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Meet the Women Mayors Fighting Climate Change

At a gathering of women mayors from around the world, we saw good evidence that there should be more of them.

By Lucia Graves


Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo poses next to a statue depicting Marianne, national symbol of the French Republic, on March 4th, 2015, at her office at the Hôtel de Ville. (Photo: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images)

It is grim and fitting that, in the bleak first months of the Trump administration, a global climate summit of mayors and local leaders held in New York would be met by an unseasonable storm. Even more fitting: that the weather-assaulted travelers would be women. Nevertheless, they persisted in various ways.

After her initial flight was canceled, Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille spent seven hours in an airport, finally arriving at half past 12 in the morning for an event starting at 8 a.m. the same day. Washington, D.C.’s mayor Muriel Bowser had to stay behind to handle storm fallout. Days earlier, Bowser had been preparing for the earliest-ever blossoming of the cherry trees in the Tidal Basin, an annual tourist attraction and symbol of spring. Now the buds were mostly frozen dead.

“It is a reminder to us all that our Earth is changing,” Bowser told me by phone. “There are wild fluctuations.”

Such wacky weather will become more common as the global climate warms. But last week, beneath the dome of Columbia University’s Low Memorial Library, the focus was a bit more human. The meeting was hosted by the C40 Cities network, a global group focused on the role of cities in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This year, the group has its first woman chair, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo (who also happens to be the first woman mayor of Paris). In her opening remarks Hidalgo stressed that bringing more women into the process will lead to better climate outcomes — and she and C40 have ideas for how to make that happen.

“It’s not a coincidence that the president of the United States is not particularly concerned with climate or women’s issues. That tends to go hand-in-hand.”

The New York event marked the launch of the Women4Climate initiative, part of a new effort to boost women’s leadership on climate at the local level through mentorship and knowledge-sharing. But Wednesday’s event was more of a public brainstorm. Following a historic Women’s March on Washington, and on the heels of International Women’s Day, the radical roots of which were celebrated this year as never before, the emphasis at this C40 meeting felt especially urgent.

“Women have a different experience than men,” Hidalgo said Wednesday. “This experience is very important in this process.”

To emphasize her point, Hidalgo pointed to the inspired work of top climate diplomats in the Paris climate talks, including former executive secretary Christiana Figueres and top French envoy Laurence Tubiana, who embodied a change in the methods of organizing negotiations. Interviews from the time led with Tubiana’s use of lighting and her emphasis on providing good food to conference-goers, while Figueres was described as being “emotive to the point of disarming.”

Such soft virtues don’t begin to encompass what women leaders accomplished in Paris. They also shouldn’t be dismissed. Taken together, such attentions helped enable what was widely praised as an unusually comfortable work environment; it was also, relatedly, one where an unusual amount of work got done.

Instead of having heads of state come in at the last moment to meddle in a process they weren’t familiar with, as happened previously during the widely panned Copenhagen negotiations, the women-rich leadership of COP21 had heads of state speak at the outset of talks in Paris. What followed would then be bottom-up by design, based on inclusiveness and mutual responsibility — and, crucially, on a do-what-you-can contribution model.

“Female leaders were really key in bringing about these changes,” said Anne-Claire Legendre, consul general of France in New York.

One of the best ways to prioritize climate change may well be to get more women in power.

But Paris was a long time ago, and 2017 does not look to be a very good year for women or climate activists, let alone for women who are climate activists. Given this political backdrop, it was difficult to shake the feeling the assembly was choosing, forgivably, to live in a time warp circa December of 2015.

The most recent United Nations climate summit, of course, wasn’t in Paris but in Marrakech this past November, and it began exactly one day before President Donald Trump’s unexpected win set the carefully orchestrated world of climate diplomacy on fire.

Even while Hidalgo was speaking in New York, Trump was back in Washington, D.C., drawing up plans to roll back Barack Obama-era fuel economy standards and axe 30-plus percent of the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget, moves that could undo 20 years worth of work by the United States to position itself as a credible actor in global negotiations.

In the rare moments when Trump’s name came up at Low Library, everyone from De Lille to Zandile Gumede, the mayor of Durban, was quick to offer assurances that his election changed nothing. Bowser put it more aggressively still: “Regardless of uncertainty at the national level, mayors can lead at the city level on climate change,” she said.

There is some evidence that women mayors make better leaders on climate. “I come from a country that is a dictatorship and women took the lead,” said Helen Fernández, the mayor of Caracas, speaking in Spanish. “Air, water, food — all of it depends on the environment. That’s why it’s so important to empower women, who generate life, who feel freedom.”

Ester Fuchs, a professor of public affairs and political science at Columbia University who presided over a panel on empowering women to lead the way toward sustainable societies, points to social science in corroborating the point. Specifically, Fuchs explains, women legislators are more likely to bring up public health-related issues like climate and sustainability, and to advocate for social services. “If you look at the roll call votes you’ll often find that men and women who have the similar policy positions look the same. However, that doesn’t tell you who’s going to put the issues on the agenda,” Fuchs said in an interview after her panel. It’s in writing bills and bringing up legislation, she noted, that the gap emerges.

By extension, then, one of the best ways to prioritize climate change, locally, anyway, may well be to get more women in power.

Unfortunately, for proponents of this model like Fuchs — and, frankly, for the world — there aren’t many women mayors of major cities.

In America, just one in 10 mayors of the most populous cities is a woman. And the city in question is San Antonio, Texas, which, while populous, lacks the international profile of top cities like Chicago or Los Angeles. Meanwhile, New York City, easily America’s largest city and — the irony of this should be stated plainly — the host of Wednesday’s woman mayor power event, has never had a woman mayor in its history. (Several years back, when Christine Quinn tried to break that particular glass ceiling, opinion polls showed respondents describing her in unfavorable, gendered terms like “ambitious” and “bossy.’’)

Hidalgo is right to be proud of her status as the first woman mayor of Paris, but that shouldn’t obscure the fact that, for hundreds of years before, it was nothing but men. And the C40 network is right to be proud of the jump in female leadership among its member cities: from four in 2014 to 15 presently, a 275 percent increase. All true.

But we should also appreciate that that’s still only 15 out of 90 member cities: less than 17 percent.

Nationally, 17 percent is worse representation than women’s abysmal showing as mayors of America’s not-so major cities (20 percent for cities with a population over 100,000) and as leaders in either chamber of Congress (roughly 20 percent), per current numbers from the Center for American Women and Politics. Internationally, it’s considerably worse than representation at global climate talks, where women typically make up less than a third of delegation heads.

So why hang the hopes of an unlikely climate movement on the wings of yet another beleaguered one? Because, like refusing to fix a cup with a large hole in the bottom because you’re too thirsty to pause, you can’t solve the overarching problem of climate until you fix the preliminary one of who’s at the table.

“Once you stop thinking about making sure that women are at the table, you’re also going to end up in a situation where climate change is less of a priority,” Fuchs said. “It’s not a coincidence that the president of the U.S. is not particularly concerned with climate or women’s issues. That tends to go hand-in-hand.”