Gender and Climate Change: An enlightening conversation with Bridget Burns

Climate change undoubtedly has a great impact on all populations across the earth. Particularly, women and girls are more vulnerable to the adversities caused by climate change, especially those in positions of poverty. Additionally, the unequal gender representation in decision making processes in climate action also compounds inequality. I had an enlightening talk with Bridget Burns, Director of the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) and co-Focal Point of the Women and Gender Constituency (WGC)  about the links between gender inequality and climate change.

The lovely Bridget Burns

Bridget has been attending UN Climate Change Conferences since her first climate negotiation, in Bangkok 2009, which was the lead up to COP15. Bridget was a youth advocate. She joined WEDO after that in 2010, during COP16. The WGC was formed in 2010 as well, and Bridget has been a part of it since the very beginning.

Having been a participant to every climate negotiation session since 2009, I asked the 33-year-old how she copes with the intensity of it all, light-heartedly sharing that I was burned out after only attending my first UN conference. “It helps that the work WEDO does at these conferences is extremely rewarding”, Bridget shared. One of the projects WEDO carries out as an organization, other than advocating for gender equality and human rights to be integrated into the text, is a program called the Women Delegates Fund (WDF). The WDF programme supports women from Least Developed Countries (LDCs), and from Small Island Developing States (SIDS) by providing travel aid, negotiation training, and capacity building. Bridget and WEDO attends every COP and every intersessional because they fund these group of women to be on their national delegation. It is tremendously rewarding, Bridget says, as they support women in their process of being leaders for their countries, on their national delegation. Other than the WDF, WEDO also organizes other projects that aim to empower the voices of those who are least represented in this space, be it the delegates themselves and their countries, indigenous people, women or youth. Bridget admits that the process itself has a long view of progress, and sometimes it seems like the pace is so slow and nothing is being achieved. Nevertheless it is incredibly rewarding.

As our conversation went on, I asked Bridget if she has personally experienced climate change risks that befall many communities. In her perspective, Bridget explained, her experiences have been in relation to the injustice that has impacted and have been felt in communities, and are not her personal experience per se, citing and acknowledging her identity as a white women from the United States of America. One of the most striking incident was after Superstorm Sandy (also known as Hurricane Sandy) hit New York City, where Bridget is from. Due to increasing storms in 2012, Superstorm Sandy was one of the deadliest and most destructive hurricanes to happen. Bridget is from the Bronx, which contains severely underprivileged areas, compared to the rest of New York City. After the hurricane, Bridget remembers the disparity between two groups, her friends who lost their summer houses versus her neighbours and colleague who lost their homes and livelihoods. NYC, Bridget explains, is a city of vast inequality and it was something she has always recognized. An example of it, Bridget remembers, is when she read about how tuberculosis rates were extremely high in certain developing countries, and the Bronx, NYC. Having conversations with these communities, Bridget states, helped her build perspective on the resilience she has seen from her friends who lost basic needs. According to Bridget, its important to understand that these impacts exist in all countries, including developed countries.

As an advocate for gender equality in the climate change realm, I asked Bridget how she would explain to the layman about these climate change conferences and its link to gender. Typically, Bridget starts by telling people that climate change is a global challenge. This process, she says referring to the UN conferences, is about how to get countries to agree on the fact that this is happening, and to agree on a vision on how to combat climate change by keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees. It is also vital that within these visions, the national interests of each country and their desired development are taken into account. Not forgetting, Bridget adds, to maintain a collective commitment to the wellbeing of all people on the planet. The hard part is what follows those visions and shared understanding, Bridget states, which is working out the rules and an action plan of how to achieve them. In the context of gender, Bridget continues, it it imperative that there is an understanding that gender inequality persists around the world.

“Gender disparity exists in every manner, be in education, access to healthcare or representation in climate space. “

Climate change exacerbates many issues, among which is gender equality, Bridget explains, and this issue cannot be overcome unless people in all societies are empowered to increase their resilience to climate change by making more sustainable choices in their energy consumption. Referring to the Paris Agreement, Bridget states that all climate action had to happen i the context of promoting, respecting and enhancing gender equality, women empowerment, and human rights. Currently at the SB48 session, its important to ensure that the rules and templates being developed for these climate issues are not gender blind, and we need to remember that there are real people being affected by these policies being made. Bridget reiterates that whether you are a small community shifting to renewable energy, or a large country working on your national commitment plans, its vital to consider people’s rights, and that the people are being being empowered via the new policies being implemented.

