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After COP26: Keep Amplifying the Connections Between Climate, Gender, and Health

Megan Brown

What is COP26?

The 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties – also known as COP26 – took place in Glasgow, Scotland, from October 31 to November 12. It’s a critical summit where world leaders work together to meet the climate change goals they agreed to as part of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. But it’s also an important opportunity for civil society groups and activists to gather, share their frontline experiences with climate change, and advocate for action. This year, young activists have had a greater voice than ever, pressuring leaders to take larger-scale, more intersectional action now. On Twitter and across social media, Pathfinder’s Next Gen leaders and young leaders across sectors and organizations came together to discuss this. One of the issues young activists took up was a call to have more women leaders involved in climate discussions at COP26, especially as a way to address the health-related impacts of climate change.

Wait, what does climate have to do with gender and health?

As it turns out, a lot! That’s why Women-Led Climate Resilience is a core area of Pathfinder’s work, and why we were glad to see conversations built around this intersection.

Gender is one of many intersectional social categories that can affect both vulnerability and adaptative capacity. Because of the way that climate change exacerbates existing inequalities, women are disproportionately vulnerable to climate change. For example, natural disasters place an greater burden on women, forcing them to miss out on educational opportunities or travel further for water and fuel, which can also increase their risk of experiencing gender-based violence. On top of this, systematic inequalities that limit their access to education, financial resources, or political power can keep women out of critical decision-making spaces on climate issues.

One key takeaway from Pathfinder International and the Bellona Foundation’s panel at COP26 on elevating women in climate was how deeply intertwined climate and gender issues are—we cannot address one without the other. And even though addressing issues holistically is challenging, it’s also deeply necessary. When it comes to fighting climate change, we need all hands on deck. When women are involved as decision makers and leaders, change really happens.

“Why women? Absolutely, without a doubt, one of the key learnings from human development over the decades has been that women are essential to any community lift.” -Pathfinder’s Barbara Merz, speaking at the session “Building Climate Resilient Health Systems.”

Pathfinder’s Barbara Merz during the “Building Climate Resilient Health Systems” event at COP26.

Climate change is also a major health threat – especially for women. At one of my favorite COP26 sessions, the 2021 World Health Organization Global Conference on Health and Climate Change, we heard from key leaders about the powerful effect of climate change on health worldwide, from emerging infectious diseases to our energy and infrastructure systems. What are some specific ways climate change can affect health? Reduction in rainfall may reduce the ability of a woman who depends on agriculture to grow enough food to support her family, air pollution directly impacts incidence of respiratory diseases, and food insecurity and increased temperatures can lead to low-birth weight and miscarriages. In Pathfinder and #NextGenerationIsNow campaign partners Girl Up and Guttmacher Institute’s Twitter Chat, young leaders and organizations alike shared more on climate’s threat to sexual and reproductive health and rights globally.  Given these health threats, it’s critical for women to participate in developing solutions to climate change. But as  Pathfinder’s CEO Lois Quam wrote earlier this year on the crucial role women play in global health systems, when it comes to climate, women are still severely underrepresented.

So, what can we do?

Even in the face of climate change, the energy and momentum of COP26 is infectious. Here are my key takeaways from COP26 to build on that momentum:

Keep Learning. Climate change is a complex issue, but there are plenty of resources out there to help you build your climate literacy. Take the time to listen to voices at the frontlines. If you like podcasts, check out Spotify’s Climate Action page. Get familiar about key women leaders at the forefront of climate change, and check out the book list on women’s voices in climate issues (see below).

Listen to Local Voices. Climate change is no longer an abstract idea: it’s something we must deal with every day, especially in the most climate-vulnerable communities. It is widely known that communities who have contribute the least to climate change are the most impacted by it. Women in the those communities hold some of the savviest solutions, and that is why Pathfinder is listening to and working closely with women around the world. For those of us who live in higher-resourced countries, it’s imperative that we keep listening to and advocating for effective solutions that address community needs at the intersections of climate, gender, and health—especially where the negative impacts are most extreme.

Build Partnerships. We can’t solve climate change alone. To make a difference, we have to build intersectional communities, developing new partnerships beyond our communities or sectors of work. Think about what skills you have to offer and connect with those whose work can complement your own.

Act Now, Speak Up. Young activists have made it clear that we need to stay loud and stay critical in our fight for climate justice. Hold politicians accountable for keeping their promises – through voting, social media campaigns, letter writing, or even protests.

A Book List for Further Reading: Women’s Voices on Climate, the Environment, and Change

On the Environment and Our Challenges:

  • Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future by Elizabeth Kolbert
  • This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate by Naomi Klein
  • As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock by Dina Gilio-Whitaker
  • A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind by Harriet A. Washington
  • Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret, by Catherine Coleman Flowers
  • Inconspicuous Consumption by Tatiana Schlossberg
  • Erosion: Essays of Undoing by Terry Tempest Williams
  • Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer
  • Gender and Climate Change: An Introduction by Irene Dankelman

Highlighting Women Leaders:

  • Cool: Women Leaders Reversing Global Warming, by Paola Gianturco and Avery Sangster
  • Girl Warriors: How 25 Young Activists Are Saving the World by Rachel Sarah
  • Wangari Maathai Plants a Forest by Rebel Girls

On Activism:

  • Youth to Power: Your Voice and How to Use It by Jamie Margolin
  • Climate Action Challenge: A Proven Plan for Launching Your Eco-Initiative in 90 Days, by Joan Gregerson
  • Revolutionary Power: An Activist’s Guide to the Energy Transformation by Shalanda Baker
  • The New Climate Activism: NGO Authority and Participation in Climate Change Governance by Jen Iris Allan
  • No Planet B: A Teen Vogue Guide to the Climate Crisis edited by Lucy Diavolo
  • Every Woman’s Guide to Saving the Planet by Natalie Isaacs

Looking Forward:

  • All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis, edited by Ayana Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson
  • Who Cares Wins: Reasons for Optimisms in Our Changing World by Lily Cole
  • No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg
  • The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis, by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac


  • Migrations: A Novel by Charlotte McConaghy
  • The New Wilderness by Diane Cook
  • The End of the Ocean: A Novel by Maja Lund
  • Weather: A Novel by Jenny Offill

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