Where women lead, a healthier world follows

Wu must set climate path for others to follow

MICHELLE WU is the first woman and first person of color elected to lead Boston and this, among other things, is a major victory for climate justice. She acknowledges the public health threats that pollution poses in the most marginalized communities, and she has committed to confronting them head-on. Wu’s commitment to clean water and air, sustainable buildings and transit, decarbonization, and green jobs and spaces, laid out in her Boston Green New Deal, is a roadmap that leaders of other cities and countries can adapt and follow.

Wu is just one of the many women leaders pushing a progressive climate agenda, and we need more climate feminists like her to help drive climate solutions.

Female leaders around the world have a direct correlation with lower carbon emissions and ratification of environmental treaties. One study found that across 130 countries, female politicians were more likely to sign on to international treaties to fight global warming than men.

Given this evidence, it was disappointing to see men overwhelmingly dominate climate discussions at COP26, while thousands of young female protesters remained on the margins. One day dedicated to gender at the two-week United Nations Climate Summit was not nearly enough. There are gendered implications to every exchange on our changing climate, and it is widely known that climate change has disproportionate impacts on women and girls.

The United Nations Development Program estimates that 80 percent of people displaced by climate change are women. Women in the most climate-vulnerable regions are more likely than men to suffer from health problems related to pollution, lose income to climate-related disasters, and experience violence in the aftermath of climate disasters.

Regardless of the disproportionate impacts, boosting women’s participation and leadership in solutions to societal challenges just makes sense. Evidence shows that empowering women and girls improves health and development outcomes, and when there are more women in government, good things happen—strengthening democracy, peacebuilding, and, ultimately, our ability to effectively and equitably address climate change.

I have witnessed this phenomenon throughout my career, but especially during my time as United States ambassador to Norway. Norway is ranked as second most gender-equal in the world, behind Iceland. Since the 1970s, the Norwegian government has enacted policies supportive of women’s participation and leadership in government, board rooms, and the workforce. As a result, the current Norwegian government consists of 19 cabinet members, 10 of whom are women. The government also mandates that women make up 40 percent of board members at public companies. Nearly 75 percent of women in Norway are employed. Female employment increased gross domestic product per capita between 10 and 20 percent annually over a 50-year period.

We must work together to mobilize women and girls on the frontlines of our changing climate, from the Sahel in Niger to drought-prone areas of Pakistan, and flood-ravaged communities in Bangladesh. Women in these areas understand the urgency of the situation—they are already making daily decisions about how to navigate a changing environment, and feed and sustain their families. This is why organizations like the one I’m involved with, Pathfinder International, a global sexual and reproductive health and rights organization with an office in Watertown, works so hard to ensure women’s and girls’ access to contraception, health care, and education.

It is only through the engagement of strong female leaders—from Glasgow to the Sahel to Boston—that we can tackle the most imminent global threat. Women must be engaged across societies, in political discussions and debates, and at local to international decision-making tables, to lead us through climate change.

Meet the Author

Barry White

Member of President's Council, Pathfinder International
Where women lead, a healthier world follows. Let’s hope Michelle Wu can prove that in Boston and set a climate change path for others to follow.

Barry White was the former United States ambassador to Norway from 2009 – 2013. He is currently a member of the President’s Council of Pathfinder International, a nongovernmental organization that leads sexual and reproductive health and human rights programs in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.