Expert Voices

In Climate Negotiations, Women Gaining a Stronger Voice (Op-Ed)

climate change, communication
But which words will lead to action? (Image credit: EPA)

Lynn Wilson, is Academic Department Chair for Public Administration at Kaplan University and founder and CEO of the SeaTrust Institute. A science journalist and academic author, Wilson is also a delegate for the UNFCCC and other United Nations regimes, a reviewer for the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the IPCC, and an active researcher with projects in Africa and the Pacific Islands. She contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Beginning on December 1, representatives from nearly 200 countries will meet in Lima, Peru, to forge progress on global climate-change policy, an effort that could well determine the success of future negotiations on critical climate change issues.

While a great deal of attention among environmental scientists, climate change activists and policymakers focuses on the critical, 2015 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Paris, 2014 is not yet over, and there is still important work to be done. [Climate Fixes Need Realistic Compromises (Op-Ed)]

The intermediate UNFCCC session in Lima has been aptly described by the Peruvian environmental minister as an essential opportunity to produce the solid working draft for an over-arching, binding global climate agreement for consideration in Paris. The Lima meeting is a stage-setting event, and while headlines may not be made, the progress will be vital.

Lima delegates will consider issues critical to each nation, including climate finance mechanisms, and the need for global food and water availability and security, there is another aspect of the session that merits attention. Two years ago, the participants agreed to pursue an important procedural change to its information-building and negotiating approach:  An agreement designed to promote gender balance, and to increase the participation of women, in all aspects of the UNFCCC. While much remains to be done, the Lima conference, at least anecdotally, will showcase the vital role that women are playing in climate science, policy making and in the socio-economic aspects of the discussion.

Women leading the conference cast

A look at just a few of the many conference participants, along with senior level UNFCCC leaders, provides a view into the contributions that women are making in the global climate dialogue.

Christina Figueres, a former government minister in Costa Rica, serves as executive secretary of the UNFCCC, and has been in charge of directing the sessions since 2010. She is leading the effort to develop the processes and mechanisms that will allow a workable intergovernmental agreement on climate change to be considered and accepted in Paris.

The Lima meeting will also see Mary Robinson adopting a higher profile. She is the former President of Ireland, a former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and currently a UN Special Envoy for Climate Change. She is also the founder of the Mary Robinson Foundation - Climate Justice, which aims to promote the link between human rights, development and climate change — and to seek solutions.

Another high profile woman at the conference is Margereta Wahlstrom, a disaster-risk management and disaster relief specialist who serves as the UN's Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction. She is currently directing the creation of a climate-related disaster reduction framework for international cooperation.

Those three important leaders are just a few of the many women scientists, diplomats, economists and activists who are helping to advance a global approach to managing the great climate challenges facing the world. Women participating in the Lima conference cover a spectrum of positions; they are government representatives, founders and directors of non-governmental organizations dedicated to environmental protection and security, education and research. They are natural and social scientists, policy analysts, issues advocates, and they act in supporting roles as well as in leadership positions.

To see more about some of those extraordinary women who are contributing to global climate change resilience, please visit the Environmental Women of the World series.

Why women's voices matter

While the move to create gender balance in the UN's climate change negotiations is a reflection of a broader desire for equity, there is another critical reason why including more women scientists and advocates in the climate debate is essential. As the UNFCCC states on its website, its mission is "to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system." To achieve that goal, cooperation must be broad and the strategy comprehensive. As a result, all parties must have a seat at the table — including women. It's issue that the UNFCCC has tackled through the recognition of the Women and Gender Constituency in November, 2011. [How Two Women Brought a Sea Change to Conservation (Op-Ed)]

Globally, women are disproportionately impacted by climate challenges, because in many cultures they are in charge of maintaining the social fabric of their communities and their families, and they are frequently responsible for the food and water needs of their communities. The effects of climate change, including floods, droughts and other extreme events, touch the lives of women differently. Women understand, on a front-line level, just how critical it is to achieve effective climate solutions, and they bring a unique perspective and a powerful voice to the negotiations.

Their voice — our voice — will surely be needed in Lima and beyond. Despite the cooperation among nations through the UNFCCC and other United Nations regimes, and the strong effort to develop intergovernmental rules and standards, there are still no binding international environmental laws in place.

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In Lima, participant nations will attempt to lay the groundwork for final agreements on government and private financing for climate-related projects and loss and damage, while in the area of food and water security, disaster risk reduction and management will help frame the discussion. Achieving agreement across diverse cultures, including both developing and developed nations, will require strong consensus-building and an acceptance that diverse perspectives can co-exist and even be symbiotic — an area in which women certainly have much to contribute.

Women will also be leading a number of events within the broader session. As Head of Delegation for my organization, SeaTrust Institute, I will be hosting a UNFCCC official Side Event at the conference, entitled "Rebranding Climate Change Adaptation and a Human Health Issue." This meeting will show how health crosses boundaries to engage all people, regardless of culture, strata, politics or religion in the quest for resilience to climate and environmental change. An increase in childhood asthma, a surge of infectious diseases or an influx of heat-induced heart attacks makes climate change personal. That's the kind of branding that can break the shell of intractable conflict and lead to meaningful action.

As always, the Lima conference will reflect the urgency inherent in all climate-change discourse, which is the very real situation that will result from not acting to reduce greenhouse gas concentrations or responding to rapid climate change: We and future generations will face devastating effects, from rising sea levels and temperatures. Cultures and economies are at risk, food security is in jeopardy, and homes and lives hang in the balance. With the help of the women leaders and actors in government, the sciences and law in the Peru session and beyond, we will continue to craft a response that is just as urgent as the crisis that demands it.

Follow all of the Expert Voices issues and debates — and become part of the discussion — on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.