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COP26 Special #1: Climate governance, gender, and geoscience

The United Nations climate change conference, COP26, is currently taking place in the city of Glasgow, Scotland. The world’s governments are (hopefully) figuring out a collective response to the climate crisis, in order to mitigate dangerous climate change. I am lucky to have Observer status at COP and will be tweeting from COP this week.

So far, COP26 has not received great headlines on diversity. The summit has been criticised for focussing on white voices, and silencing the voices of people of colour and indigenous campaigners.

In this blog, I’m going to focus on gender diversity, because today is Gender Day on the COP26 Presidential Programme. How do gender* diversity and climate change relate to each other? And how does this link to geoscience? Let me explain how…

Climate action is a global challenge. It calls for change, at all levels, to ensure global outcomes for the benefit of all. As COP26 is highlighting, climate action is a unique and collective venture, of which the ‘I’ and ‘we’ are so intertwined that 30,000+ people have descended on Glasgow to debate, negotiate and ultimately (again, hopefully) agree on what they, as nations, regions, communities, businesses, NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and civic society can do to contribute to this collaborative effort to ‘tackle’ climate change.

But who are the decision makers? Who negotiates what and for whom? As world leaders gather during the first week of COP26, it is worth reflecting that, globally, there are only 26 women serving as Heads of State and/or Government, representing 24 countries(i.e. only ~12% of all global leaders are women). And that at the current rate of change, it will be 130 years before this gender gap is removed. And that the only female global leaders that have ever been present in the G7 (previously G8) leading nations are Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel. And that at the G20 meeting in Rome ahead of COP26, the outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel was the only Head of Government present; she was joined by just 4 other women at the negotiating table.

Lack of women at the negotiating table of global leadership needs to change. It has been shown that women are generally more collaborative and equity focused. These are qualities much needed to agree a collective climate action and to secure a fair and sustainable future for our planet. What strikes me is how many of the leading voices in younger generations are women; global names like Vanessa Nakate and Greta Thunberg. Meet Jessie too, the 16-year-old schoolgirl cycling from her home in Devon to COP26 in Glasgow (@people_pedal_power) to raise awareness of the challenges facing our planet.

When I was passing through Heathrow airport in London last week, adverts of solemn-faced young girls from all over the globe adorned bill boards asking for fairness and equity as our global leaders make decisions on their fate. Right next to them, adverts for luxury shoes and handbags. The complexity of modern capitalism and airport wealth and the ability to afford and benefit from global travel is stark. I reflect that I am one of the lucky ones. Although not in business class skipping the baggage queues (much to my young daughter’s annoyance!), I have untold wealth and choices compared to the girls calling for climate action. Who are they? Where do they live? What are their lives like? How will climate change affect them, and my own 10-year-old daughter, as they grow-up? Have they even heard of COP? Do they know their images are being used in this way? The thoughts scurry through my head. Many of the international leaders and representatives will come through Heathrow airport on route to Glasgow, burning carbon-laden airplane fuel and staying in expensive hotels. As they pass through, I ask myself “what will they reflect on?”

Never before has science and our global challenges needed diversity so badly. Diversity in approach, thought, opinion, decision making. Bringing together many and varied perspectives so that we are best able to tackle climate change. The thought that 50% of the global population will be vastly underrepresented in both evidencing the challenge and in designing and agreeing solutions, purely because of their gender, is deeply worrying. And more worrying still is that this underrepresentation will likely be even more striking if they are from the Global South. Geoscience has, like most STEM subjects, poor gender diversity. It’s improving, but as with many aspects of life, those with the greatest power to influence are men. We can simply look at the current statistics for UK University Professors to see the problem – across all subjects, only 28% are women. In geoscience, of 18,470 geologists currently employed in the USA just 21.4% are women. Yet, as previous Geoscience for the Future blogs have showcased, geoscience skills and technology are going to play a critical role in action to mitigate climate change, as well as continued action to understand our changing global climate.

Climate action, and climate impacts, will affect us all. But we can argue that the impact will be greater for women, who are not only less well placed to influence solutions, but also typically earn less and therefore are less able to pay for them. Ensuring diversity in geoscience allows women’s voices to be heard at all levels to design and deliver solutions.

I believe that only with true diversity will we most effectively address the problems we face in the future. As geoscientists’ we should reflect on how we best achieve this for the benefit not only of our subject, but global society and our collective future.

This blog was originally written for Geoscience for the Future

*Although I focus on gender here many of the themes raised in this piece could be viewed intersectionally, because they apply to many minoritised and historically excluded groups.

[1] UN Women calculation based on information provided by Permanent Missions to the United Nations. Only elected Heads of State have been taken into account. accessed 1/11/2021

[3] McKinsey & Company Women in the Workplace 2021, published September 27, 2021 accessed 1/11/2021

[6] Higher Education Staff Statistics: UK, 2019/20 accessed 1/11/2021

Images: Photo of World leaders at the COP26 dinner in Glasgow. Source: BBC/PA Media; COP26 Bill board Heathrow Airport. Credit: Clare Bond.

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