Women Disproportionately Affected by Climate Change Offer Unique Solutions to Address Climate Crisis

Posted Sept. 16, 2015

MP3 Interview with Osprey Orielle Lake, executive director, Women's Earth and Climate Action Network, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

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The visit of Pope Francis to the U.S. in late September offers climate justice groups a megaphone to air their concerns and call for changes needed to put the earth on a path to sustainability. After speaking with President Obama and to a joint session of Congress in Washington, D.C., the pope will speak at the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly, which takes place at the UN’s New York headquarters on Sept. 25. Given the pope’s outspoken support for addressing global warming, the issues of the climate crisis and justice for the world's poor, who are disproportionally affected by climate change, will be high on the agenda.

WECAN, the Women's Earth and Climate Action Network, is sponsoring a Global Day of Action, where women around the world highlight their own demands for climate justice and promote their local solutions. What WECAN is calling a hub event for the Day of Action will take place on Sept. 29 at the UN Church Center in New York City. The event will bring together some of the world's best-known women climate justice leaders to emphasize how women are impacted "first and worst" by climate change and what women are doing to take action.

Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Osprey Orielle Lake, executive director of WECAN, who discusses the global work her organization is doing to bring attention to the climate crisis and women's role in organizing for changes to government policies.

OSPREY ORIELLE LAKE: People often ask, Why are we focusing on women? And I think what needs to be understood is that women are disproportionately impacted by climate change and environmental degradation. As an example, there is a direct link to poverty and who gets impacted by climate change first and worst, and women make up the greatest percentage of the world’s poor. So the stresses that many indigenous women, and women in developing countries, experience as a result of climate change are more severe due to their direct reliance on nature and primary resources for their survival. Women comprise about 20 million of the 26 million people estimated to have been displaced by climate change since 2010, so there’s a whole host of reasons that are gender-related, because of gender roles, how women are being the most negatively impacted. So gender discrimination really reduces women’s physical and economic ability; their voices are not heard, and in many regions of the world, this creates much harsher conditions for women.

But what’s also very inspiring when we talk about women and climate change is, I think one of the untold stories is how women are standing on the front lines of global efforts to re-vision and heal our world and bring solutions. A lot of the women that we work with, they’re very clear, "We’re not victims; we’re solutions-bringers. We have answers." About 60 to 80 percent of food production in developing countries is done by women. So we’re talking about food security and food sovereignty; we’re really talking about involving women. This is also true when you talk about water programs. Many United Nations studies show that if you don’t have women engaged in these programs, they simply don’t work, because it’s the women who are most often collecting the water in developing countries. And they hold that local water knowledge. When we look more to North America, in the United States, 80 percent of the purchasing power belongs to women. So when we’re talking about demanding clean energy and tackling issues of over-consumption, and how we’re exercising purchasing power, we’re really talking about women.

I would make one other point, and there are so many statistics about how women are central to solutions, but women’s involvement in decision-making has really important implications for climate change in the sense that, 138 countries found that in these countries that have higher female parliamentary representation, they’re more prone to ratify international environmental treaties. So we decided to really focus on women and wanted to highlight (unintelligible) to really show and demonstrate what women are doing, celebrate their victories and also to show what women are doing to resolve this climate crisis.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Osprey Orielle Lake, WECAN – the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network – has been working globally on the issues of women and climate change for many years. Where do you see things headed – toward a just resolution, or down the tubes?

OSPREY ORIELLE LAKE: Well, I think that what has really improved is overall, the people’s climate movement has grown. I mean, look what we saw in New York City last year, with 400,000 people from all over the world in the streets, and then parallel events and marches internationally. So I think we’ve made a lot of progress in terms of awareness. The divestment movement … There’s more awareness around issues concerning climate change and women. We do know there’s a lot of advocacy work being done at the U.N. to have gender equality be in the climate documents. But I also think a big improvement that we’ve seen is around climate justice itself. You know, there’s a lot more awareness in the people’s movements around the need for frontline communities, indigenous communities, low-income communities to be well represented, those who have been impacted the first and worst and making sure they’re at the front of the line, making sure their stories are being told, making sure funding’s going in their direction, and understanding not just that they’re being impacted the most, but that there are key solutions. You know, people on the front lines are having to deal with climate change most immediately, and so really innovative, important measures are coming out of those communities. And also I think in regards to women specifically, it’s really essential to understand that women are modeling small-scale solutions with potentially large impacts, and I think this is essential because climate change and environmental degradation are, as we know, very large-scale problems, and so solutions are often discussed in terms of sweeping measures and top-down initiatives. However, it’s precisely the centralized, monopolized and profit-driven process of our current industrial system, energy grid and food production networks, which have facilitated the twin plundering of people and planet.

All this said and done, the fact is, this is the hottest year on record. So on the one hand I have huge hope because the people’s movements are growing and building and uniting together more. There’s huge amount of momentum going into the Paris negotiation. On the other hand, temperatures are rising, sea level is rising, and we’re not winning at that level, so obviously we have much, much more to do. You know, right now a lot of analysis shows that the government pledges currently on the table going into the Paris climate negotiations will fall short of limiting warming to below the internationally agreed two degree threshold, and this is simply not acceptable. Scientists are telling us we need to leave 80 percent of fossil fuels in the ground. Our engineers are telling us we can get to 100 percent renewable energy right now, and yet this is not on the table at the climate negotiations and so we really wanted to have a big day of actions, to be really clear that we’re demanding much more ambitious goals in Paris.

Visit the Women's Earth and Climate Action Network’s website (WECAN) at wecaninternational.org.

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