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Why Are Women Left out of Climate Change Policy Making?

International summit in NY aims to boost women’s role in addressing the climate crisis

Beginning today, September 20, one hundred women from around the world will gather in New York City for a three-day meeting to draft what they are calling a Women’s Climate Action Agenda.

The first International Women’s Earth and Climate Initiative Summit is designed to address two connected issues: the disproportionate way in which women are impacted by climate change and how, despite that fact, women are often left out of the decision-making process surrounding climate change policy. Summit participants – including well known leaders like Jane Goodall, Vandana Shiva, Christiana Figueres, Sylvia Earle, and’s May Boeve – hope to highlight the unique contributions women can make to solving the climate crisis. You can watch a live stream of the summit here.

photo of a woman showing the wilted outside of a cabbage in a fieldOxfam Hong KongThis farmer’s vegetables are dying due to chronic drought in the Gansu
province of China.

As of 2010, an estimated 26 million people had been displaced by climate change, 20 million of them women. In countries where women enjoy fewer economic and social rights, they are also more likely to die from extreme weather events, which are likely to increase with global warming. And because women in poor countries are responsible for most farming and water collection, they will also be disproportionately burdened by the increasing rate of droughts expected to accompany climate change.    

Despite these disparate impacts, women are dramatically underrepresented within international climate change negotiations. While representation has improved slightly in recent years, men continue to outnumber women three to one on national delegations to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). For the past five years, an average of only 19 percent of UNFCCC delegation heads have been women.

This trend also extends to other government bodies and non-profit organizations working on climate policy. For example, although women constitute approximately 75 percent of the workforce at US- based nonprofits with budgets exceeding $25 million, they hold only 21 percent of leadership positions. And in governments around the world, women occupy on average only 19 percent of national parliament seats.

“I am hoping that next weekend’s Summit will come up with creative strategies to address these issues, and not only because these [gender] imbalances are unfair,” Kelly Rigg, Executive Director of the Global Campaign for Climate Action said in a press release announcing the summit. “I think there is an awful lot of talent out there that’s not being fully utilized.”

Delegates to the summit represent varied approaches to women’s empowerment in the climate change movement. For example, Climate Wise Women, a New York City-based nonprofit that is an Earth Island Institute-sponsored project, focuses on storytelling as a means to promote women’s leadership on climate change, providing women with an international platform to share their personal experiences with climate change and to connect with other women.

Osprey Orielle Lake, founder and co-director of the International Women’s Earth and Climate Initiative (IWECI) and founder and president of the Women’s Earth and Climate Caucus, emphasizes the importance of such efforts to empower women: “Women are…very well poised for initiating a deeper conversation about values, about…our moral compass concerning climate change, and how we can move to a culture of nurturance and care for the earth and each other, and move away from destructive models, dominator models of society.”

The work that the IWECI, Climate Wise Women, and countless other organizations are doing to support women’s leadership in climate change decision-making could have significant implications for the adoption of climate change policy agreements – especially if such efforts lead to greater representation of women among national climate change delegations and within national government. A 2005 study published in Gender & Society found that nations with higher proportions of women in elected office are more likely to ratify environmental treaties than are nations with fewer women representatives.

One of the primary goals of the summit is to engage more women from around the world in solution-making surrounding climate change. As Clare Greensfelder, a policy consultant with the IWECI and Conversations with the Earth, says: “It is a matter of reaching beyond those [women] who are already engaged, giving them a place of engagement, and then moving them forward into action.”

Zoe Loftus-Farren
Zoe Loftus-Farren is managing editor of Earth Island Journal. In addition to her work with the Journal, her writing has appeared in Civil Eats, Alternet,, and Truthout, among other outlets. She also holds a law degree from Berkeley Law, where she studied environmental law and policy.

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