On a trip to the Niger Delta when she was young, Alexandra Wandel witnessed how Shell’s leaked oil pipelines and gas flaring were polluting the water, soil and air. “It was out of shock against these crimes that I decided to dedicate my life to the protection of the environment,” she explains. As is too often the case, the most affected by this pollution were women and children.
Today, Alexandra Wandel is Executive Director of the World Future Council, an independent body that advocates for policy solutions that serve the interests of future generations. We talked with Alexandra about how the issues of gender and climate change has evolved over the years.
The first Conference of the Parties under the UNFCCC took place in spring 1995 in Berlin. On that occasion, you co-organised the international women’s forum, with the title “Solidarity in the Greenhouse”. What do you remember from this event? What was the atmosphere?
The event was the brainchild of Eva Quistorp, a former member of the European Parliament and Co-Founder of the Green Party in Germany. Eva Quistorp was a close ally of Petra Kelly, another German Green politician and ecofeminist activist. I organised a group of young female students from the Otto-Suhr-Institute to hold this first forum with the local organisation Women for Peace and Ecology. All in all, 150 women including parliamentarians, researchers and civil society activists from 25 countries came together at the House of Cultures in Berlin. We discussed and exchanged our views on climate protection and we came up with a list of demands that women had for the UN climate summit. The meeting was very rich in fostering intercultural exchange on sustainable energy, transport and consumption patterns demanding future just alternatives for a healthy planet.
“Climate change drives a greater number of women into poverty and hunger. On top of that, poor access to information, education, birth control and decision making perpetuates their situation.”
Just before the opening of this COP1, you and Eva Quistorp MEP wrote an open letter to Angela Merkel, who was at the time the German Minister of the Environment and Chair of COP. The letter called to ensure that women and environmental organisations are as strongly represented at the COP as business and industry lobby groups. It’s incredible to read the letter today, as it is still relevant. What would you say has changed most with regards to gender and climate change since you wrote that letter? And what would you write differently today?
Sadly, climate change has significantly worsened since then. Sea levels are rising, glaciers are melting, droughts and devastating storms increase, and this has a very negative impact, especially on women. Under the leadership of UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres, governments have agreed in the Paris Agreement to limit climate change to 1.5 degrees. But governments and businesses have so far failed to take adequate action, therefore jeopardising the future of our children and grandchildren. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) report has highlighted that we only have 12 years to act. Women around the world are still today mainly responsible for water, food and fuel for their households: climate change is robbing many of these women the foundations of life. Climate change drives a greater number of women into poverty and hunger. On top of that, poor access to information, education, birth control and decision making perpetuates their situation. So it is very urgent that women’s aspects are considered in the planning and implementation process of climate protection policies. We need gender impact assessments for all policies, gender-just education, energy, transport and food policies and women need to be adequately represented at every decision making level.
Would you say that, since 1995, there has been an increased participation of women at the policy and expert level of decision making related to climate change?
The UNFCCC has now had two female Executive Secretaries. Once the UNFFC formally recognised at COP14 that “the gender dimension of climate change and its impacts are likely to affect women and men differently”, the secretariat named a gender coordinator and group of gender focal points. At COP 18 in Doha, a decision was made to promote the goal of gender balance in the bodies and delegations to the COP and to include gender and climate change as a standing item in the agenda of the COP.
The Paris Agreement finally agreed that climate actions must be gender-responsive, promote human rights and empower women and girls. At COP 22 in Marrakech, governments agreed on a work programme that aims to mainstream a gender equality perspective and proposes concrete actions to operationalise gender-responsive climate policy in all areas of work–mitigation, adaptation, finance, capacity-building, technology development and transfer, among others–and COP 23 in Bonn adopted a Gender Action Plan to more directly include women in all climate activities. It is urgent to translate it into action with appropriate financing as we still see today a lack of gender-sensitive environmental policies programmes and a lack of gender-sensitive research.
In the past 20 years, have policies and their implementation succeeded in taking into consideration the impact of climate change on women?
