Young Women Lead Climate Change Activism, But Who Sets the Policies?
One thing was undeniable: the contrast between the protestors like Thunberg on the streets of Glasgow (young and mostly female) versus the male-dominated senior leadership at the negotiating tables—senior in both senses of the word. It says a lot about the current state of political power. Only 21 per cent of government ministers are women, and at the current rate, the UN projects gender equality in the highest positions of power won't be reached for 130 years.
Meanwhile, any changes in climate have the biggest implications for youth, and COP26 showed they’re determined to be heard. We turned to 24-year-old Natalie Chung to get her take on how young women are moving the climate cause forward.
Chung is the eco-entrepreneur and Gen.T honouree behind V’air Hong Kong, an environmental education organisation that promotes low-carbon local tourism. She’s also a founding member of Hong Kong Youth for Climate Action and was a delegate at COP25.
As she explained to Gen.T, she chose not to attend COP26 in person for a few reasons: to avoid the carbon emissions of a long flight now that she’s based in Hong Kong, not the UK, and to see resources go to representatives of the most affected people and areas. Chung shares her opinions on women and the climate crisis below.
Activists are often young. Why do you think climate change has resonated so much with young women? Are they more at risk?
Young female climate activists like Archana Soreng from India, Marinel Sumook Ubaldo from the Philippines and Elizabeth Wathuti from Kenya advocate for protecting girls from climate risks through improving their access to resources and education. Wathuti, who spoke at COP26, has shared the plight of Kenyans facing droughts and floods. Schools close, and girls and women must walk miles to obtain clean water and food for their families.
In developing economies, many girls are deprived of education or forced to drop out of school to make money for their families. This exposes girls to significant risks because they are less prepared with ways to mitigate climate change and adapt to its adverse affects. The International Union for Conservation of Nature's 2020 research report found that climate change increases violence against women and girls, ranging from domestic abuse to sexual assault, child marriage and human trafficking.
What have your own experiences been like as part of a global network of climate activists?
I got to attend COP25 by contacting the Hong Kong NGO Carboncare Innolab (CCIL) to ask if they had extra observer badges. After seeing how international youths worked proactively on policy interventions, I realised how large is the gap for youths in Hong Kong. So a few of us made a proposal to CCIL, and this is how its Climate Advocacy Training for Youth programme came about. The best participants were sent to COP26—the first time Hong Kong sent an official youth delegation, joining forces with climate youth groups from Japan, Singapore, Philippines and Malaysia.
According to Mark Cheung, one of Hong Kong’s youth delegates, there was a lack of representation from APAC, indigenous communities and least developed states at COP26, which was worsened by Covid-19 travel restrictions and vaccination inequality. While COP26 claimed to be the most inclusive conference, youths were not granted sufficient quotas to attend and monitor major negotiations, let alone influence the agenda.
I was born in 1997 when carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere was 364 ppm; now it has risen to 413 ppm. We are the generation at risk with our futures compromised—extreme weather events hit hardest in Asian countries where resilient infrastructures are lacking. That’s why youths need to sit at the negotiation tables today when leaders draft policies that affect our collective future.
COP26 highlighted a gap in who holds the policy-making power, most attendees being men and at a median age of over 60. What will it take to get through to them?
COP26 could be seen as our society in microcosm, with embedded power structures and systemic hierarchies. The baseline is to create equal opportunities, but the approach should not be victimising or tokenising the marginalised communities. At COP, we saw different constituencies represented, like Women and Gender, YOUNGO (Youth NGOs), and Indigenous Peoples Organizations. They gain seats at the negotiation tables as part of a box-ticking exercise, but their voices are not actively listened to. As Margot Wallstrom, Former Minister for Foreign Affairs of Sweden, once said: “No woman needs to be given a voice. Everyone has a voice. What is needed is more listening.”
We need to think through how to create an inclusive environment to raise the voices of marginalised communities through engaging people outside of these communities. We need to educate male leaders and transform how they perceive women and their rights. As more privileged women in the developed world, we also bear the responsibility to amplify the voice of women from emerging markets through bridging their knowledge gaps.
Do you see any positive outcomes of COP26?
The Glasgow Climate Pact is a positive outcome, with countries committing to update their climate targets next year instead of every five years. However, the pledged emissions reductions will still lead to an estimated 2.4 degrees of temperature rise by 2100, exceeding the Paris Agreement target. The president of Tuvalu made his speech knee-deep in the sea to highlight the existential threats to island countries; the inability to keep temperature rise within 1.5 degrees is projected to inundate low-lying regions and lead to an exodus of climate refugees.
Another expectation for COP26 was to establish mechanisms to compensate for the loss and damage to countries already facing the adverse impacts from climate change. There was no consensus, however the concept of loss and damage gained recognition in the official decision text, which hopefully paves the way for future financing.
At the close of COP26, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres shared a message to young people, indigenous communities, women leaders, and all those leading the charge on climate action which I found empowering: “I know you are disappointed. But the path of progress is not always a straight line. Sometimes there are detours. Sometimes there are ditches. But I know we can get there. We are in the fight of our lives, and this fight must be won. Never give up. Never retreat. Keep pushing forward.”
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