Amidst lamentations of the failure of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)’s COP20 talks in Lima to draw up an agreement that will adequately tackle the already deadly effects of climate change, Georgie Johnson talks to Professor Susan Buckingham, lecturer on gender and the environment at Brunel University London and former trustee of WEN, about one particularly significant day at COP20: Gender Day.

Tuesday 9th December was UNFCCC’s second Gender Day, following its inauguration at COP19 in Warsaw last year. Designed as a space dedicated to the intersection of climate change and gender equality, Gender Day is of massive importance to the struggle for environmental justice, and reflects UNFCCC’s responsibility to ensure the inclusion of the gender dimension in climate negotiations.

But why is gender consideration so crucial to achieving environmental justice? Professor Buckingham explains the connection:

“Women are exposed to climate change related problems in ways that are sometimes different to men, as a result of gender relations; increased violence against women and girls at times of environmental stress is just one example.”

At the same time, “women express more concern about environmental issues. All this experience needs to be reflected in decision making. The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992 agreed the principle of involving women in environmental decision making, but it took until 2011 for UNFCCC to agree to even consult on this principle. The EU and various member states have identified that women on company boards makes for greater stability in long term decision making, fewer unnecessary risks being taken, and have taken steps which bind the top publicly listed companies to achieve better gender balance - why should governments and international NGOs not also be bound by this?”

“And then there's the question of the right to equality in all spheres, even if it didn't make a difference.” Until gender equality, and indeed total human equality, is achieved, global crises such as climate change will never be tackled with the full force of the human population. To change everything, we need everyone.

So COP20’s Gender Day intended to bring these issues to the fore, and to improve climate solutions by enforcing consideration of their gender sensitivity, whilst bringing the knowledge of women into the halls of power where it can have a positive effect on the discussions occurring within. I asked Professor Buckingham if there was perhaps something problematic about assigning gender issues to one day, which might excuse the need to consider gender sensitivity in every single aspect of the conference. Does Gender Day represent a kind of ghettoisation of an issue that should be fully integrated into the climate change discussion? Professor Buckingham believes that a dedicated platform for gender issues is indeed a useful tool: “I think we need both - a safe space for women who are marginally excluded to come together and raise the profile of the issue, but also to ensure that gender (and other injustices) are raised in every area.”

Across the conference as a whole, women made up 36% of delegates. Whilst this is a 7% increase from last year in Warsaw, the numbers still fail to reflect the gender imbalance of the impact of climate change at ground level, and indeed the very obvious ratio of men to women on the planet. Women’s greater propensity to care about the environment, as evidenced in surveys such as this one, makes their inclusion at decision-making level vital, but I wanted to know whether Professor Buckingham thought more women at the top would automatically translate to greater empowerment and safety for women on the ground:

“Not necessarily, if the women at the top mimic the men at the top. Climate change related professions are notoriously male dominated (water, energy, waste and transport engineering, building design, architecture and urban planning). Where women make it to the top in these industries, they will have had to negotiate quite masculinist structures and working practices.”

The percentage of women is also vital in creating an atmosphere where those women feel able to make vital interventions: “A 'critical mass' of at least 30% is said to give women the confidence to speak out on issues they might not voice if they were in a smaller minority.”

The inequality of women at the conference, not just in their numbers but in the strength of their voices, was recognised by Women’s Environmental and Development Organisation (WEDO), who hosted a two day training course for women delegates, known as the Women Delegates Fund (WDF) ‘Night School’. The Night School worked with women, from newcomers to seasoned UNFCCC negotiators, to help them navigate the complex processes, techniques and jargon of the Conference of Parties format. The thinking behind these sessions is simple: we got a foot in the door, we got seats at the table, but now we need to learn to speak their language, without losing sight of what we came here to say.

According to WEDO, the Night School recognised “the critical need for these spaces to discern, understand, practice skills and network with other women delegates. Several delegates shared that they felt empowered to raise their flags on behalf of their countries for the first time.”

