Women and the world: working for the environment

Jake Billingham reflects on the relationship between gender and climate disaster, and celebrates the significant contributions of women in the environmental field for International Women's Day 2021.

Climate change affects us all, and women disproportionately so.

Gendered poverty rates, societal roles, and the existence of gender-based violence in conflict make women particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate disaster. On top of this, discrimination and structural barriers to education can prohibit women from participating in government and decision-making.

International Women's Day is an opportunity to reflect on such issues. It is also a time to celebrate the influential women whose work in government, science, and activism has shaped our environmental understanding and our priorities for change.

Wangari Maathai’s initial work as a vet in Kenya exposed her to the impact of environmental degradation on local people. As a result, she founded the Green Belt movement which sought to address poverty by planting trees. Maathai also challenged corruption and injustices present in Kenya’s political system, going on to win the Nobel peace prize in 2004. She was the first woman from the African continent to gain this recognition.

The name Greta Thunberg hardly needs any explanation; her “skolstrejk för klimatet” (‘school strike for climate’) protest grabbed the world, inspiring millions of young people across hundreds of nations to do the same. She has delivered speeches across Europe and the Americas, including at COP24 and 25, the European and British parliaments and the United Nations Climate Action Summit, all the while refusing to travel by plane. Thunberg is now back in her native Sweden and has resumed her schooling but remains an active campaigner.

Christina Figueres was appointed Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2010 following the COP15 conference. Alongside figures such as Patricia Espinosa and Connie Hedegaard, she subsequently led the UNFCCC to five successful conferences. This culminated in 2015 with the landmark signing of the Paris Agreement at COP21.

In 1856, Eunice Foote published the first scientific paper detailing the phenomenon we now refer to as the ‘greenhouse effect’. Any initial recognition by the scientific community was brief and inconsistent, and Foote’s experiments were quickly forgotten, perhaps due to her amateur status and gender. It was not until 2010 that Foote’s work was rediscovered and elevated to its appropriate level of reverence.

Dr Rhian-Mari Thomas OBE is Chief Executive of the Green Finance Institute following on from years pioneering environmental thinking at Barclays. Within the Civil Service, Marian Spain works passionately, as Chief Executive of Natural England, to preserve and enhance the natural environment for all UK citizens.

There are many more people who deserve recognition: Sunita Narain, Varshini Prakash, Marina Silva, Kate Marvel, Vanessa Nakate and Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim to name a few.

Perhaps even more significant are the thousands of small-scale initiatives led by women that make an enormous difference to local communities. There are the indigenous women of Colombia, Ecuador and French Guiana fighting for and conserving the land they live on [1]. Or the Fijian market vendors’ associations that empower members to become climate-resilient in the face of devastating cyclones [2]. Or the Moroccan journalist producing radio and television programs on environmental protection and climate change in the Amazigh language [3].

These women refuse to be victims, utilising their unique knowledge and skills to overcome immense challenges.

Jake Billingham works in Operational Research at the Department for Work and Pensions, and is interested in climate change, sustainability, and renewable energy.

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