Could educating and empowering women be the “secret solution” to climate change?

Scientists and activists are connecting the dots between promoting gender equality and the ability to effectively tackle climate change at a global level. “Girls’ education, gender equality and climate change are not separate issues,” female education activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai said during a March 2021 panel. “Girls’ education and gender equality can be used as solutions against climate change.”

Empowering women and girls in developing countries was ranked as the second most effective solution for curbing global warming to 2°C, according to a March 2020 report by the climate research organization Project Drawdown.

Marina Andrijevic is one researcher exploring the link between female empowerment and positive climate change action. She is a researcher at the climate science and policy institute, Climate Analytics, and is the lead author of the December 2020 research paper, “Overcoming gender inequality for climate resilient development.”

We spoke with Marina about her research and why gender equality is crucial to a sustainable future.

You recently published a study titled: Overcoming Gender Equality for Climate Resilient Development. Can you tell us more about the study and your key findings?

We wrote our article primarily for scientists who work with quantitative models that combine the physical side of climate change (e.g., sea level rise, floods, droughts, etc.) and the socio-economic side, which is an idea of how the societies of the future might look like. This way we are able to imagine how climate change might affect future societies.

There are many modeling groups around the world that assess the scientific knowledge of climate change, which is periodically reviewed by the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. These researchers agreed to work with a set of scenarios of future socio-economic development: what if we followed this population trajectory, this GDP trajectory, this social dynamic education inequality, urbanization, and so on, what would a future society look like? In our paper from December 2020, we extended these scenarios with an indicator of gender inequality, which captures women’s political and economic participation, and inequality in education.

First, we drew the connections between gender inequality and vulnerability, and then gender inequality and climate action. Then, we used a simple statistical model to analyze the variations between countries in this index of gender inequality over the past 20 years. We found the correlation of GDP per capita share of population, higher education, and gender equality in education. Countries that are richer and have more educated populations, have gender equality in education, and have a lower overall gender inequality in a society. Results showed that if we really doubled down in the near term on improving things like GDP and female representation in education, we could reduce the share of girls globally affected by gender inequality from about 70% today to about 25% by 2030.

What is the connection between fighting climate change and educating and empowering women?

It is my impression that even in the scientific community, this isn’t an obvious connection. This speaks to the broader problem of neglecting the importance of women’s agency. In very simple terms, we’re talking about half of the world’s population, so empowering half of the world in terms of access to information, finance and decision-making is a big deal. If [women] don’t have equal access to resources—be it education or income or political voice—[they’ll] be disproportionately more impacted by climate change because they’ll lack resources to cope with it. This could also lead to vicious cycles where climate change exacerbates social inequality.

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Photography by Callum Shaw, courtesy of Unsplash

Is it possible to successfully fight climate change without addressing gender inequality?

It’s important to note that striving for gender equality is by and in itself something we should strive for, independently of climate change. But yes, the synergies between fighting gender inequality and climate change exist. My answer would be that globally, no, we can’t fight climate change without addressing gender inequality. This connection between tackling gender inequality for climate action, I see as twofold: one is to reduce vulnerability, which means the propensity to be impacted by a climate hazard, and the second is to stimulate climate action by empowering women to participate in political and economic life.

Early-stage research shows that countries with more equal representation of women in parliaments are also better at taking stringent climate action. If women had more access to better reproductive health and autonomy in decision-making, they would be able to participate in the labor market, in education, and so on.

This connection between socioeconomics and climate change is sometimes a controversial topic, because the most populous countries in the world are not the ones who produce the most emissions, and are certainly not the largest historical emitters. But there have been positive trends in the widespread provision of education and keeping girls in school longer.

Why has the connection between gender equality and climate change action not been made sooner?

Well, speaking as a feminist, because there weren’t enough women in the discourse, both scientific and in media. This is who we wrote our article for.

You cannot properly estimate the impact without taking into account these dimensions of future societies, including gender inequality. This speaks to the fact that this link isn’t so well-made even in the scientific community, but this is gaining traction and girls are now the faces of the climate movement.

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Photography by Jessica Podraza (left) and Lewis Parsons (right), courtesy of Unsplash.
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Where do we stand in addressing gender equality for climate change action globally?

There’s clear momentum building in the climate activist community that I think will see results in a few years’ time, when these girls become young women and take on political roles. It’s simply recognition of one’s own agency to fight the injustice. I think girls are now taking it into their hands to fight against this.

Where is the best area to start, if we are to tackle both climate change and gender equality?

The priority, I would say, is keeping girls in school. To achieve things like sustainable development goals, which include climate change, we have to ensure that girls finish 12 grades at least, because [not doing so] has such strong spillover effects on society as a whole.

If there’s one common denominator among girls around the world it’s the sense of social injustice and the drive to fight against it. We cannot tackle inequality without tackling climate change, but when it comes to gender equality in particular, we cannot properly address climate change without addressing gender inequality.

Can a brand or company claim to be truly sustainable if they aren’t working towards gender equality?

I don’t think so. I don’t think women—current and future—will have it.

For more on how empowering women is crucial to achieving enduring, sustainable progress, check out the “Elevating women” trend section in “Regeneration Rising: Sustainability Futures.”

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