• Ideas
  • climate change

Former President Jimmy Carter: How Empowering Women and Girls Can Help Solve the Climate Crisis

5 minute read
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter is founder of the nonprofit Carter Center, advancing peace and health worldwide.
Karin D. Ryan is Senior Advisor for Human Rights and Special Representative on Women and Girls at The Carter Center

The only way we will solve the existential threat of climate change is to include everyone in the solutions. Yet women are far too often excluded from decision making at all levels of environmental policy making. Climate change is the most extreme human rights challenge of our time, and a human rights-based approach is needed to solve it.

The most recent reports from climate scientists give us only a decade to reduce carbon emissions by forty-five percent to avoid the irreversible environmental destruction that will threaten all of humanity. This cannot be accomplished by tinkering at the edges of our global energy industry. We have to think bigger, act quicker, and include everyone.

We cannot solve this complex problem as long as women and girls, half of the world’s population, have unequal access to education and decision-making bodies at all levels and are largely excluded from local, national, and global efforts to respond to this challenge.

The effects of climate change are felt most dramatically by those living in extreme poverty, the majority of whom are female. In most countries, women bear the largest burden in the gathering and preparation of food and water and responding to natural disasters caused by climate change. Because of this, women are best placed to devise responses that are effective and that advance their own rights. For example, clean energy technologies should be designed and deployed in consultation with local women to reduce harmful emissions while also helping them become economically productive and secure. Every societal challenge we face will be better addressed if women and girls participate equally in both diagnosing and treating the problem

Making sure girls receive equal access to education and professional opportunities will unleash the untapped creativity that could produce needed breakthroughs.

In 1856, Eunice Foote was the first scientist to show the connection between excessive carbon dioxide and increased atmospheric temperatures, laying the foundation for what we now know about the “greenhouse effect.” Because women scientists were not respected, her work was published under a man’s name. Foote was also a women’s rights activist. Her story is a reminder that even today there are many girls and women with the talent of Eunice Foote who just need opportunities to learn and contribute.

Over 40 years ago, the Carter Administration led sweeping energy reforms that put our country on the path to sustainable energy, including significant investments in solar and other technological solutions. Unfortunately, some critical aspects of those reforms were later abandoned, and not enough has been done since then to make the fundamental changes we need.

The Carter Administration also appointed record numbers of women to senior positions in government and the judiciary and supported the Equal Rights Amendment because full equality is both morally right and, frankly, practical. Every challenge we face is better addressed if women and girls participate equally in both diagnosing and treating it.

Men in positions of leadership must do more to promote women and girls to leadership roles in the climate movement. Ahead of the climate talks starting Dec. 2 at the 25th meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP25) in Madrid, it is our hope that U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres and all male delegates will act on this imperative.

It is shocking, for example, that only 0.2% of all philanthropic giving is provided to women-led environmental programs. Governments and foundations must substantially increase investments in these initiatives.

Press Office of the Holy See - Vatican
Patricia Gualinga, Indigenous Leader in the Defense of Human Rights of the Kichwa Communities of Sarayaku (Ecuador) speaks at the Press Office of the Holy See in the Vatican on Oct 17, 2019.PA Images/Sipa USA

We also know that due to repressive social norms, women are often attacked by governments and private entities for speaking out, especially against financially lucrative businesses.

Yet throughout the world, women and girls are increasingly vocal and active despite these risks. Sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg of Sweden has galvanized a global movement of young people with her clear and determined call for action, pushing aside with tremendous grace and resolve the vicious attacks against her activism. Although Thunberg is now well known, there are others who toil with equal determination outside the global spotlight.

Patricia Gualinga and her Ecuadorean Amazon movement won a judgment against an oil company over her indigenous community’s land rights. She believes her people’s fight is linked to climate change. “We have decided to take our destiny into our own hands,” she said during a forum at The Carter Center. Someone threw rocks at Gualinga’s home and shouted death threats, but she was not deterred. “We are not going to stop here,” she said. “We are going to continue, because it is for the life of the planet and the life of future generations.”

Governments and foundations grappling with the climate crisis must stand in solidarity with activists like Greta Thunberg and Patricia Gualinga. Solidarity requires that women climate activists working at all levels have the freedom to mobilize movements without fear of retaliation and that they receive needed funding and other support.

Time is not on our side. Let every one of us act swiftly to enact bold and ambitious plans that protect our environment and embrace the leadership of women and girls.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.