By Faustine Wabwire
Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry underscored the gravity of the threat posed by climate change by likening it to that of terrorism. Secretary Kerry made another important but often overlooked point: the cost of inaction will be overwhelming unless the global community takes a more serious stand against climate change now. There is no default “wait and see” option — only a choice.
As the new U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley can make a significant contribution to the world by stepping up U.S. leadership on climate change. This is an urgent issue where U.S. support — political, economic, and moral — has been critical and is becoming even more critical.
Respected scientists have come to a consensus on the evidence: the planet is warming, and it is not a normal cycle. Industrialization brought many benefits to our country and others. The early developers of fossil fuel sources of energy could not have known, of course, that worldwide demand would grow so strong that, a couple of hundred years later, the increased emissions would begin to change the planet itself.
Without a viable, healthy planet, humanity cannot survive. This is why responding quickly and effectively to climate change is a necessity. It’s no longer a choice. For quite some time, people could not believe what the data was telling us, and then, what our own eyes were telling us. We could never change the weather… or could we? Once it began, a cascading domino effect meant that climate change gathered strength and momentum and quickly accelerated. Not too long ago, people thought we had time. That perhaps our grandchildren would need to find solutions.
Now all we have to do is look at satellite images or visit one of the places that were affected earliest — a generation ago or more. In many parts of the developing world, climate change is already making people who were already struggling even worse off. Their food, nutrition, and water security are all threatened. There are more floods, more severe storms, and more droughts. New crop diseases and new pests also arrived with the change in the weather.
People who depend on rain-fed agriculture to eat are suffering most. Poor communities in poor countries bear the brunt of the damage, largely because they have so few options. It is especially unfair, because of all the people on earth, they have done the least to cause the problem. Since their communities are far less industrialized than the “developed” world, they produce only a very small fraction of the greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change.
Women are central to agricultural production in the developing world; they are indispensable when it comes to putting food on the table. But when resources are scarce, it is also women who go without. Cultural, social, and economic barriers make them more vulnerable to climate change than men from the same struggling communities. Because of their responsibility to secure water, food, and energy for cooking and heating, they are likely to experience significant hardships as climate change causes their communities to suffer growing resource scarcities.
They have limited access to productive assets such as land, credit, and extension services. Progress on women’s empowerment is changing a lot of things — for example, female literacy rates have skyrocketed. But these changes take time, and we do not have time given the pace of climate change. Women’s hard work, willingness to experiment, and creativity in finding workarounds when the strategies they know fail are simply not enough to adapt to what is happening around them.
Rural women need supplies, knowledge, and techniques that may not even exist yet. In many ways, “climate smart agriculture” and other mitigation strategies remain in their infancy. Research in labs, and the on-the-ground evidence base that farmers are building themselves, have begun. But they are not keeping pace with the changes in the climate and their impacts.
This reality demands a gender analysis approach toward mitigation and adaptation measures, so that both women’s and men’s specific needs and roles are identified and addressed. Agricultural research and extension programs, for example, should pay attention to the unique duties and responsibilities of women as primary caregivers in the community. Investments in strengthening women’s capacity to create and implement informed, effective adaptation measures can help poor communities become resilient in the face of climate shocks.
Developing countries are not the only sites of damage from climate change — it just became evident sooner in less industrialized, more rural areas. The 2012 U.S. drought, which covered almost 62 percent of the land area of the 48 contiguous states, was said to be second in size only to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Also in 2012, Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc on the East Coast, causing about $30 billion in damage and killing more than 100 people.
Ambassador Haley has a real opportunity now to build on recent U.S. efforts to respond to climate change. In December 2015, U.S. leadership helped achieve a key milestone, the Paris Climate Agreement. At this time, a large majority of the world’s countries made commitments to help implement a global action plan. The plan puts the global community on track to limit Earth’s temperature increase to less than 2°C, considered essential to preventing the most catastrophic consequences.
National governments, donors, and the private sector are committed to improving access to new technologies, knowledge, and skills for climate change mitigation, as well as developing new adaptation strategies. Efforts must focus on increasing women’s adaptive capacity to deal with the shocks, while also providing the necessary support — such as social protection and financial and technical assistance — to cushion their communities against additional stressors.
Ambassador Haley’s commitment is critical at this pivotal moment when the world is looking to the United States for continued leadership in addressing climate change, the biggest threat to all of us.
Faustine Wabwire is senior foreign assistance policy analyst at Bread for the World Institute.