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The Role of Women in Combating Climate Change

Ambassador Melanne Verveer discusses the power of women's potential in addressing and finding solutions for global climate change.

Editor's Note: Ambassador Melanne Verveer is U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues

Last week I traveled to Durban, South Africa to participate in the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to highlight the critical and largely untapped potential of women to combat climate change. Studies have shown that it is often women who are on the frontlines of, and suffer disproportionately from, the impacts of climate change. This is certainly important. But we must remember that women are also a powerful force for finding solutions to climate change across the board, including in areas such as agriculture, sustainable forest management, and energy access. 

Agriculture, which accounts for approximately 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and is a sector that can be particularly sensitive to climate variability and change, is one key area where women can play a major role. A recent FAO report shows that women, in many places, are the main producers of the world's staple crops, particularly in developing countries and regions likely to be adversely affected by climate change impacts.  However, globally, only a small minority of women farmers have access to land tenure. This is a problem for many reasons – including that it limits women's potential to combat climate change. Studies have shown that women with the right to property are significantly more capable of investing in climate-smart agricultural productivity; we have a lot of work to do to unlock women's potential in this area. 

Women also have untapped potential for increasing energy access, which directly relates to climate change. For example, nearly 3 billion people globally still rely on traditional cookstoves and open fires to prepare food for their families. In most instances, women are responsible for cooking – not to mention also spending many hours per week collecting fuel, which often puts women at risk of gender based violence. The resulting smoke exposure causes an estimated two million premature deaths annually, with women and young children the most affected. Cookstoves also impact the climate through emissions of greenhouse gases and short-lived particles such as black carbon. Engaging women is critical to tackling this problem. As we work to build a global market for clean cookstoves, integrating women into the cookstoves supply chain will help increase clean cookstove adoption rates while also creating new economic development opportunities. And as Secretary Clinton has noted, women create a multiplier effect in local communities because they disproportionately spend more of their earned income on food, healthcare, home improvement, and schooling.   

The United States recognizes the power of women's potential in these areas and many others, and is investing in major initiatives including Feed the Future and the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, where women's role in generating transformative change is front and center.  

I went to Durban to highlight the critical role of women in combating climate change. While there, I worked with U.S. negotiators on the Durban texts and participated in public engagement events. Our efforts to build on the gender equality and women's empowerment language in the Cancun agreements are reflected in several crucial institutional developments, including language on gender balance related to the composition of the board of the new Green Climate Fund, the Standing Committee, and the Adaptation Committee. We also worked to reflect gender considerations in the mission of the Climate Technology Center and Network. USAID Assistant Administrator Eric Postel and I solicited input during a meeting with leading non-governmental organizations working on gender and climate issues, and I hosted a high-level side event at the U.S. Center focused on unlocking women's potential to combat climate change. The level of enthusiasm among my fellow panelists and the audience at the event was inspirational. 

We made progress in Durban, but we can't stop here. To achieve the future we all seek, we must do more. As the late Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement and ground-breaking advocate on women and the environment said, "We must not tire, we must not give up, we must persist." The future of not only women, but our planet, depends on it.

Ambassador Melanne Verveer is U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues