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Female Voices in the Cacophonous Climate Conversation

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Katherine Vining
March 27,2015

Women’s voices are not represented in national climate conversation. It is generally recognized that men and women across the world are affected by climate change differently. According to the Women’s Environment and Development Organization, the world’s poor are more vulnerable to the catastrophic effects of climate change. As women comprise the majority of the world’s impoverished population, they more often feel the adverse effects of food and water shortages due to drought, floods and natural disasters. While women are disproportionately affected by climate change, they also predominantly possess the skills and knowledge to positively affect climate adaptation and mitigation.

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Studies across cultures and countries demonstrate that women perceive climate change as more threatening than their male counterparts. Many researchers, including Kira Gould and Lance Hosey in their book Women in Green: Voices of Sustainable Design, attribute this to women’s traditional role as the provider and caretaker. Women have reported higher concerns for environmental issues, broader support for increased environmental spending and more support for stricter environmental standards for corporations. Furthermore, women in the United States have demonstrated a more advanced understanding of climate science. Gould and Hosey state, “Although there is no universal women’s value system that [women] are seen as less hierarchical, more contextual, and more influenced by relationships and compassion can encourage us to bring these attributes to bear in a world that needs them.” As human induced climate change progresses it will be traditionally feminine character traits that catalyze its stabilization.

However, it is not merely traditional gendered characteristics of femininity that theoretically predispose women to effectively address climate issues. Experience shows that women have legitimately been more effective change agents for environmental action. History demonstrates that the prevalence of women in leadership roles significantly affects national policy and progress on climate action.

A 2012 study by Ergas and York found a statistically significant correlation between the political status of women and a nation’s per capita carbon emissions. The research also indicates that 78 percent of the nations who stabilized or reduced their emissions between 1990 and 2004 had higher proportions of female representation in national government. Countries with more female NGOs also have lower rates of deforestation. This disparity can be attributed to the fact that women in politics more often introduce bills relating to social and environmental issues and countries with higher proportions of women in national government statistically pass more environmental treaties.

Despite these facts, women are severely underrepresented in federal, state and local government and consequently lack influence over climate policy, planning and programming. Female representation in Congress is currently 18 percent; ranking the U.S. 98th in terms of proportional gender representation at the national level. Representation at the sate level is slightly higher, 25 percent, but only 12 of the nation’s 100 largest cities have women mayors. Gender parity has and will continue to persist because men hold political seniority and the rate of incumbent re-election is consistently around 90 percent.

Led by the first female prime minister of Norway, the Brundtland Commission– known best for defining the most widely accepted definition of sustainable development- acknowledged the consequences of insufficient female leadership. Annica Kronsell, author of Gender and transition in climate governance critiques the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro because, despite being heavily influenced by the Brundtland Commission’s publications, there was no mention of gender on the agenda. Gender has only recently been acknowledged as a substantive concern in national and international climate conversations. Ergas and York substantiate that, “this historical disregard for both women’s work and the environment stems from value systems that were codified in world economic organizations created and dominated by elite, white men.”

The dominant culture often endeavors to speak for and care for the needs of the minority. Climate change disproportionately affects women and minority cultures in the global south and elite white men have historically held decision-making power over policies and practices to mitigate the effects of climate change. Ergas and York eloquently state, “There is a systemic logic of domination of both women and the environment and the simultaneous degradation and exploitation of both are mutually reinforcing processes.”

If the national or international community wishes to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, much more consideration must be given to the relationship between those who hold decision making power and those who suffer at the hand of climate change. While parity is ideal, Ergas and York suggest that in order to have an active voice, at minimum women must represent 33 percent of a decision making body. As higher proportions of women in power are directly correlated with reduced green house gas emissions per capita, increasing female leadership should be seen as a prerequisite for a successful climate action strategy.

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