Given it’s one of the greatest contemporary threats to human survival and involves apocalyptic weather events and death on a grand scale, climate change has a rather curious ability to make people switch off in their droves.
It’s not that we don’t care. It’s just that when we’re talking about such huge global forces, it’s hard to see what the individual can do. It’s easier to tune out and hope that someone else will handle it. After all, what difference can giving up that tiny drive to the supermarket really make?
This feeling of powerlessness is one that marine scientist Raeanne Miller recognises. “I work in renewable energy”, she says, “and sometimes you do feel like you’re shouting into the void.” When dealing with this global issue, the individual research of a single scientist can feel rather small. Which is why (along with fulfilling a personal dream to travel to Antarctica), Miller is so excited to have been one of 78 women scientists accepted onto the first expedition of a ten-year project called Homeward Bound.
One of her fellow UK-based travellers is Deborah Pardo, a marine population biologist. Pardo explains that the point of travelling to Antarctica is that the effects of climate change in this continent are much more obvious, because it is happening so much more quickly here. Being in Antarctica brings home the urgency of the situation we face as a species.
If we really want to find a solution to climate change, getting women to the negotiating table isn’t simply a matter of fairness, but of ‘survival’
And, for Pardo, one of the most important parts of the expedition will be the leadership training she and her fellow scientists will receive. She’s recently had a baby, and says that it has made her acutely aware of the challenges mothers face in their careers. “In academia it’s a race for time for publication — the more you work, the more papers you get out. You don’t have time to stop for your family. If you want to be successful work has to come first.” Pardo doesn’t believe it should be this way. “I want to do my part”, she says. “I want to show it’s possible to have had a baby early in your career, even in academia, and still have a great career and family life”.
But this project is about more than helping individual women succeed: Homeward Bound wants to save the world. And they have a working theory: if we really want to find a solution to climate change, getting women to the negotiating table isn’t simply a matter of fairness, but of “survival”. This might sound hyperbolic, but consider this: a 2005 study of 130 nations found that that countries with a higher proportion of women in parliament were more likely to ratify environmental treaties. Climate scientist Tamsin Edwards theorises that this may be partly down to male and female socialisation: “Men are rewarded for being combative and women are penalised”. As a result, she says, “when you’re engaging in quite delicate, complex decisions, you don’t want the only people making the decisions to be people who’ve been trained from birth to be competitive, to win, to save face, to be heroic and brave. I’m not saying women are better at compromise, but they are certainly less penalised by society for it.”
Not only do women tend to be more successful negotiators (if you still need convincing, another study found that when women are present at peace talks, violence is 24% more likely to end within a year ), but, says Edwards, with men dominating at the negotiating table, many of the well-meaning solutions that have been advanced over recent decades just haven’t been all that helpful on the ground.
Aid programmes that target male farmers (because of assumptions that men earn the majority of a family’s income) ignore the reality that women make up the majority of subsistence farmers – those who are most likely to be impacted by climate change. Women are also most likely to suffer from food shortages because resources tend to be distributed preferentially. Following a disaster, women and girls are more likely to be victims of domestic violence (a factor that has been documented in the US and Australia as well as developing countries) and sex trafficking – after this year’s earthquake in Nepal, Indian gangs descended on the area to lure women into prostitution by promising them food and aid.
Following a natural disaster, women and girls are more likely to be victims of domestic violence and sex trafficking
It is clear that we need more women at the table. And yet, progress on this front is glacial. Female heads of national delegations to climate change negotiations do not rise above 33 per cent; only one in five authors of the 2014 IPCC report on climate change were women; and only eight of 34 IPCC chairs, co-chairs and vice-chairs are women. The global media isn’t helping either: although women are indisputably the main victims of climate change, women make up only 15 per cent of those interviewed on climate change.
This weekend, almost a year to the day before the Antarctic-bound ship sets sail, Storm Desmond hit the UK. Record amounts of rain have fallen and thousands have been forced to leave their homes. There have been several fatalities and a young girl is currently fighting for her life after she was swept into the sea in Co Wexford.
Rescue teams help those affected the floodings caused by Storm Desmond
Meanwhile, Paris is in its tenth day of UN climate talks – the latest in around 20 years of negotiations that have produced few results. 20,000 delegates have gathered to try to shift the stalemate. The vast majority of these delegates are men. While they debate, the city of Chennai in India is flooded, as it has been since November 13, when the greatest rainfall in a century began to fall on they city. So far, 280 people have died. Given women are 14 times more likely than men to die from extreme weather events, the majority of these people are likely to be women.
The disparity between the men around the table and the women on the ground has never been starker. The evidence that women in leadership makes a material difference to both the men and women who suffer the most from a man-made problem has never been more compelling. Men have had their shot at trying to save the world – let’s see what the women of Homeward Bound can do.