Can This Year’s U.N. Meeting on Gender Equality Make a Difference on Climate Change?

We need a strong, ambitious, comprehensive outcome to this year’s U.N. Commission on the Status of Women that centers the experiences of women, girls and nonbinary people on the frontlines of climate change.

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The 66th session of the Commission on the Status of Women runs Mar. 14–25. Its priority theme is achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls in the context of climate change, environmental and disaster risk reduction policies and programs. (U.N Women)

Feminists and environmental activists the world over have continually expressed disappointment in the failure of the U.N. system to stop climate change—or acknowledge it as a human rights or gender equality issue.

Yet now, as the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) wraps up this week, there may be a chance to address the failures of the U.N. climate change negotiations through the lens of women’s human rights.

This year, CSW—the U.N.’s foremost arena for gender equality—will for the first time prioritize as its key theme the interlinkages between gender equality and climate change, environment and disaster risk reduction. In light of the recently released IPCC report on the deadly consequences of climate inaction, governments should use this opportunity to make more ambitious commitments—toward progress on both gender and climate justice.

This will be no easy task. Several of the most pressing climate issues—ending global reliance on fossil fuels, compensation for loss and damages caused by climate change, and commitments to additional climate finance—are some of the most difficult areas for governments to agree on in multilateral spaces. Many countries that position themselves as strong allies when it comes to human rights and gender equality are hesitant to make progressive climate commitments.

Although they are often left out of environmental planning and decision-making, women and frontline communities have the knowledge and expertise to protect nature and care for their communities in the context of environmental crises.

Just a few weeks ago, for example, the U.S. led an attempt to strip language on “losses and damages” from the IPCC report, which would essentially block those most in need from getting help. And, these talks are being carried out in a context of ever-shrinking civil society space, where the COVID-19 pandemic has been weaponized to further prevent access to these types of negotiations.

Despite these obstacles, CSW can still be an opportunity to produce a negotiated outcome that lays a foundation for future action at this intersection that is more ambitious, inclusive and progressive.

A lot of the task we have at hand is making clear why climate and environmental issues are issues of gender justice, and why it’s not possible to divorce them. Women, girls and gender-expansive people—especially those who are people of color, who are Indigenous, or who live in least-developed countries—are disproportionately affected by climate, environment and disasters.

Although they are often left out of environmental planning and decision-making, women and frontline communities have the knowledge and expertise to protect nature and care for their communities in the context of environmental crises. Using the U.N. to guarantee them the resources and recognition they deserve would be a powerful first step.  

Making this happen requires that governments be ready to make real compromises to advance human rights and gender equality, and that both gender negotiators and global feminist movements active at CSW upskill our own understanding of the gendered dimensions of the climate crisis and environmental devastation. We need to advocate for the inclusion of language on sexual and reproductive rights and on justice for those facing discrimination on the basis of gender identity, sexual orientation and/or sex characteristics.

At the same time, we must push global North governments like the European Union, United Kingdom and the United States who espouse those rights in U.N. fora to commit to redressing their historical trajectory of pollution and extraction by explicitly recognizing the need to redress both economic and non-economic impacts of climate-related disasters—referred to as “loss and damage” in the climate negotiations.

Equally important is to stop the emissions of greenhouse gasses that create the need for loss and damage in the first place. Rather than continuing to uphold the narrative of “net zero” and “false solutions,” CSW must express the need for ecosystem-based approaches grounded in the leadership of Indigenous and other frontline communities. We need to keep our focus on real, macro-level solutions instead of colonialist attempts to “offset”—rather than stop—the continuous and destructive burning of fossil fuels.

Rather than continuing to uphold the narrative of “net zero” and “false solutions,” CSW must express the need for ecosystem-based approaches grounded in the leadership of Indigenous and other frontline communities.

As feminists working on climate and environmental justice, we know that the rights of some can’t come at the expense of others—that justice for some, as we’ve heard during the first days of CSW, is justice for none.

We need a strong, ambitious, comprehensive outcome to this year’s CSW that centers the experiences of women, girls and nonbinary people on the frontlines of climate change—one that does not put their rights to bodily autonomy and a safe environment in opposition, but recognizes that fulfilling both is crucial to a just and sustainable future.

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About

Kathryn Tobin is a senior program manager at WEDO, where she leads the organization's work around UN headquarters advocacy and the Generation Equality Forum.