Climate Wise Women

Climate Wise Women

Ulamila Wragg describes her home in the Cook Islands as a threatened paradise.

Last Thursday, I attended a panel at Barnard College called Climate Wise Women: A Conversation on Global Women’s Response to Climate Change. In the freshly-painted Event Oval in Barnard’s newly-opened Diana Center, I heard stories about climate change and hardship from women who have experienced it first-hand: Sharon Hanshaw, from Biloxi, Mississippi; Constance Okollet, hailing from eastern Uganda, and Ulamila Kurai Wragg of the Cook Islands. These women each shared deeply personal stories about the challenges they have faced–and continue to face–as a result of global warming.

Sharon, a hair-dresser for 21-years, was left without shelter or security after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. She reminded us that poverty effects people worldwide–the United States is not exempt: “Homeless is homeless in any country.” Today, Sharon is the Executive Director of Coastal Women for Change. Constance Okollet, a mother of seven, recalls the heavier-than-usual floods that washed over Uganda in the summer of 2007, followed by six months of intense drought. In February 2010, a mudslide covered three villages. That night, when Constance’s mother returned home, she was unable to find it; her house, along with every other house in the village, was buried under several feet of thick sediment. Finally, Ulamila–a tall, striking woman with a yellow flower pinned behind her ear–asked us what we knew about the Cook Islands. She nodded knowingly after one audience member said it must be paradise. However, she reminded us that if we do nothing, “It will be paradise no more.”

In addition to these earnest women–who are all local climate leaders in their communities–we heard from Her Excellency Mary Robinson, the President of Ireland from 1990 to 1997. President Robinson addressed the iconography of climate change; until recently, the symbol of climate change has been “the polar bear on the melting ice floe.” Mary Robinson and the Climate Wise Women would like to revamp this symbol and give it a more human face–specifically, a woman’s face. These climate activists and feminist leaders want to show who is hurt most by climate change, and who is left to deal with the problems: Women, who must care for their children and cook dinner every night, no matter how how the sea level rises. The tone of the event was compassionate and emotional; more than one of the speakers paused to collect herself and wipe away tears.

The crowd was small and the audience sat close to the stage, creating a tight, intimate space. The environment was noncritical; however, I was left with some questions. As I prepare for the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and Mother Earth Rights taking place in Bolivia next week, I am especially cognizant of nature’s rights–Who exactly is nature, and what rights does she have? By replacing the polar bear’s face with that of a woman, we show the connection between climate and human beings, but do we lose the tie between our actions on this planet and the lives of other species?

Photo credit: Alex Anderson