September 17, 2015

Building Sustainable Futures

Written by Sacha Green-Atchley and Katy Bullard, Coalition for Adolescent Girls

This post originally appeared on Girls’ Globe’s website here. Reposted with permission.

Climate change is a complex, and contentious, reality of the modern world. Intensified by human activities, climate change decreases the availability of food and clean water, exacerbates public health concerns, and destroys ecosystems and secure living environments. Adolescent girls are particularly vulnerable to the various effects of climate change, including natural disasters, droughts, and the displacement that results from such events. Unfortunately, despite evidence pointing to women’s increased risk compared to men and emerging findings on the potential role of including girls in mitigating their own risk, little is being done to address girls’ specific needs and potential contributions to sustainability work.

Various members of the Coalition for Adolescent Girls are exploring the effects of climate change on the lives of adolescent girls. These effects include reduced access to education and health services, increased rates of early and forced marriage, and higher vulnerability to water-borne diseases and assault.

We spoke with Natalie Elwell, Senior Gender Advisor at the World Resources Institute, about current trends in climate change advocacy and action and the treatment of adolescent girls’ needs. She explained that even though governments and organizations acknowledge that climate change is a gendered issue, they do not understand the nuances of how gender inequality manifests in individuals’ experiences. This leads to a gap in understanding around the specific effects that climate change has on women and girls. While there is also a strong focus on the contributions that young people can make toward reducing climate change, there is little talk of adolescent girls. And though this focus on youth is well-founded and laudable, Ms. Elwell explained, “We need a greater understanding of the differential impacts on male and female youth.”

Many multilateral initiatives and strategies recognize the need to engage women and youth in climate change work, but the majority lack a distinct focus on young women and their ability to contribute to sustainability work. Key efforts like the United Nations Joint Framework Initiative on Children, Youth, and Climate highlight youth as a key population, but have no significant gender focus within the youth category. Meanwhile, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the UN-REDD Project, and the draft Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) acknowledge the gendered aspects of climate change, but focus primarily on building women’s capacity and participation, with little specific attention to adolescent girls.

Despite this omission, adolescent girls around the world are active in combating climate change. From Rosicléia da Silva in Brazil to Esther Agbarakwe in Nigeria, young women’s voices have been some of the strongest and most compelling in advocating for sustainability. In August 21 young people, ages 8-19, filed a lawsuit against the United States federal government, claiming that the government’s fossil fuel policies violate their constitutional rights. Victoria Barrett, a 16 year-old plaintiff in the lawsuit, told us, “It’s important for young people to get involved in preventing climate change because we’re the ones that will feel the worst of these effects. Already girls in developing countries literally carry the weight of water scarcity for miles on their back.”

Jordan Howard, a youth activist from the United States, made the point that girls – often the most marginalized members of their communities – are the “hardest hit” by climate change. Though adolescent girls themselves are rarely engaged specifically in climate work (instead placed in the broader category of youth), “they’re the ones with the solutions.” To empower girls to leverage their experiences, Howard states that we need “to advocate for girls and to teach them how to advocate for themselves, because they’re experts in their own experiences.”

With adolescent girls increasingly recognized as valuable stakeholders in the development process, leveraging their contributions is a crucial next step for supporting environmental sustainability and addressing climate change. Institutions can engage and support adolescent girls in learning about and raising awareness of environmental conservation and sustainable agriculture, increase access to information about the long-term effects of climate change, and provide opportunities to design and engage in conservation activities.

There is strong bilateral interest in understanding how climate change affects young people. Now is the time to act on this interest by engaging adolescent girls as agents of positive change.