Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

The lack of diversity at the COP-26 Climate Summit

Climate change is a global issue. However, there is a major lack of representation in the institutions that are built to tackle it. Women, ethnic minorities, and those from poorer socio-economic backgrounds are seriously under-represented in the political arena. Many of these groups are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis, yet their thoughts and opinions are still not being heard.

The lack of representation in the political spheres tackling climate change can be clearly seen in the noticeable absence of women in the UK’s team for the COP26 Climate Summit. The aim of this summit is for countries to come up with ‘strengthened commitments’ to cut their greenhouse gas emissions in order to help meet the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement. This meeting is therefore massively important in the battle against climate change.

The UK have announced an all-male team to host the UN’s COP26 Climate Summit that will take place in Glasgow between the 1st and the 12th of November,  2021. The conference was originally set to take place later this month, but has been postponed due to the Coronavirus pandemic. The business secretary Alok Sharma will act as president of the summit, followed by a team of other climate ministers. Women will be represented only at the junior level. Originally, this panel was going to be led by the energy minister Claire O’Neill, but she was sacked in February by the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The UK have announced an all-male team to host the UN’s COP26 Climate Summit 

As a result, the only woman at the top table during the COP26 conference is likely to be the UN’s Climate Chief Patricia Espinosa. In response to this shocking lack of representation, a UK government spokesperson said: “The UK is committed to championing diversity and inclusivity throughout our COP26 presidency, and our network of leaders, diplomatic representatives and expert voices reflect this in all of their work.”

Despite their lack of representation in the political sphere, women have played crucial roles in other aspects of the climate movement. Mary Robinson, a UN envoy on climate issues, said: “This diminishes the impact [the UK will have]. Gender divisions in climate are very significant. Having women in leadership is important to ensure these issues are enthusiastically taken up.”

But why is this lack of female representation an issue? Evidence shows that women in developing countries are amongst the worst affected by climate change. In fact, according to Muna Suleiman, a climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth: “Women and children are 14 times more likely than men to suffer direct impacts of natural disasters and climate breakdown, yet are regularly shut out of the decision-making that’s supposed to change things.” The reason for this divide is usually because women have fewer resources and fewer formal rights than men. She added: “The UK needs to resolve this as it hosts the UN climate talks next year, but it’s already treading familiar ground as an old boys’ club where women are left off the top table.”

Despite their lack of representation in the political sphere, women have played crucial roles in other aspects of the climate movement

Women are heavily affected by climate change, yet they continue to be underrepresented in the committees that are tackling it.  It seems unjust that those who are most likely to be affected by climate change are not included in the political discussions of how the climate crisis is going to be tackled. However, the issue of lack of representation in climate-related spheres also goes further than the lack of inclusion of women in political panels.

The climate movement is mostly populated by white and middle-class people. Many view the movement as exclusive to ethnic minorities and people from lower socio-economic backgrounds. One way this exclusion can be seen is through the rise and subsequent fame of Greta Thunberg. Diana Garduno Jimenez, from the Scottish Food Coalition, argues that although there are many other climate activists like Thunberg who have been fighting for the planet, Thunberg is the one we have all heard of because she represents a “white, western, patriarchal, and colonial way of life.” Jimenez also argues that the narrative surrounding Thunberg is one in which climate change is viewed as a distant threat.

Zarina Ahmad from CEMVO, whose job it is to empower ethnic minority groups within the volunteer sector, states that it is not just that people from ethnic minorities are missing from climate groups but that they are actively prevented from joining them. People from ethnic minorities have reported that they are afraid to take part in climate protests for fear of violence from police. Additionally, one climate activist theorises that people from lower socio-economic backgrounds feel that they cannot endorse some of the protest methods that are generally used. This activist argues that preventing people from going to work and taking days off to march does not resonate with those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

The climate movement is mostly populated by white and middle-class people

So how can the issue of a lack of representation in climate activism be addressed and what do leading climate groups have to say about it? One argument is that within the climate debate there needs to be more discussions about what it is like to be on the frontlines of climate change. For example, what is it like to have your home flooded or set on fire due to wildfires? Without the inclusion of those most affected by climate change, there is a possibility that these people could become forgotten. 

As well as discussing what it is like to be on the frontlines of climate change, the climate movement needs to do a better job of promoting inclusivity and acknowledge current deficiencies. The executive director of Greenpeace UK acknowledged this lack of representation: “It’s absolutely right to criticise the movement for being overly represented by white middle-class people… but we are making progress.” Extinction Rebellion also acknowledged that the movement in the UK needs to be more inclusive: “We will prioritise collaboration with a diversity of groups and use varied approaches to mass mobilisation that allow everyone to participate.” Of course, only time will tell whether these groups can implement the necessary changes to increase diversity in the climate movement. 

Greater efforts must be made to increase diversity in the climate movement

One group that is actively trying to increase representation in climate-related organisations is the Ethnic Minority Environmental Network. They provide leadership to promote community empowerment with an aim of increasing diversity within the environmental sector in Scotland. The EMEN invites ethnic minority communities and individuals to come together to discuss and raise awareness of climate issues. They hope to develop a ‘collective and coherent’ ethnic minority voice on climate change. According to their website, in order to reach BAME communities, relationships need to be physically built. It is not enough just to talk about including them.

There is a major lack of representation of marginalised groups in the climate movement. The danger of this problem lies in the fact that these people are more likely to experience the effects of climate change than those who are occupying the positions of power. How can someone less likely to be immediately impacted by climate change make decisions regarding preventative measures, in the same way as someone who will be directly affected? Overall, greater efforts must be made to increase diversity in the climate movement.  The government also seems to be making little effort to include underrepresented groups in the political sphere. There is a long way to go before there is full representation in climate-related groups but, unfortunately, the underrepresented groups may not have that long before the effects of climate change on their lives become catastrophic.

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