Malala Spurs a COP26 Discussion on Links Between Girls, Learning and Cutting Climate Risk
The indigenous climate campaigner Xiye Bastida, African futurist Katindi Sivi and a graybeard climate journalist weigh in on girls, education and paths to a cooler relationship with climate.
Please subscribe (free of charge) to my Sustain What newsletter - my new journalistic journey building a cooler relationship between people, our planet and each other. Tell friends what I'm up to by sending an email here. Follow my hour-by-hour tracking of the Glasgow COP26 climate treaty talks on Twitter via this link. A prime focus of my journalism and my work at the Columbia Climate School is advancing education for impact on sustainability.
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UPDATE 11/4 5:40 pm ET: Malala Yousafzai participated in a valuable conversation organized by The New York Times's Climate Hub: "How Can Educating Girls Be an Accelerator of Climate Action?" I hope you'll watch it!
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The COP26 climate negotiations under way in Glasgow, Scotland, aim to build global momentum on steps slowing climate change and cutting climate impacts on the world's most vulnerable nations and peoples.
A growing force shaping these talks is evidence from around the world that women of all ages face the biggest risks from an overheating climate and the deadly lack of clean energy in hundreds of millions of households. Campaigners are in Glasgow to show how boosting girls' opportunities in school and society can go a long way toward advancing climate goals. (See some resources and events at the end of this post.)
Here's a conversation on these issues sparked by Malala Yousafzai, the brilliant young advocate for girls' education who survived a Taliban assassination attempt in Pakistan in 2012 and has massively expanded her work since then. If you haven't signed up for her Podium newsletter here on Bulletin, I urge you to do so now!
Malala reached out ahead of the climate talks to me and a couple of amazing young women you'll learn from below. I offer some insights gleaned in more than three decades on the climate beat. Please post questions or comments below and at the parallel post on Malala's Podium column.
Here's Malala's introduction and our exchange.
Malala on climate, girls and learning
If you’ve visited any major news site in the past week, chances are you’ve seen a headline about COP26. COP26, which stands for “Conference of the Parties,” is the U.N.’s Climate Conference. And knowing what we know about climate change, this meeting is a very big deal. It represents our last significant chance to reach a global consensus on addressing the underlying causes of climate change, if we truly want to prevent our planet from further rapid decline.
I can talk all day about education and women’s rights, but climate change is not my area of expertise — even though I know it significantly impacts girls’ ability to access education.
That’s why I convened a small roundtable discussion with three people who are more well-versed in the topic: Andrew Revkin, a fellow Bulletin writer who is founding director of the Initiative on Communication and Sustainability at Columbia University's new Climate School and has covered global warming since 1988; Dr. Katindi Sivi-Njonjo, an African futurist and founder of of LongView Consult from Nairobi who works with young people foster foresight literacy; and finally Xiye Bastida, a leading voice for Indigenous and immigrant visibility in climate activism; the 19-year-old is one of the founding organizers of Fridays for Our Future New York City and co-founder of Re-Earth Org. You may have seen her address The White House’s Leaders Summit on Climate in April of this year.
I found our conversation informative and eye-opening. And I’m looking forward to continuing to learn more from Andrew next week after the conference ends — so stay tuned for part 2 of this series!
Malala: What are the biggest questions you have going into COP26?
Andrew Revkin (AR): The 2015 Paris Agreement, by setting up a new structure for tracking and inspiring climate action through the rest of this century, made a huge difference in what I look for in treaty talks now. For the first time in my three decades of reporting on climate and related diplomatic and political work, the process shifted from some dramatic waiting game — waiting for countries to emerge from all-night sessions with some “deal” — to a sustained sequence of steps through which countries share domestic actions or help those with the greatest climate vulnerability and clean-energy needs.
One of the most valuable insights I've gleaned is that these conferences tend to memorialize what's possible more than determine what's possible.
So, in a way, my biggest question is this: When will those watching this process realize that the most important way to drive success lies at home — not in Glasgow or the other cities where these meetings will take place in the decades ahead?
Xiye Bastida (XB): How is it possible that my mother was 19 [years old] when she witnessed firsthand the signing of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in the Earth Summit Rio ‘92, and now here I am, 19 [years old] myself, witnessing the manifestation of the worst case scenario described in that convention.
Malala: Which leaders or countries should we be watching most closely and why?
AR: Even though Chinese President Xi Jinping is not planning to attend, China remains a keystone nation in climate treaty talks as the world’s dominant modern emitter of greenhouse gases. And of course the United States, the biggest contributor to global warming if all historic emissions are tallied, is the other prime player. China is vital not only because of its size but also because it is exerting an ever larger influence on development pathways from Southeast Asia through Africa. Xi’s United Nations announcement in September of an end to Chinese investment in coal-burning power plants in other countries shows what can happen.
In his speech and appearances at the climate conference Monday and Tuesday, U.S. President Biden laid out fresh commitments to cut carbon and boost the capacity of poorer countries to ride out unavoidable climate impacts. But he faced criticism from some climate campaigners for simultaneously calling for increased oil production to limit political and economic harms from rising fuel prices. This tension illustrates the worldwide challenge in satisfying real-time needs while limiting long-term threats.