So far not, and the clock is ticking. A report by the Secretary General of the UN states that gender inequalities are worsened by the lack of universal access to water sources and modern energy services and there are still discriminatory practices restricting women’s access to land. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change itself only featured a modest increase in female authors: from 5% in 1990 to 20% in the more recent reports. This does not help to mainstream gender considerations into research, policies and the implementation. Environmental considerations have to be complemented by social and gender considerations. As the Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Nguka said, “Women have proven skills in managing natural resources sustainably and adapting to climate changes and their contribution and equal participation would be highly beneficial for the cause. When women are empowered, their families, communities and nations benefit from it.” This would require a comprehensive research and action plan on gender and climate change related policies at all governance levels — international, regional, national and local.
Feminist environmental policies would design policies that women and men would equally benefit from. It would ensure that women have access to sustainable ways of managing land, to sustainable transport and renewable energy.”
Women and girls are the most affected by climate change. Sexual and gender-based violence increases during and after climate disasters as studies show, for instance, an increase in new domestic violence cases (over 300% in some areas). When there is displacement, women staying in shelters are exposed to rape, harassment, discrimination and violence and have limited access to reproductive health services. Recently we’ve been reading about how climate change lead some very young girls into prostitution. Unfortunately, this violence has been happening for decades, and we knew. What can we–and by “we” I mean the governments, the international community, the organisations, etc.–concretely do to fight this violence today?
The first thing to do is to urgently address and tackle all the sources leading to climate change and displacement. We then need to address how violence against women and girls can be ended. Governments, international organisations and civil society need to make a greater effort to prevent any kind of violence against refugee women and girls and take steps to ensure that they are effectively protected from violence.
At the World Future Council, we have partnered with UN Women and the Inter-Parliamentary Union to research and award best policies at national and international level with our Future Policy Award. We have published the key features of the awarded policies on our website futurepolicy.org. We have also compiled an overview of exemplary practices to protect female refugees from violence. Our report includes 30 good practices from 13 countries including demonstrated models but also innovative approaches to tackle and prevent violence and support survivors.
Talking about your work at the World Future Council, highlighting policy solutions that contribute to sustainable development, do you have an example on the topic of gender and climate change?
We have released a study proving that 100% renewable energy is feasible in Tanzania, providing access to reliable energy to citizens and increasing living standards. In Tanzania, only 26% of households have access to the national grid. The rural population, specifically women, cook with charcoal from the forest, which very negatively impacts their health and environment. By working in Tanzania with partners on achieving 100% renewable energy, we work to improve the lives of women and their families.
Is there such a thing as feminist environmental policies? What would it look like?
Feminist environmental policies would design policies that women and men would equally benefit from. It would ensure that women have access to sustainable ways of managing land, to sustainable transport and renewable energy. With such policies, climate change and desertification would be combated so that women would not be further burdened and that women would have equal access to decision making.
As UN Women puts it: “Women are not just victims of climate change. They are powerful agents of change, with unique knowledge and skills. The empowerment of women to plan and implement measures to mitigate and adapt to climate change will make all our efforts more effective.” How important is the role of women when it comes to climate change resilience and mitigation?
As they are still primarily responsible for collecting water, organising food and cooking, and for the health of their children, women play a key role in climate change resilience and mitigation. They are the ones developing alternatives for a healthy planet such as tree planting, subsistence farming and enhancing sustainable consumption patterns.
What are you optimistic about today?
I am optimistic as I am lucky to work with changemakers from around the world who have already successfully achieved remarkable outcomes for the benefit of people and the planet. This included late Wangari Maathai who created the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, Kehkashan Basu, Founder of Green Hope and strong advocate of tree planting from UAE, Jakob von Uexkull, Founder of the World Future Council and Right Livelihood Award, a strong advocate for best policy solutions and Helmy Abouleish, CEO of Sekem who has proven that deserts in Egypt can be greened.
Alexandra Wandel is Executive Director of the World Future Council. Previously she worked for Friends of the Earth Europe in Brussels, Ecopeace Middle East in Cairo and East Jerusalem, Greenpeace in Hamburg and Members of European Parliament in Strasbourg and Brussels. As a spokesperson of Women for Peace and Ecology, she co-hosted the first International Women’s Forum parallel to the UN Climate COP 1 in Berlin. Twitter: @WandelAlexa
To learn more about the World Future Council, visit worldfuturecouncil.org.