Mitzi Jonelle Tan

Writer Mitzi Jonelle Tan. Photo supplied

How women being left behind in the COP29 committee fails us all

Opinion: Rich (and often white) men have occupied too much space for far too long... it's not only delaying much-needed climate action, but also harming marginalised people everywhere.

Once again, women find themselves excluded from critical leadership roles in one of the most significant conferences addressing climate change. Just last week, the president of Azerbaijan announced the organising committee for COP29, slated to take place in the country at the end of 2024. Outrageously, all 28 members of the organising committee are men, either from the fossil fuel industry or the government.

The annual UN Climate Summit is intended to serve as a pivotal moment for shaping policies and strategies to combat climate change, particularly for those most vulnerable to the ongoing crisis. Yet, throughout history, from COP presidencies to organising teams, country delegates, and overall attendance, approximately half of the population has been consistently sidelined. Jemimah Njuki, Chief of Economic Empowerment at UN Women, highlights that women's representation in UN Climate negotiations has only marginally increased from 30% to 35% over the past decade.

While women's representation remains stagnant, the influence of the fossil fuel industry, a major contributor to the climate crisis, continues to grow. Almost immediately after the conclusion of COP28, where fossil fuels were acknowledged in the final text for the first time albeit with numerous loopholes and questionable solutions, COP28 President Al Jaber announced that his company will continue with oil investments. Disappointingly, COP29 introduces yet another oil tycoon, Mukhtar Babayev, as its president.

As long as decision makers profit from the destruction of our planet, addressing the climate crisis will remain an uphill battle. It's time for those most vulnerable to lead, not the ones most responsible.

Climate change is not an isolated environmental issue, and it is definitely not gender neutral. Women and gender minorities or those who identify as trans, non-binary, gender queer, gender fluid, etc. are disproportionately vulnerable. According to UN Environment, 80% of people displaced by the climate crisis are women. In times of distress and crisis such as extreme weather events, young girls and women, especially those among the economically marginalised, are more prone and exposed to homelessness, poverty, sexual violence, and health issues. Gender minorities, already more likely to face greater socio-economic inequalities, are then also more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. 

This is because the climate crisis acts as a threat multiplier. It is a symptom of the harmful, extractive, patriarchal, and imperialist system that we live in today. This system prioritises capital accumulation and ownership of resources above all else. The richest 1% (who are also overwhelmingly male), contribute more than half of carbon dioxide emissions than the world’s 50% poorest, and do so at the expense of nature and people – especially the economically marginalised, people of colour, women, and gender minorities This is because the rich elite view nature, marginalised people, women, and gender minorities as resources to own and exploit.

The absence of women and gender minorities – especially those who are people of colour and socio-economically marginalised – in leadership roles for key international summits is not only delaying much-needed climate action, but also harming marginalised people everywhere. When you leave out the voice of more than half the population, particularly those most vulnerable to the problem you're trying to solve, you are excluding at least half of the solution, and the most crucial part at that.

Rich (and often white) men have occupied too much space for far too long. We need more women and gender minorities from diverse backgrounds – especially the most marginalised – in decision-making processes. Multiple studies have shown that gender diversity in climate leadership leads to more sustainable outcomes that will benefit all of us.

While inclusivity and representation alone won't solve these crises, they are important first steps to ensure that those most vulnerable not only contribute to the conversation, but lead the way in finding solutions, minimising suffering, and building a more sustainable and just world in terms of climate and gender.