Having women at the helm of our government and agricultural systems is vital to surviving the climate crisis.
Last fall, I launched the first season of the climate justice podcast “As She Rises,” and as expected, people asked me why I chose to open each episode with poetry from Indigenous and Black women poets. Or why I featured very local, small-scale stories. But the most common question I received was, “Why are you speaking with only women?”
Personally, the answer had to do with my own aversion to discussing climate change. I’ve always found the topic to be very overwhelming, and engaging with it at all left me despondent. I was sick of hearing from Bill Nye-looking guys who speak only through a barrage of impenetrable facts and fragments of degrees. It felt like such an impersonal approach to discussing perhaps the most intimate challenge of our times.
So, I felt a strong desire to change the messenger and asked myself, “Who could make this issue finally accessible and even more importantly, digestible and uplifting?” I believed that those closest to the problem should be the ones speaking about the real-life impacts on the ground to paint a portrait of what it’s actually like to live through the climate crisis. With that, it made perfect sense to center women of color and native voices.
Women are far, and away, the group most disproportionately affected by climate change. Yet, they are regularly left out of the conversation on a global scale. The United Nations estimates that 80 percent of all people displaced by climate change are women and girls, who make up only 30 percent of global and national climate decision-making bodies.
Those closest to the problem should be the ones speaking about the real-life impacts on the ground to paint a portrait of what it’s actually like to live through the climate crisis.
This disproportionate impact is a confluence of several socio-economic factors. Climate change is a threat multiplier—meaning it intensifies existing disadvantages. Women, on average, make up the majority of impoverished people across the globe and culturally, they are more likely to be caretakers and therefore have less independent mobility. Their role as caretakers typically saddles them to more resource-dependent tasks such as gathering water and harvesting food. Consequently, they’re not able to pick up and leave their homes as easy as their male counterparts.
Not only do women lack the monetary resources, they typically are caretakers of children and elderly people who also lack the means to pick up and move at a moment’s notice. So as severe weather events influenced by the climate crisis increase in frequency, women are even more vulnerable to the devastation. As an example, in 2004, a tsunami struck Sri Lanka. In the aftermath, it was assessed that four times as many women died in the wake of the storm.
Aside from a lack of mobility, there’s another reason women are less likely to evacuate in the case of a climate-induced emergency. When forced to move, migrant women are often left without documentation, possibly navigating a language barrier, and just trying to provide for their families. This puts the physical safety of women all over the world at risk. It’s been well documented that when women are displaced the likelihood of experiencing sexual assault, harassment, or human trafficking skyrocket.
As severe weather events influenced by the climate crisis increase in frequency, women are even more vulnerable to the devastation.
While producing the latest season of “As She Rises,” I dove into the intersection of migrant labor, climate change and sexual harassment with an incredible activist, Lupe Gonzalo, who is a senior member of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. She migrated from Guatemala in 2000 and spent over a decade working in inhumane conditions on tomato farms in Florida. She told me she had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace and witnessed countless similar, and sometimes worse, incidents among her female coworkers.
These stories are devastating and chilling. But it’s these firsthand accounts that shed light on just how destabilizing the climate crisis can be for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.
But women like Gonzalo, those closest to the crisis, are continuing to fight. Gonzalo now works with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to transform the experience of farm laborers in the United States. The coalition’s Fair Food Program has successfully raised wages, implemented enforceable human rights standards on farms, and created plans to improve conditions for farmers in the face of extreme heat exposure. The program is heralded as a model for the rest of the world. Part of Gonzalo’s work includes leading educational seminars so that more people like her can continue the fight.
Around the world, when women lead in the climate crisis we see progress. According to the Brookings Institute, countries where women have higher social and political mobility emit 12 percent less carbon dioxide than their contemporaries. Female heads of state, like New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, have proven to be incredibly effective at combating the climate crisis. In fact, New Zealand’s 40 percent female cabinet aims to have their public sector carbon neutral in just three years. The U.N. has also reported that when given the same resources as men, female agricultural workers increase production by upwards of 30 percent.
The existing, extractive systems much of the Western world has in place were put there by—largely—white men. It’s time to take a different approach. To do so, we need a change of the guard. Having women at the helm of our government and agricultural systems will be vital to surviving the climate crisis. While we wait for the world’s leadership to catch up, there are already incredibly powerful grassroots environmentalists who are making progress in addressing climate change and our extractive practices. These were the women I wanted to speak to for the podcast. The folks whose names you may not have heard before, but whose work is preserving our planet for this generation and the next. These are the kinds of stories that give me the hope to keep going.
In Northwestern New Mexico is Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, a sacred ancestral home for both the Pueblo and Navajo people. I had the honor of speaking with Julia Bernal, the executive director of the Pueblo Action Alliance, an organization that was instrumental in successfully pressuring the Department of the Interior to protect these sacred tribal lands. The formal decision to preserve the area from future oil and gas leasing came from Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland—the first Indigenous woman to ever hold a federal cabinet position.
Close to home in my native Pacific Northwest, Amy Trainer successfully represented the Swinomish people in a campaign to protect the headwaters of the Skagit River from a proposed mining operation. The opposition was so sustained, and so overwhelming, that a binational agreement was forged between Washington and British Columbia to buy out the tenures to the land from Imperial Metals. The preserved landscape will ultimately be returned to the original stewards of the land—the First Nations people of Canada. When discussing the need to return land to Indigenous stewardship, Trainer helped put it all in perspective,
“We hear, oh, my family’s third generation, fourth generation. Okay. I respect that. But if that is to have meaning, then what does it mean when you hear Native nations and their families talk about, we are here for hundreds, if not thousands of generations. Let those roots and sense of place sink in.”
When thinking about the climate crisis, it is easy to become overwhelmed by dread and feelings of helplessness. But learning about the work of these incredible women has given me a new sense of hope and optimism as we all march forward into the impending storm. If we’re willing to listen to these women, we might actually be able to make it out of this alive. And dare I say, even better than before.