On December 12, 2015, as much of the world was preparing for the upcoming holidays, a gavel came down in a Paris conference hall. The gathered heads of state, faith leaders, activists, business leaders and exhausted climate negotiators erupted in cheers of relief as the first ever truly global climate treaty had just been passed. No one was more ecstatic and relieved than Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. For five years, Figueres and her team had forged a new brand of collaborative diplomacy, and it had finally paid off. The Paris Agreement (COP21) was a game changer, not only because of the potential to mitigate costly climate disaster but also because of the geopolitical shifts and new cooperative alliances it heralded between rich and poor, East and West. Figueres and her team persuaded 195 nations to set aside narrow self-interest and back the most ambitious and binding agreement ever, set to reduce emissions and limit global temperatures to 1.5 degrees. How did they pull it off? Little recognized is the role feminine values and this new form of collaborative leadership played. It was riding on the tails of a related but different 2015 landmark agreement that endorsed the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development—seventeen goals, or SDGs, that for the first time holistically addressed the interdependence of issues like poverty, human rights and climate. Both agreements were successful because of strong feminine leadership and a recognition that these issues are global, affect us all and hence need holistic, collaborative action to address them. This is akin to what we mean by feminine values, present in men and women and described by Pulitzer winners John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio in their book, The Athena Doctrine, as “the operating system of twenty-first Century progress”. These are intergenerational aptitudes of collaboration, empathy, compassion, humility and creativity as well as a profound sense of Oneness—that there is in fact no “‘Other”.
“Women are disproportionately affected by climate change.”
A strong common denominator of both COP21 and the SDG Agreements was conscious inclusion of women and much broader consultations with hitherto marginalized groups like Indigenous communities and Small Island States, as well as a greater voice for the Least Developed States. It seems obvious to ensure women are equally represented, not only because they make up half the global population, but also because women are disproportionately affected by climate change, given the poorest are the most affected, and given the majority of the poor are women. However, until COP21, most UN processes had done little beyond paying lip service to gender balance. Women are the key to solving the climate crisis
But that is a missed opportunity. In his seminal book, Drawdown, the environmental scientist Paul Hawken surprised many when he ranked educating women and girls as the 6th most impactful thing to do to reduce carbon emissions. Education makes for fewer children, and it has been shown that when women in developing countries, who are often deeply connected to the land, gain access to education, they are better able to cope with extreme weather events and natural disasters. In sub-Saharan Africa and much of Asia, women grow nearly 90% of the food. Climate change induced extremes like flooding or drought remain an existential threat. Take Zanzibar, where 80% of seaweed farmers are women, and warming waters are decimating family livelihoods. Tales like this are ever more common as the impact of climate change worsens. The good news is that leaders now know this. Having spoken to hundreds of women on their travels, Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland and then-Climate Envoy of the UN Secretary General, and Laurence Tubiana, France’s Special Representative to the 2015 talks, both argued that the COP21 agreement recognized women’s particular vulnerability and the solutions they could offer. And that the greatest carbon emitters, developed countries, should bear proportionate responsibility for their actions.
Education encompasses more than book learning; nature is a powerful teacher.
From the Amazon to the Aboriginal territories, Indigenous people inhabit one quarter of the world’s land surface, over 87 countries, and are vital custodians of what natural systems remain unexploited. We are belatedly waking up to how valuable their intimate understanding of natural systems is in our modern world. There is much to learn, for instance, from the Aboriginals’ way of seeing themselves as intrinsic parts of a living system with obligations to all “skins”, an expression for all lifeforms. An Aboriginal woman will urge us to think in terms of seven generations. Her wisdom comes from a lineage of 450,000 years of living in harmony with nature.
She shares this sense of reciprocity and responsibility with other indigenous women like Bernadette Dementieff, a young Arctic Gwich’in leader. In speaking out against commercial interests wanting to drill for oil in protected lands she said: “The Arctic Refuge is not just a piece of land with oil underneath, it’s the heart of my people and our food security. Our way of life and our very survival depends on its protection.”
The force of feminine energy
In her book, The Future We Choose, Figueres describes how, when asked by reporters about the likelihood of a global agreement, she answered: “not in my lifetime.” On reflection, she realized that she needed to change her belief and that “the impossible is not a fact—it is an attitude.” Self-awareness, and having the humility to change—that’s feminine energy at work. The Greek philosopher Plutarch understood this when he wrote: “what we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.” He would no doubt encourage us at this juncture, suspended between the Covid-19 and climate crises, to pause and consider how we are part of the problem and what we need to change.
A new way of knowing ourselves is the path to true sustainability. Nature is rooted in these feminine attributes of wholeness and interdependence, so being diverse and inclusive and sustaining of the component parts has a sense of biomimicry about it. Imagine if we were to embrace these values, we might just have a shot at not only achieving that Paris Agreement but flourishing as a species in the process.
“Countries with feminine leadership are securing better outcomes.”
How, then, to make a meaningful difference? Can we turn over a better world to the next generation? I recently co-founded a female-led and intergenerational environmental organisation with Sally Ranney, called Global Choices, to better prioritize climate action. We chose to focus on the rapidly-melting polar ice. Our work is science-based, but head is combined with heart. We operate from a deep feminine consciousness, something we try to embed in our operations and share with our network of young climate activists, the Arctic Angels.
This is where our hope lies. With a wisdom far beyond their years, activists like Greta Thunberg, Xiye Bastida of the “Arctic Angels” and an Indigenous leader and founder of the Re-Earth Initiative, and Ugandan Evelyn Acham, together with millions of global citizens of all ages, are willing to stand up and fight to protect our common home—our only home.
Covid-19 is highlighting how countries with feminine leadership, acting with humility and compassion and less ego posturing, are securing better outcomes. Recently climate leadership has been boosted by a strong cadre of female leaders in key positions, like Christine Lagarde at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, Kristalina Georgieva, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, and Naoko Ishi, CEO of the Global Environmental Facility. And by male leaders too, like Paul Polman, formerly of Unilever, and Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, who will soon take over from Ishi as head of GEF.
“The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.”
Male or female, they share the same “operating system” and apply feminine values to their daily work. Already their determination to seize the opportunity to build back better is manifesting in roadmaps to new social and environmental contracts like the EU Green Deal.
The world is awakening to the need for a different way of life. There is no time to waste. In 1865 the poet William Ross Wallace wrote: “The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.” As the feminine manifests, I’m confident we are in for a better, greener and more compassionate future.
This article was originally published in Are We Europe magazine. Images from Are We Europe