Depend on Women to Keep the Momentum Rolling on Global Warming

As world leaders continue to arrive in Copenhagen for the final days of critical climate negotiations, the stakes for all of us couldn’t be higher. Women have been engaged throughout the negotiations—from high-level office holders to grassroots leaders who claim their place on the world stage by speaking out for their vulnerable constituencies.

For years women have organized behind the scenes to prepare for the 15th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP-15), and official sessions today focus on “Climate and Gender,” with side events also scheduled to highlight “Women as Agents of Change.”

Earlier in the week—at a “Women’s Leadership on Climate Justice” program moderated by former Irish President Mary Robinson and keynoted by Canadian Inuit organizer Shelia Watt-Cloutier—activists described how women have intimate knowledge of the human cost of global warming. Women and their children, members of impoverished populations living in challenged environments, are most at risk. They are critically aware of the need to enact lasting change to protect themselves and the communities they care for from the climate crisis.

Most of us imagine global warming as polar bears stranded on melting ice floes, threatened low-lying coasts, and disappearing tropical forests. While these are environmental effects of deep concern, the story of global warming is a human health story—and that gets less attention.

Earlier this year, I wrote a commentary for this site on how international physicians’ organizations joined together to sound the alarm about global warming as "the biggest global health threat of the 21st century." Science—including data from the U.S. Global Change Research Program, sponsored by both Democratic and Republican administrations over the last 20 years—has shown that global warming is unequivocal and directly affects human health, both internationally and right here at home.

Worsening heat waves; declining air quality; increasing levels of allergens; changing patterns of mosquito, tick, and flea-borne disease; degradation of food and water supplies; catastrophic weather events, flooding, waterborne disease outbreaks; and large numbers of displaced persons are just some of the health challenges that are already occurring worldwide and likely to worsen within our lifetimes. A 2009 Oxfam International study found that by 2015, the number of people affected by climate-related disasters could climb 54 percent to 375 million people each year, threatening to overwhelm humanitarian relief capacity.

The World Health Organization estimates that currently more than 150,000 people perish each year from the effects of a changing climate. Children are vulnerable because they are more susceptible to excessive heat, air pollution, infectious disease, and they depend on others for care, mobility, and shelter in emergencies. Women land squarely in the most-vulnerable category because they comprise an estimated 70 percent of those living below the poverty line globally. Women are also the caregivers for kids, the elderly and the sick, thus bearing the heaviest burdens in times of emergencies, even at our own peril. Yet up to this point, women have often been left out of conversations about climate solutions.

To prepare for Copenhagen and working on the ground at the conference, the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) has operated as part of an alliance of 13 UN and 25 civil society organizations—the Global Gender and Climate Alliance. Their efforts will ensure that gender-specific language remains in documents negotiated in Copenhagen. That work is essential so that signatories commit themselves to protecting women’s rights and to including women in strategies and negotiations going forward.

Women officials are well represented COP-15: Danish Environmental Minister Connie Hedegaard presided over the talks until she passed that role to Denmark’s prime minister (observers say in order to “ramp up” the urgency of the final high-level meetings); U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in Copenhagen today; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, along with the presidents of Finland and the Philippines, is scheduled to attend an event highlighting women’s leadership; and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has appeared frequently in the media as a spokeswoman—as she did before leaving for Copenhagen when, announcing a finding that greenhouse gases endanger human health and public welfare, she opened the door to sweeping new domestic regulations of many industries. (Aiding in the effort toward a cleaner U.S. future, Senator Barbara Boxer [D-CA] has joined with Senator John Kerry [D-MA] to cosponsor the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act.)

Women, who know how their villages work and how to make sustainable, long-term local change happen, can drive meaningful progress from the bottom up. Among those joining Watt-Cloutier at the women’s leadership panel earlier this week to speak out on women’s needs were Constance Okollet, an organizer and farmer in eastern Uganda; Ulamila Kurai Wragg, a journalist who reports on the impact of climate change in the Cook Islands and Fiji; and Rehana Bibi Khilji, founder of a human rights group in rural Pakistan. These activist leaders have their counterparts in the United States, such as Majora Carter, who founded Sustainable South Bronx; Peggy M. Shepard, of West Harlem Environmental Action (WEACT); and Sharon Hanshaw, who works to rebuild her community in post-Katrina Biloxi, Mississippi, through Coastal Women for Change.

According to Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a strong financial commitment by the United States to help developing nations adapt to the effects of global warming is key to holding together the current negotiations. “Our financing pledge could be the game-changer in the most important—and dangerously fragile—negotiations of our generation,” she wrote from Copenhagen.

Leadership from the top is essential, but there are also thousands of local opportunities to take swift action, so that we can thrive and remain secure in a globally warming future. So let’s move together. Our lives really do depend on united action.

This post originally appeared at the Women's Media Center website.