The Voices Excluded From the U.N. Climate Change Conference: “Women Are Vital to Solutions”

“We know solutions exist to mitigate the worst impacts of the crisis and that women are leading the way.”

—Osprey Orielle Lake, founder and executive director of Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN)

(WECAN International)

Beginning on October 31, the United Nations will host the U.N. Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP 26) in Glasgow. The conference, which will last until November 12, aims to bring “parties together to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.”

But environmental activists say COP26 is lacking adequate representation of voices from the Global South and Indigenous communities—primarily due to COVID-19 and travel restrictions. 

“Many civil society organizations have called for the postponement of COP26,” said Osprey Orielle Lake, founder and executive director of Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN), during a Sept. 22 press call with politicians and activists to convey the collective skepticism over COP26. “The exclusion of communities most impacted by the climate crisis will not lead to solutions that center climate justice.”

Both Katherine Quaid (Nez Perce, Cayuse, Paiute), communications and outreach coordinator for WECAN, and Hilda Heine, former president of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, spoke on how their communities have been impacted by climate change. 

“I grew up among the high desert plateaus along the edge of mountain forests that cascade from North to South, and extending beyond time these lands have provided a home for my family and community, giving us everything we need to live, eat and thrive,” said Quaid. “Right now it’s on fire. It has been for months. Climate change has turned my home and much of the West Coast extending from the boreal forests in Canada, even all the way down to the Amazon into a hellscape.” 

Quaid said Indigenous rights and sovereignty are critical to climate solutions—evident, given that 80 percent of the biodiversity left on earth lies in Indigenous territories. In fact, Indigenous women hold most of the traditional ecological knowledge that has helped past generations coexist with their environment. As such, the inclusion of Indigenous people, especially women, is integral for understanding how to combat climate change and envisioning a world that isn’t built upon extractive and colonial structures.

Heine also argued Indigenous communities and marginalized populations should have a seat at the table. After witnessing firsthand the effects of climate change in the Marshall Islands, she realized the importance of international support. 

“Unlike other island states and countries, people from all nations have nowhere to retreat to—the ocean is in our backyard,” Heine said. “The larger community economies have a moral obligation to the weaker, more vulnerable countries who are suffering the brunt of the climate change [which] impacts the right to live in our world, our ancestral lands … maintain ourselves and reign over our land and ocean space as a country.”

The environmental impacts of climate change Quiad and Heine describe is evident in the latest IPCC report. This report confirms the fears of many: Without immediate action, the climate crisis will continue to escalate and disproportionately impact marginalized communities.

“We need climate justice now,” said Orielle Lake. “This is the time to unite together to build a healthy and just future we know it’s possible for each other on earth … to confront these deepening crises and accelerate a path forward, we need to have collective coherence to address the protection and defense of human rights in nature.”

To learn more: Read WECAN’s Call to Action statement—signed by over 120 organizations—that has been sent to governments and financial institutions to urge immediate and inclusive climate action.

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Juliet Schulman-Hall is an editorial fellow for Ms. and a senior at Smith College. She is majoring in English language & literature, minoring in sociology, and concentrating in poetry. Her beats include America's health care system, disability, global politics and climate change, and criminal justice reform and abolition. Follow her @jschulmanhall