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The [s]heroes of COP23

Image credit: UN Women (Flickr: Creative Commons)

Addressing climate change is an urgent international concern that demands an inclusive approach to ensure diverse voices are heard. As COP23 convenes this week in Bonn, we are reminded how the international community must unite and foster solidarity for strong climate action.

Yet women’s voices often go unheard in climate change discussions. Women are simultaneously sidelined in political debates, and affected disproportionately by climate change.

Women and children are 14 times more likely to die in ecological disasters than men due to intersecting structural barriers that undermine women’s economic security, education and mobility. As UN Women highlights in a 2016 report, women’s dependence on, and unequal access to, land, water and other productive assets amplifies their vulnerability to climate change.

However, women’s vulnerability is not innate, but is socially constructed through narratives about climate change that ‘have been largely the domain of white men’.

The latest data from the United Nations (UN) shows that women represented just 36% of the delegates to the 19th session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2013.

Women’s marginalisation is mirrored in the media. An empirical analysis of the media coverage during COP15 in Copenhagen shows female voices represented just 12% of those quoted.

Climate change documentaries are another strong example, with many venerating male political leaders, scientists and actors as climate change’s heroes.

Audiences gaze attentively at Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth, with the documentary mimicking a science lesson and its prescribed relationship between an authoritative male teacher and his dutiful students. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Before the Flood—which garnered over 60 million views—tries desperately to establish DiCaprio’s authority by depicting him addressing attentive audiences, jet-setting across the world and by emphasising his close relationships with other powerful men, such as Barack Obama and Al Gore.

In contrast, women are routinely denied the status of “speaking subjects” in such films. Before the Flood fails to show women speaking in the documentary’s first third. Dedicated almost exclusively to male scientists and politicians, women appear only 34 minutes into the film. Excluding shots of the environment, where DiCaprio narrates, women appear as speaking subjects for just 12% of the screen time.

But why should we care about women’s representation in documentaries and the media?

Principally because narratives about climate change influence our response.

Representing women as silent victims underestimates their expertise and strength as advocates, diminishing the chance for equitable climate change policies.

As UN Women Deputy Executive Director Yannick Glemarec asserts, we need to ‘change the rhetoric of viewing women as vulnerable. We must see women for who they are—core community members, strong leaders, advocates and agents of change who must have a place at the table’.

Food and water security in sub-Saharan Africa provides a paradigmatic example demonstrating why the media and policy makers must recognise climate change’s gendered dimensions.

In sub-Saharan Africa, 59% of employed women are engaged in precarious, informal agricultural employment. They are also responsible for fetching over 70% of household water. This imposes a disproportionate burden to provide water and food, and renders women more dependent on natural resources to subsist economically. However, it simultaneously empowers women as agents for change, giving them expertise about local water supplies and agricultural practices that should be recognised by policy makers.

Representatives at COP23 should consider climate change’s gendered dimensions, ‘not because gender oppression is more important than…other[s]’, but because focusing on women ‘reveals important features of interconnected systems of human domination’. The structures subordinating women, the environment, the financially vulnerable and racialised "others" are mutually reinforcing. A gendered perspective can help reveal these intersecting systems and their relationship to climate change.

If policy makers recognise women’s experiences and expertise, they can devise more equitable policies that tackle climate change and gender equality simultaneously.

Caitlin Clifford is a Masters student studying International Public Management at Sciences Po, Paris.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent the views of the United Nations or any of its affiliated organisations.

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