U.S. President Joe Biden at a COP26 session on forests on Tuesday (UNFCCC.int)
XB: We should be watching leaders who are doing a great job in reducing emissions, but more importantly those who are helping bioregions and ecosystems to regenerate. Instead of investing in nature-based solutions that induce nature to behave in anti-natural ways, we should turn to traditional indigenous ways that respect cycles and the original dynamics of complex living ecosystems. We should closely watch leaders who favor happiness of their citizens and who reject accumulation of power and wealth, as well as extractivist policies based on sustained growth and unlimited resources. We should learn for those who are pushing for policy frameworks that acknowledge all beings (and not just human beings) as subjects of rights to living with clean air, clean water, clean soil and clean fuels.
Malala: Girls’ education and women’s rights often are seen as issues separate from climate change. How are they related?
AR: Girls’ education and rights are intimately related to access to safe, sustainable energy. In much of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, the lack of affordable clean energy often forces girls and young women to spend long hours collecting firewood or dung to cook meals on smoky fires that can harm their health. That’s time not spent studying. Here's video I shot in a farming village in India east of Mumbai in 2017 of a recently married girl, Sonali Maalan Kolekar, cooking for her extended family. The process, from gathering wood to cleaning sooty pots, takes many hours.
Education can boost the capacity for resilience to climate risks like drought, just as impacts from weather disasters can impede education access when families are dislodged from their homes.
Disaster-recovery efforts that put children’s needs in the foreground tend to work best for the long haul. (Our Columbia communication initiative ran discussions on this in English and Spanish.) A substantial body of research has shown increased prospects for girls who complete the equivalent of high school — allowing them to choose family size, boost incomes and withstand environmental jolts. Of course this is no magic bullet facing systemic oppression, as Angeline Murimirwa and Lucy Lake of the Campaign for Female Education wrote in Devex last summer. Would it be a success, they asked, if education is "effectively equipping girls and women to bear the brunt of failed systems"?
There are no simple answers.
Katdindi Sivi-Njonjo (KSN): Climate change is a social and intergenerational crisis that crosses borders and is a threat to all [of] humanity. As reiterated by Plan International, during adverse climate crises such as droughts, girls often drop out of school to take care of domestic chores. Their health is also adversely affected by among other challenges, malnutrition, because of cultural practices that allow male family members to eat first or more than their female counterparts during times of food scarcity. When family wealth such as livestock dwindles due to climate change catastrophes, girls are often married off in exchange for bride wealth. In Kenya, the increase in fuel prices has sharply increased the use of firewood and charcoal, the highest sources of deforestation and one of the major avenues for green gas emissions. Given that women make decisions about cooking fuel in their homes, educating girls on such issues will be helpful in the long run. XB: Absolutely. Women are linked to the source of life, the source of water and food. Their right to cultivate a traditional connection to life systems at different scales (family, community and water basins, for instance) should be at the heart of their demands. Nurturing life systems rely on nurturing women, and this is taught [to us] in Indigenous and rural communities [from when] we are small girls.
Malala: What are some effective climate “solutions” that centre around girls’ education?
KSN: Girls’ education can contribute to more gender-equal participation in climate leadership and decision-making as well as it leading to the advocacy for more inclusive and effective environmental policies and programs. A more educated population can help develop solutions to climate change.
Malala: How would you define climate education? What does it entail? How would you like to see climate change incorporated into curricula?
AR: Too often, climate education is focused on literacy on the basic science of climate change. Yes, it’s important to understand what a greenhouse gas is. But what really matters, in areas rich or poor, is improved understanding of the mix of factors creating climate risk, and the risks and benefits of different energy choices. Here's a slide I pulled together to describe how to break down the vague concept of climate crisis into actionable pieces.
There are many ways teachers or students, male or female, can use this basic framework to boost their own understanding of climate risk and increase local awareness of paths to solutions. The lesson plan would be different depending on location and circumstances — fire or drought, flood or storm, mountain or coast. I loved a sea-level awareness project I covered for The New York Times in 2010 — one that can be undertaken on any coast with simple gear available anywhere. In an ideal world such efforts would involve collecting local data and connecting with scientists like those behind a neat resilience-building project called Thriving Earth Exchange. Part of my job at the Columbia Climate School is to help build such connections. (Journalists can use this risk-focused model, too; I worked with the all-female reporting network of Global Press Journal on just such a project.) KSN: Climate education should emphasize...the link between climate-related issues impact on girl’s school participation, well-being and development. However, this link or framing should not be simplistic or instrumentalized to advance other causes. For example, access to education helps young women access and make better sexual reproductive health decisions for themselves. However, using this argument to subliminally advance the cause that educating girls will lead to smaller populations, which will lead to fewer total emissions becomes problematic, especially when the focus is reduced to controlling populations rather than the human rights and dignity of girls being upheld. Evidence actually does show that lowered fertility may not effectively reduce carbon emissions significantly and that in fact, increased educational attainment could lead to increased emissions (e.g., through more industrialization or more consumption). The point isn’t that girls should not be educated. [It is important to use] caution in the simplistic framing and linear relationship made between education and climate change.
