Women’s Crucial Role in Combating Climate Change
The link between climate change and women’s rights may seem baffling to some.
But for Zandile Gumede, the first female mayor of Durban, South Africa, they are inextricably woven together. She was elected last year in part on a promise to address environmental problems in the region, and engaging more women in the effort is crucial to finding solutions, she said.
Ms. Gumede, 55, knows something about the kind of political activism she is encouraging. She grew up in South Africa’s era of racial apartheid and rose through the ranks of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress.
Women are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change and are less likely to be educated as scientists or represented on committees that make decisions about environmental sustainability, she said. So, among other initiatives, her local government is partnering with universities to ensure that more women get degrees in the sciences.
Durban, one of the largest cities in South Africa, is grappling, like the rest of the country, with one of the worst droughts in its history. Increasing urbanization and industrialization, pollution from trucks entering and exiting the city’s port, the largest in the country, and contaminated waterways exacerbate the growing environmental crisis.
“Climate change is a daily issue for us,” she said. “And women must be a part and parcel of everything.”
Since weather affects everyone, the idea that women are more susceptible to the effects of climate change, particularly in developing countries, may strike some as puzzling. But women are more likely to collect water, food and firewood, and to cook meals — and therefore feel the brunt of extreme weather, disappearing water resources and soil degradation more keenly, according to a 2009 United Nations report. Women also make up a large part of the agricultural work forces in many developing nations.
Research has also shown that when resources are scarce, women often give food to their husbands and sons while denying themselves and their daughters. And when air pollution causes a spike in illnesses such as asthma — which is happening in Durban, Ms. Gumede said — it is typically the mother who stays home to care for the sick children, reducing her productivity and career growth.
“A few years ago, climate change was considered gender-neutral,” said Naoko Ishii, chief executive of the nonprofit Global Environment Facility, which works on climate issues. “But when we did a gender analysis, gender neutral actually mean gender-ignorant.”
As a sign of the growing recognition of the connection between women’s rights and climate change, last month, the first C40 Women4Climate conference was held in Manhattan, bringing together female mayors from around the world. C40 Cities is an umbrella organization representing more than 90 cities focused on tackling climate change; Michael R. Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City, is president of its board.
For Patricia de Lille, mayor of Cape Town, the effects of climate change constitute an urban emergency.
“In my city, we have 120 days of usable water left,” she said. “We have to litigate climate change every day.” The city, among other initiatives, plans to become the first in Africa to use electric buses for its public transport system and aims
“The crisis has brought some opportunity,” she noted. “Over two years, we’ve trained 4,000 young people to fix plumbing leaks.” And on a larger scale, she hopes that by 2020, as much as 20 percent of her city’s energy will come from renewable sources.
City governments are more agile than their state and federal counterparts, and can more quickly move to put in place creative environmental solutions — such as limiting some downtown streets to pedestrians only, as has recently been done in Paris and New York City.
“Cities produce 70 percent of greenhouse gases,” said Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris and the chairwoman of C40. “Mayors are a very pragmatic people, we are very concrete people. In government, you’re sometimes distant from reality, but we’re close to everything, and that’s a strength.”
And cities are more able to link environmentalism with civic activity, said Helen Fernández, the mayor of Caracas, Venezuela, who said that women in her city “have taken initiative and are on the front lines of the struggle.” But while women are active on a more local level, she added, they are often left behind as issues move upward through government levels.
Receive occasional updates and special offers for The New York Times's products and services.
Private companies, especially those that employ large numbers of women, also have a responsibility to address the disparate impact of climate change, said Alexandra Palt, chief sustainability officer for L’Oréal, the world’s largest beauty company and one of the founding partners of Women4Climate. “I don’t think climate change is becoming a gender issue,” Ms. Palt said. “But I think you have to take gender into account to respond in the most effective way to human suffering.”
For example, L’Oréal uses more than 1,000 tons of shea butter annually in its products, she said. In poverty-stricken Burkina Faso, women collect the nuts of the African shea tree and do most of the processing to produce the butter. That includes using large amounts of firewood to boil the nut, which contributes to deforestation. L’Oréal is part of an effort to install cookstoves that use 50 percent less firewood to replace the traditional ones.
Ten years ago, the emphasis “was all about creating new income for women and helping them develop economic models,” Ms. Palt said. “Now climate change is becoming more and more important. It’s about their survival.”
In the United States, Jess Morales Rocketto, a longtime community activist, pointed to the example of “Little Miss Flint,” as the 9-year old Amariyanna Copeny is known. Her online activism helped persuade President Barack Obama to visit Flint, Mich., last year to address the city’s water crisis. Mari, as she is called, took part in the Women’s March in January and has continued to rally concern about the polluted drinking water.
“Little Miss Flint is a climate leader,” said Ms. Morales Rocketto, who attended the C40 conference.
The connection between climate change and gender is also about ensuring that women play crucial roles in setting the international agenda on climate change.
For example, with the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change, which went into effect last year, women worked “at the top level and had a very important role,” Ms. Hidalgo said. “When men and women mix together with very different experiences, you have a good result. We make things more open than when men work alone.”
But as Ms. de Lille said: “The signing of the Paris Agreement was the easy part. What follows is implementation, implementation, implementation. After the Paris Agreement, I went back to my city and made sure that every department is overlaid with climate considerations.”
The political atmosphere is different now — certainly in the United States — than when the agreement was signed. President Trump has opposed it and has ca