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On gender day at U.N. climate talks, a call for action that empowers women and girls

Women and children bear a disproportionate impact of climate change. Here’s what you need to know about Tuesday’s COP26 theme.

Protesters rally in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 6. (Jane Barlow/PA/AP)

As week two of COP26 unfolds, one of the climate summit’s primary themes on Tuesday is gender — a day for women’s rights advocates and policymakers to negotiate gender-responsive climate action that protects and empowers women and girls. The pandemic has already deepened inequality worldwide, and stakeholders are eager to establish concrete solutions and funding to prepare marginalized groups for a future of climate change.

“Climate change is a threat multiplier,” said Christina Kwauk, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert in climate change and girls’ education. “Climate change exacerbates existing structural and social gender inequalities in ways that’s really led [women and girls] to experience climate change the worst and first.”

What are the central problems under this theme?

Around the world, women will experience heightened risk in the face of climate change. From slow-onset disasters to abrupt environmental shocks, women are more exposed to economic instability, displacement, sexual violence and death, especially in the context of the global south. For younger women, this could prompt removal from school or early marriage.

Even though research shows that tackling gender inequality is an effective tool for addressing climate change, prioritizing gender-responsive climate action is difficult. Policymakers tend to focus more on technological solutions, observers say. Compounded by inadequate representation by women in power, especially by Indigenous women and women of color, these interests fall through the cracks.

“There remains a big problem of things being very siloed, with treatment of gender issues as kind of elementary,” said Lucia Fry, director of research and policy at the nonprofit Malala Fund. “We’ve suddenly realized that women are affected differently by climate change without necessarily embracing the extent of the solutions that are needed.”

How climate change is disproportionately affecting girls in low-income countries

What are potential solutions?

Climate change education is one of the best ways to offset gender inequality and a key demand among many major advocates at COP26: the United Nation Girls Initiative, Women and Gender Constituency, Project Drawdown, Malala Fund, and Plan International.

On Tuesday, the Malala Fund will present its Gender-Equal Green Learning Agenda, a framework based on research from Brookings for how leaders can address the climate crisis through education. Climate change education, the group says, means incorporating climate into all aspects of school curriculums and vocational training in a way that equips women with the knowledge and skills to participate in a green economy, prepare for an emergency and foster climate action.

“How can we expect children to inherit the worst impacts of the climate crisis if they don’t have access to the information and skills to adapt to it and have resilience in the face of it?” said Jessica Cooke, a climate and gender specialist at Plan International attending the summit.

Other key solutions include investing in female entrepreneurship and grass-roots organizations, advocates say. The Global Greengrants Fund supports over 300 women-led environmental projects per year and recently partnered with the Global Alliance for Green and Gender Action (GAGGA) to mobilize $100 million for gender-focused climate action over the next five years. USAID and the European Investment Bank also support such action around the world. Combating gender norms, protecting access to clean water and promoting sexual and reproductive health and rights are also ways of advancing climate justice, the groups say.

What solutions are already underway in the U. S.?

At the federal level, gender-responsive climate action is still in a nascent stage. In March, President Biden established the Gender Policy Council, whose strategy explicitly mentions climate change. But so far, concrete initiatives remain to be seen. “I wouldn’t give the U.S. an A+ on where they are so far,” said Bridget Burns, director of the Women’s Environment and Development Organization. “The foundations are just being set up with how things are going to work.”

In the realm of civil society, groups working at the nexus of climate and gender are still niche and lack investment, but they are growing. On the coattails of social justice moments across the United States, climate activist groups have become more intersectional and drawn more interest. For example, the Hive Fund for Climate and Gender Justice, which supports organizations led by Black, Brown and Indigenous women, earned a $43 million grant from the Jeff Bezos Earth Fund in 2020. “The tide has turned really quickly,” Burns said. “People are really seeking how they can invest in women’s groups.”

Climate change brings irreversible harm to poor countries. At COP26, rich ones face pressure to foot the bill.

What developments are expected out of COP26?

With most “nationally determined contributions,” or NDCs, already submitted, there is little hope that countries will incorporate gender-responsive climate action into their plans. According to an Education International analysis, while 15 NDCs mention girls — up from three in the last round — only Cambodia and the United Kingdom recognize girls’ education, and zero include girls’ education as part of their national climate strategies.

“It really doesn’t make sense to not have a gender lens [on climate change] when we understand the impacts to be so gendered,” said Kwauk, who wrote the analysis.

Instead, stakeholders will be watching for pledges and funding commitments from institutions that further gender and climate objectives. Observers will also be watching Action for Climate Empowerment negotiations to advance and fund gender-responsive climate action, as well the review of the gender action plan under the Lima Work Program.

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