The next question I posed to Bridget was on what her ideal outcome would be from this SB48 session. Replying, Bridget stated that a draft text on every single item would be completely ideal. She digressed by saying that the difficult part about being in this process is the understanding that the biggest failure is the lack of global trust and solidarity. So many times when in the process of moving forwards, we have moved backwards, Bridget states. This lack of trust often takes the place of ambition; it does not mirror the hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets during the climate march (that took place the day before) protesting for action on climate change; nor does it mirror even the commitments that some countries themselves are taking in climate action. The mistrust that fosters itself in these political processes causes us to not make as much progress as we should be. A different ideal position is that we would have the text that would enable us to move forward in to fulfil the goals of the Paris Agreement with a robust set of rules. Unfortunately, Bridget does not think that will happen. In her opinion, this Bangkok session will result in a diverse set of papers that will guide us to Katowice, and COP24’s outcomes will be the lowest common denominator of a set of rules that will give us an indication of the path we are headed. As always, Bridget explains, the real work lies within the actions of individual citizens; in how they make their voices heard, and how they use their rights as citizens to bring forward elected officials that will make this an essential part of their agenda.

“…the biggest failure is the lack of global trust and solidarity”

As a part of WEDO and the WGC, I asked Bridget what challenges shehas faced in her advocacy of bringing awareness to gender inequality in climate change. According ro Bridget, the difficulty lies in talking to people. For example, when incorporating the gender considerations that should be taken into account in combating climate change, everyone seems to understand its importance. However what is typically frustrating is that these intentional conversations where people understand the links; they do not happen often. These processes, Bridget explains, are extremely technocratic. When debates about common timeframes or finance and the likes are being done, and someone incorporates human rights into them, it seems like most people do not have time for those conversations. Most think its an outlier or a distraction, Bridget explains. They do not see the connections and how it relates to their topic of discussion. A part of that problem is that fact that most negotiators present at these conferences are mainly finance or environment negotiators, which is not a good approach to creating intersectional policies that take into account gender equality. Bridget has seen great success and benefits in countries that integrate gender and social issues into their climate work. There is not lack of data that showcases the outcomes of taking a rights based approach; it’s just a matter of political will, education, and having access to the right decision makers who not only listen to its people but hear them. Decision makers who understand what is being conveyed and fundamentally understand the importance of gender discussions in climate space.

At the end of that, Bridget says, this is a people problem. It is a problem caused by people. People live their lives in intersections that cuts across race, class, sex, gender and etcetera. The world is experienced intersectionally, and it is impossible to tackle this huge problem of breaking down barriers without integrating the reality of people into it. Take the major problems of the world for example, Bridget explains; be it the violence fuelling war, increasing instability, mass migration; they have plenty to do with the patriarchal structure. If we can shift to a more feminist care centred economic structure and planet, we can get ourselves a long way towards what needs to be done to combat climate change, starting with taking into account people’s rights and perspectives.

As our conversation came to an end, I asked Bridget what message she would like to impart on youths. Her answer? Just be bold. Be as brave as you can, and be as kind as you can to each other. Bridget persisted by saying that she has no time for people who call us millennials entitled, spoilt or impractical. There is a reality that youths, particularly from LDCs and SIDS, are facing, a reality on whether or not our planet will survive. This is an existential crisis that we are facing, and it needs bold ideas, Bridged expressed. Bridget appreciates the youths who are not afraid to call out the current models who are leading us all towards this disastrous path. She advises us youths to put ourselves in these spaces, and to make sure that we refrain from recreating any kind of oppression, to include the unincluded and to leave no one behind. Bridget thinks that the younger generations truly understands the need for intersectional approaches. “It is a strength of young people, and it gives me hope”.

“Just be bold. Be as brave as you can, and be as kind as you can to each other”

Bridget Burns

It was truly one of the most illuminating conversations I have ever had with another person. Bridget is truly an inspiring woman who goes above and beyond, in her roles in WEDO and WGC, to make sure that the topics of gender equality and human rights does not get buried under the other negotiations that take place here at UN conferences.

Written by: Abirami Baskaran

Edited by: Shaqib Shahril

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