Conclusions from COP26: you cannot be a climate activist today without being a feminist

Energy & Climate Change

This was the conclusion of a challenging discussion at COP26 in the New York Times Climate Hub, writes Terry Fuller.

The panel were discussing 'Girls’ education as an accelerator of climate action’ and taking part were Leah Thomas, founder of Intersectional Environmentalist; Malala Yousafzai co-founder of the Malala Fund and; Vanessa Nakate, member of Generation Climate Initiative and climate justice activist.

The case was made for how girls’ education is no longer just about equality. It’s about giving girls and women the means and opportunities to deploy their knowledge of issues they are uniquely placed to address.

Vanessa Nakate spoke about how the education system and social norms in her home country of Uganda, and many other parts of Africa, favour the education of boys. The depth of influence of social attitudes was illustrated when Vanessa explained that girls in her home district are forbidden to climb trees when they are young and consequently do not possess this skill. She went on to explain that this had resulted in loss of life in a [flash] flood when this became the only means of escape.

I found this story incredible and doubted that I had heard it correctly but some rudimentary internet searching confirmed that this is ‘a thing’.

And before those of us in countries like the UK pass judgment on this, let’s just think about how cultural attitudes and cliches still do not encourage girls into engineering, science and environmental careers.

Making education available to girls around the world has been described as ‘the world’s best investment’ and I agree. It is also clear that engaging with, and listening to, girls and women around the world about their experiences and perspectives is amongst the most powerful things we can do to address our climate and ecological crises.

When asked about this, Malala described how often it is that women are in the front line of climate stress. Significantly this includes being resilient and building resilience to climate change. Images from CIWEM’s Environmental Photographer of the Year illustrate this so well.

The panel also spoke about intersectional feminism. This refers to the linkages between gender inequality and other injustices connected to factors such as race, environment and climate. I think the point here is that as we look at climate through a feminist lens we identify other factors that amplify the need for positive action and the richness of lessons that we can learn.

Leah characterised this well by noting that Black and Indigenous communities have been bearing the brunt of climate impact long before white people, with the latter still holding the majority power of decision-making. Leah got to this conclusion having started from a feminist viewpoint.

This was a hugely challenging session. I felt uncomfortable throughout and angry and ashamed about the injustices of the past. I was also inspired and found the panellists inspirational. They are amazing achievers and leaders. But this cannot be the conclusion of this blog.

Leah explained that every time a world leader or anyone else in a position of privilege describes someone as inspirational, we are effectively handing back responsibility to that person to take action. Instead, our response must be ‘you have inspired me to take positive action and this is what I am going to do’.

Terry Fuller is CIWEM's chief executive

‘Girls’ education as an accelerator of climate action’ took place in the New York Times Pavilion, COP26 on November 3rd.

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