November 28, 2018
There are two powerful phenomena unfolding on earth: the rise of global warming and the rise of women and girls. The link between them is often overlooked, but gender equity is a key answer to our planetary challenge. Let me explain.
For the last few years, I have been working on an effort called “Project Drawdown.” Our team has scoured humanity’s wisdom for solutions to draw down heat-trapping, climate-changing emissions in the atmosphere. Not “someday, maybe, if we’re lucky” solutions. The 80 best practices and technologies already in hand: clean, renewable energy, including solar and wind; green buildings, both new and retrofitted; efficient transportation from Brazil to China; thriving ecosystems through protection and restoration; reducing waste and reclaiming its value; growing food in good ways that regenerate soil; shifting diets to less meat, more plants; and equity for women and girls. Gender and climate are inextricably linked. Drawing down emissions depends on rising up.
First, a bit of context. We are in a situation of urgency, severity and scope never before faced by humankind. So far, our response isn’t anywhere close to adequate. But you already know that. You know it in your gut, in your bones. We are each part of the planet’s living systems, knitted together with almost 7.7 billion human beings and 1.8 million known species. We can feel the connections between us. We can feel the brokenness and the closing window to heal it. This earth, our home, is telling us that a better way of being must emerge, and fast.
In my experience, to have eyes wide open is to hold a broken heart every day. It’s a grief that I rarely speak, though my work calls on the power of voice. I remind myself that the heart can simply break, or it can break open. A broken-open heart is awake and alive and calls for action. It is regenerative, like nature, reclaiming ruined ground, growing anew. Life moves inexorably toward more life, toward healing, toward wholeness. That’s a fundamental ecological truth. And we, all of us, we are life force.
On the face of it, the primary link between women, girls and a warming world is not life but death. Awareness is growing that climate impacts hit women and girls hardest, given existing vulnerabilities. There is greater risk of displacement, higher odds of being injured or killed during a natural disaster. Prolonged drought can precipitate early marriage as families contend with scarcity. Floods can force last-resort prostitution as women struggle to make ends meet. The list goes on and goes wide. These dynamics are most acute under conditions of poverty, from New Orleans to Nairobi. Too often, the story ends here. But not today. Another empowering truth begs to be seen. If we gain ground on gender equity, we also gain ground on addressing global warming. This connection comes to light in three key areas, three areas where we can secure the rights of women and girls, shore up resilience and avert emissions at the same time.
Women are the primary farmers of the world. They produce 60 to 80 percent of food in lower-income countries, often operating on fewer than five acres. That’s what the term “smallholder” means. Compared with men, women smallholders have less access to resources, including land rights, credit and capital, training, tools and technology. They farm as capably and efficiently as men, but this well-documented disparity in resources and rights means women produce less food on the same amount of land. Close those gaps, and farm yields rise by 20 to 30 percent. That means 20 to 30 percent more food from the same garden or the same field. The implications for hunger, for health, for household income—they’re obvious. Let’s follow the thread to climate.
We humans need land to grow food. Unfortunately, forests are often cleared to supply it, and that causes emissions from deforestation. But if existing farms produce enough food, forests are less likely to be lost. So there’s a ripple effect. Support women smallholders, realize higher yields, avoid deforestation, and sustain the life-giving power of forests. Project Drawdown estimates that addressing inequity in agriculture could prevent two billion tons of emissions between now and 2050. That’s on par with the impact household recycling can have globally. Addressing this inequity can also help women cope with the challenges of growing food as the climate changes. There is life force in cultivation.
At last count, 130 million girls are still denied their basic right to attend school. Gaps are greatest in secondary school classrooms. Too many girls are missing a vital foundation for life. Education means better health for women and their children, better financial security, greater agency at home and in society, more capacity to navigate a climate-changing world. Education can mean options, adaptability, strength. It can also mean lower emissions. For a variety of reasons, when we have more years of education, we typically choose to marry later and to have fewer children. So our families end up being smaller. What happens at the individual level adds up, across the world and over time. One by one by one, the right to go to school impacts how many human beings live on this planet and impacts its living systems. That’s not why girls should be educated. It’s one meaningful outcome.
Education is one side of a coin. The other is family planning: access to high-quality, voluntary reproductive healthcare. To have children by choice rather than chance is a matter of autonomy and dignity. Yet in the US, 45 percent of pregnancies are unintended. Two hundred and fourteen million women in lower-income countries say they want to decide whether and when to become pregnant but aren’t using contraception. Listening to women’s needs, addressing those needs, advancing equity and well-being: those must be the aims of family planning, period. Curbing the growth of our human population is a side effect, though a potent one. It could dramatically reduce demand for food, transportation, electricity, buildings, goods, and all the rest, thereby reducing emissions.
Close the gaps on access to education and family planning, and by mid-century, we may find one billion fewer people inhabiting earth than we would if we do nothing more. According to Project Drawdown, one billion fewer people could mean we avoid more than 100 billion tons of emissions. At that level of impact, gender equity is a top solution to restore a climate fit for life. At that level of impact, gender equity is on par with wind turbines and solar panels and forests. There is life force in learning and life force in choice.
Now, let me be clear: this does not mean women and girls are responsible for fixing everything. (Though we probably will.)
Equity for women in agriculture, education, and family planning: these are solutions within a system of drawdown solutions. Together, they comprise a blueprint of possibility. And let me be even clearer about this: population cannot be seen in isolation from production or consumption. Some segments of the human family cause exponentially greater harm, while others suffer outsized injustice. The most affluent—we are the most accountable. We have the most to do.
The gender-climate connection extends beyond negative impacts and beyond powerful solutions. Women are vital voices and agents for change on this planet, and yet we’re too often missing or even barred from the proverbial table. We’re too often ignored or silenced when we speak. We are too often passed over when plans are laid or investments made. According to one analysis, just 0.2 percent of philanthropic funds go specifically towards women and the environment—merely 110 million dollars globally, the sum spent by one man on a single Basquiat painting last year. These dynamics are not only unjust, they are setting us up for failure. To rapidly, radically reshape society, we need every solution and every solver, every mind, every bit of heart, every set of hands.
We often crave a simple call to action, but this challenge demands more than a fact sheet and more than a checklist. We need to function more like an ecosystem, finding strength in our diversity. You know what your superpowers are. You’re an educator, farmer, healer, creator, campaigner, wisdom-keeper. How might you link arms where you are to move solutions forward?
There is one role I want to ask that all of you play: the role of messenger. This is a time of great awakening. We need to break the silence around the condition of our planet; move beyond manufactured debates about climate science; share solutions; speak truth with a broken-open heart; teach that to address climate change, we must make gender equity a reality. And in the face of a seemingly impossible challenge, women and girls are a fierce source of possibility.
It is a magnificent thing to be alive in a moment that matters so much. This earth, our home, is calling for us to be bold, reminding us we are all in this together—women, men, people of all gender identities, all beings. We are life force. One earth, one chance. Let’s seize it.
© Katharine K. Wilkinson