MADRE Statements

A Women's Rights-based Approach to Climate Change

Posted on: Monday, November 30, 2009

Keywords: Economic Justice, Environmental Justice, Climate Change, UN

From December 7-18, representatives of 192 governments, UN agencies and civil society organizations will meet in Copenhagen to negotiate a deal aimed at stabilizing the Earth’s climate. Climate change is already happening, so governments need to act fast to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are released by burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests and that are heating the planet.

What is at Stake?

  • Human development: Climate change is worsening hunger and poverty and magnifying existing inequalities. Economic losses from climate change, running at $125 billion a year, already exceed the total for aid to poor countries. Climate change will undo efforts to promote global health and combat poverty by:
  • Displacing another 330 million people through flooding.
  • Undermining food production and food security in the developing world due to extreme and unpredictable weather conditions (drought, flooding, worsening storms).
  • Exposing millions more people to devastating tropical cyclones.
  • Peace and security: If left unchecked, climate change will intensify scarcities of water, arable land and other natural resources, increasing the risk of resource wars.
  • Life as we know it: According to Jim Hansen, the world’s preeminent climate scientist, vastly reducing emissions is necessary to maintain a planet “similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.”  

Why is Climate Change a Women’s Issue?

The effects of climate change are not gender-neutral.  Because women and men have distinct social roles (or genders), they are impacted differently by climate change.
  • Women's livelihoods depend more on the ecosystems that are threatened by climate change.
  • It's widely recognized that poor people are being hit first and worst by impacts of climate change, including food shortages, droughts, floods and disease.  Fewer people acknowledge that the majority of poor people worldwide—nearly 70 percent—are women.
  • Poverty and gender discrimination interact with climate change to produce deadly results for women and girls. For example, nearly three times as many women as men are killed in climate disasters such as hurricanes and floods.
  • Women have historically developed the kinds of solutions to ecological challenges that we now need to adapt and replicate to confront climate change. These solutions include sustainable agriculture, preserving biodiversity, securing fresh water supplies, building wind-resistant housing and more.
  • Despite the fact that women are disproportionately threatened by climate change and hold key solutions, neither the Kyoto Protocol nor the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change even mention gender. We need a climate change agreement in Copenhagen that addresses the particular impact of the crisis on women and the leadership roles that women must play in creating solutions.

Why is Climate Change a Matter of Global Justice?

  • Rich, industrialized countries are historically responsible for the lion’s share of carbon emissions in the atmosphere.  Burning all of that fossil fuel is how they got to be rich and industrialized in the first place.  
  • These rich countries have greatly overused their carbon emissions quota, and owe a Carbon Debt to the South, which is much larger than the financial debt of the highly indebted poor countries.
  • The poorest nations, who are least responsible for the crisis, are the most at risk.  It is in these countries that climate change is most advanced and where people lack the resources to adapt to worsening storms, water and food shortages, and other impacts of climate change.
  • People who are poor need resources for coping now.  Access to these resources is their human right – and governments are obligated under international law to provide it.

Can Climate Change Be Stopped?

  • Yes, if governments are willing to regulate and tax corporations so that they limit resource use and generate funds for sustainable development.  
  • According to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we already have the know-how to reduce global carbon emissions by 26 billion tons by 2030 – that’s more than enough to avoid the 2-degree Celsius rise in temperatures that would bring on the worst consequences of global warming.

So What’s the Problem?

  • Wealthy governments are prioritizing short-term profit over long-term survival. They are promoting commercial fixes like carbon trading that make money for corporations but avoid the single most important step in stabilizing the climate: namely, mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions.
  • The consensus among wealthy countries is that action on climate change must not jeopardize economic growth—especially in the midst of a global recession.
  • But economic growth is just another way of measuring natural resource consumption, and consumption (burning fossil fuels, clear cutting forests) is what is driving climate change. The fantasy of endless economic growth is putting us on a collision course with reality. The reality is that the planet has its limits, and we are fast approaching them.
  • The solution is to craft economic policy within a broader framework of environmental policy, and not the other way around. 


Is There Any Good News?

Yes. People are realizing that we cannot continue to live outside the laws of nature and that we have the capability to reinvent our economies and habitats on a sustainable basis and in ways that safeguard human rights. Across the planet, people are moving forward with small-scale and local solutions.  They are leading by example, laying out our best hope for long-term sustainability.

  • The Green Belt Movement in Kenya has planted tens of millions of trees to offset deforestation.
  • The Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil has secured 15 million acres of land for 250,000 families. Many of them are now farming organically.
  • The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples recognizes Indigenous Peoples’ right to control their land and resources, safeguarding much of the Earth’s remaining biodiversity.
  • In oil-dependent countries, more and more people are creating new modes of locally rooted agriculture, commerce energy, transportation, housing, and government that are the building blocks of a “post-carbon future.” This “transition movement” holds that the need to consume less oil can lead to a healthier, happier future in places where the shift is well-planned, locally grounded, and democratic.


What Do We Need to Do?

  • We need to make sure that governments feel the pressure from a growing climate justice movement demanding human rights as the starting point for new climate policies.
  • In particular, the US, which has the world’s highest per capita carbon emissions, needs to play a leadership role.  Yet, the negotiating position of the Obama administration is virtually the same as that of the Bush administration.
  • President Obama—who has waffled about his commitment to even attend this historic summit—has weakened the drive towards an ambitious and effective agreement by warning that we should not make “the perfect the enemy of the good” and conceding that there will be no legally-binding international agreement as a result of this meeting.  
  • Join us and add your name to this letter to President Obama and the US delegation headed to Copenhagen.



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