COP26 will host the top men in climate policy. Now, where are the women? 

Climate Justice

COP26 will host the top men in climate policy. Now, where are the women? 

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Women are woefully underrepresented at COP26, the annual climate change summit organized by the United Nations. Advocacy group She Changes Climate doesn’t just want a place for women at the climate negotiating table; they want half the chairs. 

With the landmark COP26 talks just months away and the #MeToo movement fresh in the cultural consciousness, activist Antoinette Vermilye had one question: Where are all the women?

In the U.K., the answer was, apparently, “nowhere.” The country had not a single woman in its COP26 team, according to an exposé in the Guardian. The story inspired Vermilye and colleagues Bianca Pitt and Elise Buckle to launch She Changes Climate, a civil society organization working to give women a seat at the climate negotiating table — starting with an open letter to their own government.

Equal representation in COP26 decision-making

“Women are half the population and must be half the top table,” the letter, signed by more than 400 women, read. “The government must act now to ensure equal representation in COP26 decision-making.”

“Our first reaction was to groan and shrug our shoulders,” Vermilye tells Climate & Capital. “But when we investigated it … we felt that without womens’ perspective, the output would be too much of the same mindset that created the problems in the first place.”

We felt that without womens’ perspective, the output would be too much of the same mindset that created the problems in the first place.”

The three women were already veteran activists; Vermilye co-founded the Gallifrey Foundation, Pitt works with legal advocacy group ClientEarth, and Buckle advises the U.N. as co-president of the Greens in Europe. Reaching out to their networks in the U.K. and Europe, they recruited a small army of powerful women ready to join the new movement. Signatories to the open letter included business leaders, politicians, Nobel laureates and at least one baroness. Former Irish president and U.N. commissioner for human rights Mary Robinson signed, as did Paris Agreement co-author Laurence Tubiana, singer Ellie Goulding and actor Emma Thompson. This was a group of women that was hard to ignore. 

Gender envoys

Since then, COP26 president Alok Sharma has appointed two high-ranking women — Ros Eales as chief operating officer and Caroline Holtum as director of communications — as well as a special gender envoy. It’s a strong start, says Vermilye, and the group is now communicating with Sharma’s office, but it’s not enough, and the need for representation goes beyond the U.K.

“While our campaign is specifically targeting the U.K COP26 leadership team, the ramifications are worldwide,” Vermilye says. “Several high profile signatories from other countries, such as Chelsea Clinton in the U.S., Mexican climate activist Xiye Bastida and European women leaders have signed.” 

Rwanda and the United Arab Emirates take the lead

Vermilye and Pitt do point out some surprising success stories, such as Rwanda and the United Arab Emirates, with more than half of their parliaments made up of women. But sadly they are the exceptions that prove the rule: So far there is little evidence that women will be well represented in most COP26 delegations.

“We are taking some comfort from the U.S. with the number of women climate experts in their administration,” Pitt continues. “We are in contact with John Kerry’s chief of staff, and we’re waiting to see who they announce as their delegation.” 

So far there is little evidence that women will be well represented in most COP26 delegations.

Why is it critical that women play a leading role in climate negotiations? To answer, Vermilye cites Caroline Criado Perez’s book “Invisible Women,” which focuses on the data bias in a male-dominated world. The book explores a major Indian earthquake in which hundreds of thousands of homes were destroyed. The government carried out a massive rebuilding effort, but when the new homes were completed, many were missing their kitchens. As it happened, the recovery consulting team was made up entirely of men.

Masculine blind spots

Now, facing worldwide catastrophe, the global response is showing the same sorts of masculine blind spots.

“Agriculture, land use, fashion and carbon removal are not on the COP agenda,” Pitt says. “If you are going to work internationally to find climate change solutions and to pressure countries for better NDCs, it’s so important that women are there to provide more lateral thinking.”  

“As Einstein famously said, the mindset that created the problem is not the one to fix it,” Vermilye adds. 

Malini Mehra of GLOBE International, a climate campaigner who is part of the She Changes Climate network, argues that the U.K. actually has a good track record on gender, and it should look to its history of women’s empowerment to ensure representation in the fight against climate change.

What’s the deal with the U.K.?

“It beggars belief that the U.K. hasn’t already appointed many more women to their COP delegation,” Mehra says. “The country has unique leverage when it comes to the technical assistance it’s provided on gender in fulfillment of the Paris Agreement’s gender mandates. Stepping up on this would be a win-win for them as co-hosts of COP. They need to represent half the human race.”

“It beggars belief that the U.K. hasn’t already appointed many more women to their COP delegation.”

Mehra is organizing the GLOBE COP26 Legislators Summit during COP26 at the Scottish Parliament. For that event, organizers are striving for 50-50 gender participation. 

“More than 100 years after most women got the vote in Britain, we can’t settle for less,” she says.

Vermilye and Pitt were disappointed that International Women’s Day came and went without the U.K. announcing more women on their climate leadership team. But they will keep fighting for representation up until the November conference — and beyond. 

“The critical action at the start for She Changes Climate was to shine a light on the issue,” Pitt says. “Now that we’ve done that, we’re not going to go away.” 

Written by

Blair Palese

Blair Palese is a writer and project manager on a range of climate change projects. In 2009, she cofounded 350.org Australia and was its CEO for 10 years. Previously, she was a communications director for Greenpeace International and Greenpeace USA, head of international public relations for the Body Shop, editor-in-chief of Greenpages magazine, and worked at Washington Monthly and ABC.