Women, Climate Change, and Sustainability for Everyone

Women, Climate Change, and Sustainability for Everyone

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Brandon Greenblatt // 07 December 2015 //   #GoingGreen

Panel "Women and Climate Change: Impact and Agency in Human Rights, Security, and Economic Development"Earlier this month, I attended a panel hosted by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security.  It was truly eye-opening.  The discussion, entitled Women and Climate Change: Impact and Agency in Human Rights, Security, and Economic Development featured a number of important figures in gender equality and sustainability movements.  Ambassador Melanne Verveer (Executive Director of the Institute, most recently having served as the US Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues) moderated the session.  The panelists included Mary Robinson (UN Special Envoy for Climate Change), Tarja Halonen (former President of Finland), and Radha Muthiah (CEO of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves).  I’d like to share a brief summary of the panel discussion as well as my thoughts on the intersection of climate change, international development, and gender issues.

»Climate change is exacerbating existing global inequalities.«
Mary Robinson, UN Special Envoy for Climate Change


 My biggest take away from the panel was that women in developing countries, particularly those living in sub-Saharan Africa, are disproportionately disadvantaged by climate change.  Though climate change is undoubtedly a global issue affecting all people – and thus we all have a duty to commit to sustainable living practices – the three panelists emphasized that impoverished women in rural communities are the most vulnerable to climate change.  H.E. Robinson remarked, “Climate change is exacerbating existing inequalities,” and, indeed, this does appear to be true.  Abnormal weather patterns, such as droughts, can harm everybody’s standard of living, but those already living with a limited water supply, such as women in sub-Saharan Africa, are particularly vulnerable.


»Women are the victims and agents for change.«
Radha Muthia, CEO Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves

Ms. Muthiah offered a poignant example that illustrates how women are not only disproportionately impacted by climate change, but also how the circumstances of their poverty create a never-ending cycle of suffering.  Women living in developing countries lack the resources and modern technology to cook efficiently.  Rather than having access to a microwave or stove, as many of us do, these women are forced to gather timber and kindling from their natural environments for fuel. Not only does this contribute to deforestation, but the women often collect wood coated in moisture, dung, and leaves.  Burning this wood releases a toxic chemical known as black carbon.  Understandably, these women cook in their homes to provide heat for their families.  Yet doing so only traps the toxic smoke in enclosed dwellings, which leads to serious health issues.  Ms. Muthiah estimated that this cooking practice leads to 4 million deaths annually, most of those women, and to 25% of global black carbon emissions every year.  Unfortunately, over 500 million households across the world cook this way.  Without the modern technology so many of us take for granted, women living in the developing world are both the “victims of and agents for climate change.”  They simply have no other options.

»Everything is impossible before it has been done.«
Tarja Halonen, Former President of Finland


 Trying to address gender roles, poverty, and climate change all at once is certainly a major undertaking!  Luckily, President Halonen offered some words of encouragement.  She reflected on the upcoming Conference of Parties (COP-21) that will be held in Paris later this year.  There, global leaders are expected to draft new sustainability and development policies. President Halonen noted, “Everything is impossible before it has been done.”  She emphasized the opportunity that world leaders will have, not only to address climate change, but also to make sure that those women marginalized by it have a greater voice in policy discussions.

How does all this relate to our school project?  In my opinion, our participation in Going Green is already a huge step in the right direction.  This unique project fosters transatlantic dialogue on environmental issues and helps us develop global solutions to pressing environmental problems.  Yet, even as we continue to learn and grow with one another, let’s think about sustainability beyond Germany and the United States. 

We can certainly protect the environment around our own homes, but what can we do for the world community?  How can we think about those people most impacted by climate change – especially women and residents of the developing world – and make sure our policies benefit us and them?  We can talk about using hybrid rather than diesel cars, or using solar panels rather than coal.  But how does this relate to a woman living in rural Africa who doesn’t even have access to transportation or electricity?  We need to work together to develop sustainability solutions for the entire world: solutions specific to each environment and each way of life.  Let’s continue to Go Green, but let’s make sure we’re going green for everyone on the planet!

If you are interested in learning more, please view the report entitled Women and Climate Change: Impact and Agency in Human Rights, Security, and Economic Development published by the Georgetown University Institute for Women, Peace, and Security here.

(Photo courtesy of The Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security; From left: Ambassador Melanee Verveer, Radha Muthiah, Fmr. President Tarja Halonen, and H.E. Mary Robinson)

Brandon Greenblatt is a student majoring in International Affairs and studying German at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. and originally from Matthews, North Carolina. Brandon is no stranger to writing and publishing as the editor of the Western Europe section of The Caravel, Georgetown's international affairs newspaper.