This afternoon President Trump announced his decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord, a widely endorsed agreement that unites 195 countries around the effort to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and make other environmentally friendly changes to combat climate change. Since the U.S. is one of the biggest greenhouse gas emitters, its withdrawal from this agreement could be devastating to the climate agenda and potentially lead to other nations following suit. And this decision to ignore climate change won’t just affect future generations. As the planet continues to warm unnaturally, it brings about rising sea levels, increased floods, drought, migration, and civil war—and women and girls are bearing the brunt of these consequences right now.
For the last decade, I’ve worked across the Middle East reporting on the lives of women and girls, with a focus on teenage refugees escaping the Syrian conflict. Many complex factors have perpetuated the conflict in Syria and led to people risking their lives to flee the area, and drought is just one of them. I’ve seen it first hand—migrant trails are extremely dangerous places for women and girls. Away from their homes and often separated from their families, they’re more susceptible to violence, rape, human trafficking, and sexual exploitation. This is just one example of how climate change not only affects the natural environment but also has a major effect on the most vulnerable populations.
But there’s hope—the simple act of sending a girl to school can drastically reduce climate change because education empowers them to make better choices.
On a recent trip to the eastern border of Iran and Syria, I traveled to remote villages to report on sex education classes. I met with dozens of women, mostly illiterate, who had more than 10 children. Many were poor, unable to pay school fees, and overburdened by child care. They expressed a desire to control their pregnancies but had no access to any kind of contraception—and they are not alone. Across the world, 225 million women say they want to choose when and where to become pregnant but can’t access contraception—which means a lot of overpopulation. Giving women access to contraception could reduce the more than 74 million unintended pregnancies each year, which according to acclaimed environmentalist Paul Hawken’s new book “Drawdown“ is the eighth most powerful solution to curbing climate. In fact, Hawken claims that educating girls could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 59.6 gigatons by 2050, making it the sixth most powerful solution, ahead of recycling and even solar panels.
These results are not only widely recognized, they are written in the language of the Paris Agreement itself. The preamble specifically acknowledges that adapting to extreme weather must consider issues specific to women and girls, and calls for increased gender equality and women’s empowerment to tackle the issue of climate change.
“Improving the lives of women and girls is mission critical for saving the planet.”Cathy Russell, former Ambassador
Even though President Trump has chosen to withdraw from this agreement, other foreign leaders, including those from the European Union and China, have reaffirmed their countries’ commitment, stating “…the EU and China consider climate action and the clean energy transition an imperative more important than ever and commit to significantly intensify their political, technical, economic, and scientific cooperation on climate change and clean energy.”
The former Ambassador Cathy Russell said, “Improving the lives of women and girls is mission critical for saving the planet.” Her message and the science behind it can’t be signed away by an Executive Order.
As women, we are essential to solving the problem of climate change—we are both its victim and its change agent, and education is the most powerful start.