Let Her Speak: It’s Time to Listen
President-elect Biden's cabinet selections of Gina McCarthy as White House Domestic Climate Coordinator, Jennifer Granholm as Secretary of Energy, and Deb Haaland as Secretary of the Interior are adding a literal breath of fresh air to the discussion of climate change in the US. Not only do these women have strong track records of promoting renewable energy and protecting the environment, they also add to the diversity currently lacking in our country's leadership. When it comes to addressing the climate crisis, letting women lead is the single most important action we can take.
The link between climate change and women is most often focused on the disproportionate and negative impacts of extreme weather on women around the world. It’s certainly true that climate change is brutal on women, particularly those living in poverty or in areas subjected to drought or flooding. The UN estimates that more than 80% of the people displaced by the effects of global warming are women.
"The UN estimates that more than 80% of the people displaced by the effects of global warming are women."
It's also true that we need to engage women in the fight against climate change because we need to tap into all the brainpower that's out there to come up with the most effective solutions, not just the 49% of the population that's male. But making room for women's voices and giving them a seat at the table is not nearly enough. Women are emerging as the leaders in the fight to save the planet, and it's time to get out of their way and let them get to work.
Gender Responsive Climate Finance (© The Heinrich Boell Foundation)
Studies on women's leadership characteristics highlight a number of traits that are particularly important in the fight for our planet's future. For example, women tend to be highly collaborative and excel as team players. Since climate change requires a coordinated, global effort, the ability to form relationships and work together is essential. Women are also more likely to take the input of others into consideration and rely on outside experts to help form their opinions. This suggests a more prominent role for science and data in their decision-making as well as a willingness to listen to public opinion, which overwhelmingly supports climate action. According to Pew Research, 74% of US respondents to their most recent poll on climate change would prioritize renewable energy over fossil fuels while 86% take that position on a global basis. These opinions are driven by the fact that the majority of respondents see the impact of climate change where they live and believe that the government is not doing enough to address it.
"...women tend to be highly collaborative and excel as team players. Since climate change requires a coordinated, global effort, the ability to form relationships and work together is essential."
Saving the earth requires new thinking and a different mindset. Most women in leadership positions have faced barriers and challenges during their career related to their gender. Persistence and survival are part of their daily existence -- natural instincts that the planet both needs and recognizes. According to the US Council of Foreign Relations, peace talks with women at the negotiating table were more likely to reach an agreement -- and the deals were more likely to endure over time. It bodes well that a woman, Christiana Figueres, was Executive Director of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and led the negotiations on the Paris Climate Agreement.
"According to the US Council of Foreign Relations, peace talks with women at the negotiating table were more likely to reach an agreement…"
"These Women Are Taking The Lead In The Fight Against Climate Change", TIME magazine (September 2019).
Examples of women's leadership in addressing climate change abound. On a worldwide level, less than one in ten heads of state are women, yet women leaders have an outsized voice in advocating for the environment and leading on climate initiatives. One of the most visible and highly respected is Angela Merkel (a.k.a. "Climate Chancellor"), who has a background in science and a style of leadership that prefers cooperation over confrontation. In 2020, Germany is on target to generate 50% of its electricity from renewable energy and Merkel has included clean energy and efficiency initiatives in her country's economic recovery package. Earlier this month, she also supported another woman, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, in setting an ambitious new goal to reduce emissions in the EU by 55% before 2030. Mette Frederiksen, the Prime Minister of Denmark, raised her country's target to 70% by 2030 and announced an end to all oil and gas exploration this month. She presides over the country that produces more wind energy per capita than any other OECD nation. The Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, was recently re-elected in a landslide and has been recognized for her compassionate yet effective leadership style in addressing issues such as gun violence and disaster response. Her government legislated a net-zero carbon target for 2050 and additional climate change action is a top priority for her new administration. Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir of Iceland speaks frequently about how addressing climate change must go hand in hand with economic recovery and growth efforts. She presented Iceland's new goals, which include an increase in emission reductions and international cooperation efforts on geothermal energy at the UN climate summit earlier this month. It's notable that these female leaders have all been highly praised for their response to the pandemic, and their empathetic and science-driven approach to the COVID-19 crisis suggests they will continue to lead the pack in addressing climate issues as well.
"...female leaders have all been highly praised for their response to the pandemic, and their empathetic and science-driven approach to the COVID-19 crisis suggests they will continue to lead the pack in addressing climate issues as well."
The US is a stark contrast, but there's hope on the horizon as we usher in a new executive team that includes the first woman Vice President. As a Senator, Kamala Harris introduced the Climate Equity Act in Congress just days before joining the Biden ticket and she'll be a strong voice on climate justice. In addition to the cabinet posts, more women will also be joining the US Congress this year, breaking the record set in 2016. At least 141 female legislators will start new terms in January 2021 and several more races with female candidates are yet to be decided.
"As the world is quickly approaching an inflection point on the climate crisis, it's time to recognize the value of women leaders and the skill sets they bring to the table..."
While this may mean a new era of climate bipartisanship, it's a mistake to think that women legislators will vote as a bloc to support climate action. Republican women account for much of the gains in Congress this election and most of them don't consider climate change a priority. Nonetheless, almost half of the new Republican congresswomen are from wind- and solar-rich midwestern states that are tapping into the economic benefits of renewable energy developments. The other half are from states that are particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts such as Florida and California. Either way, it's highly conceivable that these congresswomen will be encouraged by their constituents to work across the aisle on clean energy initiatives or climate mitigation measures.
As the world is quickly approaching an inflection point on the climate crisis, it's time to recognize the value of women leaders and the skill sets they bring to the table that are particularly suited to address the issues at hand. We need empathetic leaders that excel in negotiation, collaboration, and innovation to bring people together around climate change solutions in a decisive new manner. The cadre of women climate leaders about to take charge in the US offers us just that. They'll join other female world leaders already demonstrating that solving the climate crisis is clearly women's work. When it comes to the planet, it's time to not only let women speak, it's time to let women lead.