After sitting in on one more all male panel at the Cancun climate conference, I couldn’t help but wonder, where are the women? In a side event hosted by the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice and the Green Belt Movement, Francesca de Gasparis, Director of Green Belt Movement Europe, underscored the importance of women in the climate change debate. While we must represent ourselves in the technical discussions over climate change, Francesca says, we need to also make climate debates more accessible – and help open up the forum on a grassroots level. Former Irish President Mary Robinson who was also at the Green Belt event, added that 35% of delegates at the UNFCCC are women, which shows that while we are present, the gender balance is skewed and female input is not represented at every level.
Earlier on in the day, I had gone to a panel that included Indian environment minister Jairam Ramesh and a handful of male academics, who discussed the equitable sharing of “atmospheric space”. This concept of atmospheric space is relatively new and is gaining ground among climate change experts. The atmosphere is considered a resource that nations use – or pollute – to grow their economies. According to the academics sitting at this panel, if we are to work seriously to limit temperature rise to 2C, the widely agreed danger threshold, our nations have a cap of 750 gigatons (GT) of carbon that they can emit by 2050. Such restrictions would give us a 67% chance of achieving the 2C temperature goal; if we want to improve our chances to a probability of 75%, we need to reduce the carbon cap to 600 GT.
As the panel conversed in jargon and debated numbers, I wanted to know how we ensure an equitable distribution of atmospheric space within nations. India, the world’s fourth largest greenhouse gas emitting country, has for example a booming middle class – estimated to be as much as 250 million people. This section of Indian society eats high on the hog, literally. Making up 20 percent of India’s population, the middle class consumes 80 percent of its dietary fat – largely through animal products. As a result, there is a growing health crisis in India and the country is slated to have the highest global population of diabetics by 2050. Inequity is rife in India, and while middle class Indians are suffering from nutritional excesses, the country also has a larger malnourished population that all of sub-Saharan Africa. Through their consumerist lifestyles, middle class Indians put far more carbon into the atmosphere than do those who are impoverished.
When we look at the effects of climate change, it is widely recognized that they will be felt most severely among economically underdeveloped populations that live closest to the land. Constance Okollet Ochom, a subsistence farmer from the borderlands of Uganda and Kenya, also sat on the Green Belt panel and shared her emotional firsthand experience of how climate change has increasingly altered her livelihood. Constance’s story is powerful, and reaffirms Francesca’s words. While women may be currently underrepresented on the technical end of the climate dialogue, there is another important role that we cannot overlook. Climate change must be recognized as a matter of human rights, and if we are to achieve climate justice, we need to put a human face to the debate.
Photo courtesy of Oxfam International