Malala: What other ways can governments prioritize girls in their climate solutions?
AR: A critical need almost everywhere is fostering the capacity for girls to pursue education in science and engineering — where big systemic gender hurdles have greatly hindered getting the female half of society fully engaged in research and solutions related to the epic challenges of sustainability. This requires work from early grade school on upward.
KSN: [Enact] policies to provide alternative sources of energy such as solar (in Morocco is said to be saving the world from over 760,000 tonnes of carbon emissions annually due to its investments in solar energy) and geothermal power (the harnessing of geothermal energy in Kenya another notable initiative to reduce the country’s emissions by 32% by 2030) would increase lighting, and reduce the cost of energy in homes which have multiplier effects in the well-being and education of girls as it reduces carbon emissions.
Malala: What decisions or declarations coming out of COP26 would make you think the meeting showed progress (or at least promise)?
AR: A glaring rich-poor “climate divide” that I first wrote about in 2007 still needs to be bridged. Rich countries have to commit to a sustained process for carrying out and building on the hastily-crafted financial pledge they made in treaty talks in 2009 — which was to provide $100 billion a year starting in 2020 to countries that are most vulnerable to, and least responsible for, impacts of human-driven global warming.
Organizations representing rich and poor nations’ positions have come up with starkly different estimates of how much funding has flowed so far — and no estimate makes it close to $100 billion. And that’s just the beginning. The full cost for clean energy and resilient development in poor countries is likely in the trillions.
Most of the financing tallied so far has gone to clean-energy projects. But United Nations agencies and independent researchers see an enormous “adaptation gap” that also needs filling — funding from the world’s economic powers to boost resilience of poor countries to hazards that are intensifying in our human-heated climate.
KSN: Climate change, like the COVID-19 health crisis, is a global problem. We cannot afford the type of colonization we are seeing with the vaccine. Supporting concerted efforts to reduce carbon emissions like the African Renewable Energy Initiative (AREI) and the African Adaptation Initiative (AAI), as well as transferring environmentally sound technologies to less developed countries would help all of us. The fact that less developed countries contribute the least greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (4% from Africa), yet suffer the brunt of the consequences should be acknowledged much more fundamentally as a result of less industrialization. As these countries seek to develop more, could they be assisted to do so in more green ways? It is in everyone’s interest.
XB: If they committed to immediately implementing all the demands that climate activist youths have openly presented so far.
I'm deeply grateful to Malala for initiating this conversation and can't wait to deepen the discussion in the weeks ahead. I also encourage you to keep track of Katindi and Xiye on Twitter at the links here - @katindisivi and @xiyebastida - and absorb their wisdom and insights in a couple of Sustain What webcasts they participated in:
Sustain What: How Many Billions Can a Heating, Pandemic-Wrapped Planet Support? (Katindi with the veteran population scientist Joel Cohen and Chris Tucker, chairman of the American Geographical Society
Thriving Online - Three Young Leaders Building Impact Networks for Sustainable Societies (Xiye with Pooja Iyengar, a Bhopal-based filmmaker, and Khazana Sihwaya, a medical student in Lusaka, Zambia, building the nonprofit education network Nutrition 2030)
And Xiye is on a tear at the climate talks, so please be sure to keep track. Here she is with another youth climate leader, Elizabeth Wathuti.
Xiye Bastida and Elizabeth Wathuti at COP26 (from @xiyebastida on Twitter)
I also just ran a great conversation with three young climate journalists at the conference via Climate Tracker that I hope you can watch and share. They are Francisco Parra Galaz of Chile, Biena Magbitang from the Philippines, and Yiyao Yang from China. Watch on LinkedIn, Facebook and here: A #COP26 Special: Can the World Close the Deadly Climate Adaptation Gap?
Resources and events:
Tuesday, November 9 at 10:30 a.m., U.S. Eastern time, CAMFED (the Campaign for Female Education) and other groups will participate in Our Future, Our Voice: Girls' Education and Tackling the Climate Crisis. Just paste the YouTube link in your preferred calendar. Here it is, as well:
Also on November 9, at 1 p.m. U.S. Eastern time, check out Tackling climate change through education - a high-level panel session from the Global Education Summit 2021, organized by the Global Partnership for Education. Visit their Youtube, Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin channels to watch the session live. Speakers include Angel Warira, GPE Youth Leader, Christina Kwauk, Brookings Institute, Shradha Koirala, GPE Youth Leader, Suzanne Ehlers, CEO, Malala Fund, Rt. Hon. Alok Sharma MP, COP26 President.
Thanks for hanging in there and helping spur progress for girls.
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It's autumn here (finally!) in the Hudson Highlands, formerly Lenape territory, 50 miles north of the bustle of New York City. I love how this region is a corridor for both commerce and conservation, as this shot reflects. I hope this span of weeks finds you productive and thriving amid all the challenges we face.