduced and adapted to other regions facing the similar challenges of pollution, congestion, unemployment, poverty, hunger, and poor distribution.
COP21 ended this year with the US demanding a change (a dilution, really) in the language of the document – to have a “shall” replaced with a “should”, and 195 countries had to “bend backwards to accommodate the biggest economy and the biggest greenhouse gas emitter in the world.” This tiny edit, being passed off as a typo, made headlines, but the fact that the Paris Agreement was not the gender-sensitive document it should have been was conveniently sidelined.