The Women Taking on Climate Change

23464993165_94dca5115f_zThe following is an excerpt from “Saving Mother Earth” in the Spring 2016 issue of Ms. Author Antonia Juhasz reported from Paris during the climate agreement negotiations, interviewing and profiling women activists from around the world. To read more of her profiles, pick up the issue!

On Dec.12, 2015, the Paris sky is alive with thousands of brightly painted signs: “Urgence Climatique!” (Climate Emergency!), “Le Pétrole Tue!” (Oil Kills!), “Keep Fossil Fuels in the Ground!” Despite a ban on protests in the wake of the November terrorist attacks, the signs are borne by a wave of 15,000 marchers filling the Avenue de la Grande Armée, the Arc de Triomphe towering behind. I walk next to a group of women of diverse ethnicities and ages, part of a delegation of front-line community activists from the United States. The march is joyous and boisterous, more street party than protest, as the sounds of drums, cheers and song fill the air.

“This is going to be a big moment in history,” a beaming 18-year-old, Rossmery Zayas of Southeast Los Angeles, tells me, tears welling in her eyes. “I’m so honored to be a part of it!”

Barely 10 miles away at Le Bourget conference center, representatives of 195 nations are exchanging handshakes and hugs as they sign the United Nations Paris climate agreement, the farthest-reaching global commitment to reduce carbon emissions to date. Yet this is not the history-making moment to which Rossmery refers.

Opinions vary on the overall success of the agreement, with those living on the front lines of fossil fuel operations and the climate crisis generally the most critical. Among the deficiencies is that it fails to mandate that all actions taken under the agreement be gender-responsive, under- mining its very ability to solve the climate crisis. Though not from activists’ lack of trying. A coalition of women’s organizations from across the globe had come together early in the two-week-long negotiating process for a final push to ensure that the rights of women be enshrined in the agreement. But the language they supported—to “ensure gender equality” and require the “full and equal participation of women” in the implementation of the agreement—was ultimately moved from the operating text to the preamble, making it non-legally binding, more of an aspiration than a concrete commitment.

The agreement rests on individual climate plans submitted by each government and updated every five years. As nations implement these plans, however, none will be required to take into account the impacts on women—when, for example, setting goals or reporting outcomes or formulating national transportation and renewable-energy priorities. Nor are countries required to incorporate women’s unique contributions to solving the climate crisis. As Mary Robinson, the former U.N. human rights chief and Ireland’s first woman president, had warned days earlier, the negotiations were too dominated by men to the detriment of effective action. She told the Guardian newspaper, “This is a very male world [at the conference]. When it is a male world, you have male priorities.”

The good news is that tens of thousands of women were in Paris—as activists, advocates, policy experts and protesters. Some sought to influence negotiators; all came to meet, strategize and build an unstoppable global movement for climate justice. It is this movement to which Rossmery was referring, for just 13 days earlier more than half a million people took to the streets in 175 nations demanding immediate climate action. On Dec. 12, Rossmery and the other marchers in Paris celebrated all that this movement would achieve going forward.

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At age 18, Rossmery is already a veteran organizer, crediting two older sisters with exposing her at age 14 to “the reality that everyone has the right to clean air, soil and water… regardless of who you are.” Even the low-income children of Guatemalan immigrants living in Southeast L.A.

Rossmery has spent her entire life encircled by what fellow activist Ariel Ross of Stillwater, Oklahoma described as the “constellation of problems” associated with fossil-fuel dependence. She and her 12 siblings were raised in the shadow of a toxic car-battery recycling plant, under the constant air contamination of crisscrossing freeways, and within miles of three polluting oil refineries.

She describes a key personal turning point, the moment when she saw a map of the major polluters in L.A. and realized they were all in low-income communities of color like hers. She began organizing with Communities for a Better Environment, becoming a core member of its “Youth for Environmental Justice” arm. She received funding to join a U.S. delegation in Paris to ensure not only that front-line communities were heard, but that their organizing efforts would expand and become more powerful upon their return.

On Dec. 12, Rossmery smiled proudly, her face framed by jet-black hair as she marched alongside a 300-foot-long red banner, a symbolic “red line” being drawn by the protesters beyond which climate destruction would not be allowed.

Before Paris, Rossmery had never been out of the United States, much less surrounded by so many others like herself: women from climate change and fossil fuel’s front lines, all declaring, “We’re tired of it: We’re tired of our families getting sick, we’re tired of people dying, we’re tired of our ancestral roots [being] targeted.” And, Rossmery emphasizes, “We have the solutions.”

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user Force Ouvrière licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

Antonia Juhasz is a policy analyst, journalist and author of Black Tide (2011), The Tyranny of Oil (2008) and The Bush Agenda (2006).

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