The UNFCCC format is indeed a serious problem, and not just for proponents of gender-sensitive climate change solutions. Progress at these conferences is slow and power is unevenly distributed between nations. Professor Buckingham describes the COP as little more than “an energy intensive jamboree”, and she is not alone in her disparagement of the process. There are many who feel, with good reason, that with regard to climate change and the complex politics of power in which it is entangled, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

Perhaps, then, we should look outside the conference to what was happening on the streets of Lima: the People's Climate Summit. Isis Alvarez, from Colombia and representing the Global Forest Coalition in the Women and Gender Constituency at COP20, said in an interview at the close of the conference: “I am glad the Peoples’ Climate Summit was also held in Lima parallel to the UNFCCC COP 20 negotiations. While listening and following at the latter, one could lose all hope for real climate action and climate justice, but at the Summit, you could actually get to know the ‘real’ people on the frontlines of climate change, listen to their voices and hear their proposed solutions. It helps you believe again in local and genuine actions that we can take now. If we all wait in line for an agreement between governments (that might already come too late or not even come at all) we might just cook ourselves together with the planet while we are waiting.”

Grassroots activism and community solutions were focal points at Gender Day. One of UNFCCC’s initiatives, Momentum for Change, focuses on outstanding examples of ground-level solutions to climate change related problems. A subset of this initiative, Women for Results, was the focus of a session at Gender Day, which showcased women-led projects around the world that work creatively and resourcefully, drawing on local and women’s knowledge, to respond to climate change and its various environmental and social manifestations.

But just how effective is grassroots or individual and community level intervention when the problem is as massive and devastating as climate change? And at a global conference of national governments, is there a risk of shifting responsibility from top to bottom, absolving governments and, in particular, global industry of some of the responsibility for fixing the problem that they, not individuals, created?

“I think that grassroots and local action is really important, as it gives people power and confidence that they can make change. However, they need to be supported in doing this, and governments and businesses work against this in so many ways”. So whilst telling us to recycle more, governments encourage us to buy things we don’t need and live wastefully for the sake of the economy. “We need tight and robust government legislation to control excess production, pollution, etc., not to make it difficult for people to live more sustainable lives.”

In every oppositional movement of the 20th and 21st centuries, grassroots has always been the level at which women really lead. Thankfully, institutional sexism and structural exclusion has not deterred women from the fight for environmental justice. The mentality is: if you won’t let us in, we’ll fix it out here, which is precisely what NGOs, other women’s organisations and individual women around the world do, including Women’s Environmental Network.

But what do the women who took part in COP20’s gender day think about the results of the conference? The reports are not far off heart-breaking. Not just for the gender element but in other major areas, the conference has been slammed as yet another failure of developed nations to commit to the kinds of changes that need to happen if developing nations are to survive ever-worsening conditions. Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and speaker at Gender Day, summed up the conference in Lima in a way that holds true for every major conference on climate change ever held: “Not enough was done by countries who can afford to wait.” Those who can afford to wait seem determined to do so, at the expense of those who are already fighting for their lives.

For Professor Buckingham as well, the outlook for Paris 2015 is bleak: “I have very low expectations that Paris will achieve anything. I remember being at a conference in Copenhagen ahead of the COP in 2009 when two degrees was being mentioned as the outside limit for global warming. This is a far from reliable limit in any case. That we are now considering this as the base, or lowest achievable increase, is appalling.”

Gender equality, and human justice in general, needs to be brought into consideration if any real change is to occur. Usha Nair, from the All India Women’s Conference speaking on behalf of the Women and Gender Constituency, gave an impassioned closing speech to delegates on December 11th, which at least demonstrates that gender concerns did bleed out into the wider conference. I leave you with her powerful declaration and warning:

“The Women and Gender Constituency wants a climate agreement based on human rights and gender equality. One that preserves and protects the rights of the disadvantaged and climate-impacted groups including women, indigenous peoples, persons with special needs and populations in the most vulnerable countries and communities. No one should be left behind.
Most of the world’s farmers are women; most of the world’s health care givers are women; most of the world’s teachers are women. Water programs do not work without women. Unless women are included as equal partners in The Paris Agreement, the Agreement cannot succeed.”