Panelists Discuss Climate Change’s Impact on Women

Georgetown students and alumni discussed the relative success of the most recent climate talks in Paris and climate change’s negative impact on women in a forum hosted by the Women’s Center in McShain Lounge on Thursday.

Joelle Thomas (SFS ’10), a Masters of Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, associate professor of science technology and international affairs Joanna Lewis, GUSA Secretary of Sustainability Caroline James (COL ’16) and Chair and Founder of the Sustainable Oceans Alliance Daniela Fernandez (COL ’16) commented as part of the panel.

Thomas developed her interest through a combination of classes taken at Georgetown and her time spent in East Africa working for a firm. Thomas’ master’s thesis assisted the United Arab Emirates in developing clean energy practices.

Lewis has experience in working in China to help reduce carbon emissions and find cleaner alternatives, and she has participated in various climate negotiations for the past decade.

Lewis, who was present for the negotiations of the Kyoto Protocol in 2005 and attended the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, said this conference was a huge leap forward in terms of both progress in climate legislation and awareness of climate change.

“Ten years ago, when we were negotiating in Kyoto, most of the countries didn’t know what climate change was, let alone have any climate policies,” Lewis said. “[Now] they are at a totally different world of knowledge and ability.”

James said the contributions of non-state negotiating groups and civil societies were significant at the conference. Indigenous groups living on islands, in danger of being swallowed up by the sea, successfully campaigned for countries to limit the global temperature rise by 1.5 degrees.

“That, for the indigenous groups, was considered a huge success, because they need that 1.5 target. For them that means that those islands survive,” James said.

The panelists also discussed the disproportionate impact of climate change on women. Fernandez said rising sea levels make it difficult for women in developing countries to find clean water, hindering other aspects of their life.

“I have met and heard about women having to spend a lot of time seeking access to clean water, which prevents them from being active participants in society,” Fernandez said.

According to James, climate change exacerbates existing discrimination and inequality.

“I think a really helpful framework for this stuff is to think of climate change as a threat multiplier,” James said. “Oppressed people are going to be the worst affected by the effects of climate change.”

Thomas said reaching out to women can be a more effective way of creating change in communities because of their important role in many communities.

“We would often meet with women, because women in many of these communities actually have informal authority,” Thomas said. “They often have a little bit more compassion.”

James stressed in the case of the Zika virus, which has been aggravated by climate change, women are the main population affected.

“These are issues that women are going to face a lot more than men, and they get the moral stigma attached to it. This is the last thing that women need in order to live healthy and productive lives,” James said.

Before taking questions from the audience, the panel discussed the role of activism and advocacy for environmental issues on college campuses.

Lewis said she is glad more women are taking part in the environmental protection movement and running non-governmental organizations. However, she said she sees a need for more women to participate in the STEM field, which is crucial to combating climate change.

“You still see less women in the technical areas,” Lewis said.

Fernandez said social media is also a powerful instrument used to raise awareness of climate change issues.

“Right now the platforms of social media are really tools for change that we have, which no generation ever has had in the past,” Fernandez said.

Thomas said she sees climate change as a problem for the current millennial generation to fix and stressed the urgency needed to resolve the issue.

“I think there is something about climate change and the millennial generation that goes together in many ways,” Thomas said. “I feel like it is the issue of our generation because we are the ones who are going to have to deal with it if we mess it up.”

Mary Rogers (COL ’16) said she enjoyed the discussion and appreciated that the panelists described a wide range of key issues.

“I thought it was a really great event. The panelists touched on a bunch of different aspects that are sometimes ignored with climate change, especially the intersectionality piece on how it affects women and populations that are typically underserviced,” Rogers said.

Maura Quinn (COL ’19) said she learned a lot from the event and enjoyed the different viewpoints presented.

“As a person that hasn’t dealt that much into climate change, this was very very enlightening,” Quinn said. “It was very interesting hearing that perspective in this panel as well as things about oceans and things I have never heard before.”

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