Skip to main content

Fixing the Gender Imbalance in the Back Rooms of the U.N. Climate Talks

Women bear the harshest effects of climate change and also hold the keys to solving it. Yet at the most important negotiating tables, too often they simply don’t have a voice.

By Lucia Graves


Moroccan and international protesters shout slogans during a demonstration on the sidelines of the COP22 climate conference in Marrakech, Morocco, on November 13th, 2016. (Photo: Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images)

It was the end of a decidedly non-disastrous COP22. The deals were done and the mid-level bureaucrats had finished their back pats, but not everyone was ready to go. As the pavilions emptied and the sky went black, Beatriz Araújo, 23, stood amid a youthful crowd gathered just inside security and in front of the cluster of flags from around the world. Climate talks were over but she — in a rally that involved some strangely beautiful singing — had not finished making her voice heard in Marrakech.

Seeing negotiators happily head home was, to her, proof of just how much they don’t get it. “I come home to no water,” she says when the last chant is done. For the last five years, her home state in northern Brazil has been plagued by a drought so severe that residents wait in line for hours just to collect the water they need to cook with or to drink, she explains. Though such water shortages have been shown to be greatly influenced by the use of thermal power plants, and particularly by the coal-fired variety found in her home state, the government continues to award the industry contracts.

Araújo’s is a perspective that goes unheard for the most predictable of reasons: Like many women at COP, she doesn’t have a seat at the negotiating table, and — more important — there’s no one at the table who she feels can adequately represent her needs. Given that she’s a not just a woman but also a minority from a vulnerable area, it’s a testament to her willpower that she made it to Marrakech at all.

“In Brazil we don’t have one single woman negotiating and in the new government we don’t have one single minister,” another activist, Raquel Rosenberg, tells me. For Rosenberg, the 26-year-old cofounder of Engajamundo, a group working at the nexus of climate, youth, and gender, the drawbacks are glaringly obvious. “We are the ones who most care about our future: youth and women,” she says. “We know women are the ones taking care of their families and, as youth, we see that it’s not about our future; actually it’s about our present.”

Her argument, essentially, is that lived experience influences what we see and say, and that having female perspectives represented doesn’t just help women, it helps anyone in search of solutions in a complex reality. More, climate change is a reality that disproportionately affects women.

Women make up the vast majority of people displaced by climate (20 of the 26 million displaced by climate since 2010, according to recent data). They’re 14 times more likely to be killed in natural disasters, and they make up a full 70 percent of those living below the poverty line recover, making recovery from any climate-related devastation all the more difficult and unlikely.

These numbers help explain why advocates pushed so hard for the inclusion of gender-specific language about women’s rights in the Paris Agreement, and why people like the United Nation’s Katarina Månsson went to work making sure that language is meaningfully implemented. Women, and especially poor women in developing countries, represent a demographic that requires unique protections.

But women are also a demographic with the capacity to offer unique solutions.

Maybe you can catch it in the written word, as when Marshallese writer Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner read a poem at the U.N. addressed to her newborn child but also to the world: “They’re marching for you, baby. They’re marching for us. Because we deserve to do more than just survive. We deserve to thrive.” Or perhaps you prefer the scientific studies that show collective intelligence rises when a greater number of women are added to decision-making group? “Engaging a critical mass of women is linked to more progressive and positive outcomes and to more sustainability-focused decision-making across sectors,” as Maria Ivanova at the University of Massachusetts–Boston observed last year.

Yet despite every reason for their inclusion, women continue to be poorly represented at COPs, in both the bodies and boards of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. Ahead of Paris, women composed just 36 to 41 percent of delegation bodies, and just 26 to 33 percent of delegation heads. This year, those numbers remain unimproved, while just nine of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 34 chairs, co-chairs, and vice-chairs are women. This, after we learned that only one of the five authors to sign the most recent IPCC assessment report in 2014 was a woman, and that, in its 70-plus years of existence, the U.N. has never once had a female head.

Still, none of those numbers can capture the true root of the problem.

Virtually everyone at COP agrees that including more women, and women of all backgrounds, is important, but getting them there is an entirely different thing. There are a thousand sexist reasons we say, “we want a woman, just not that woman”; and a thousand more that encourage women to disqualify themselves. And then there are barriers both financial and biological.

“We need more funding,” Araújo says simply. A part-time volunteer with Ceará no Clima (and full-time lawyer), she explains she was fortunate to be able to pay her own way. For the vast majority of those affected that’s out of the question — another reason, Araújo says, we must “start supporting women on the ground.” With international cooperation less certain given a President-elect Donald Trump, local environmental efforts have become the next great hope. And this may be a particularly welcome change for women with young kids.

“These international meetings make it very hard for women with children,” says Kalee Kreider, a former adviser to Al Gore and long-time COP participant, chatting with me before the talks. “Taking two weeks to go to Marrakech? I cannot imagine how hard that would be if I had kids.” A quick review of the schedule of events makes it clear what she’s talking about: A meeting of the International Union for Conservation of Nature in Hawaii is followed by an oceans meeting in D.C. and a cites meeting in Johannesburg. An Ozone depletion in Kigali, Rwanda, comes on the heels of a general assembly meeting in New York. After Marrakech comes a meeting in Cancun in December.

It’s a difficult schedule to pull off no matter what your personal responsibilities. But given how unevenly these responsibilities are divided between the genders, for too many women it’s simply impossible with a kid.

These are problems without simple solutions, but, in a first nod toward making the space more accessible for women and specifically caregivers, COP organizers have established a lactation room for nursing moms. In Marrakech, the lactation room, just to the right of security, was tiny and barebones but nonetheless featured the essentials: an armchair, small fridge, and perhaps the greatest luxury of all at a COP: a power outlet behind your very own door that locks.

Childcare solutions, though? Not on the horizon.

Certainly there are some small victories to celebrate. The Sierra Club’s Jessica Olson mentions to me over lunch Friday, as COP is winding down, that she’s pleased about a few bits of progress. This year’s COP included re-adoption of the so-called Lima Work Program on Gender, which promotes the achievement of a gender-responsive climate policy, and which was successfully extended by three years during this year’s COP negotiations. She also mentions a particularly moving presentation last week by Ipul Vicky Powaseu of Papua New Guinea, who spoke about living as a woman and a minority, but also as someone with a disability.

Yet in a year dominated by the specter of Trump’s election, even the most passionate gender advocates seem distracted; and just when we’re having a hopeful conversation about diversity improvements in the United States delegation, Trump once more rears his head. “It’s kind of a newer thing from the State Department this year,” Olson says of the improving gender representation. “And that’s all going to go out the window.”