Women bear the brunt of the climate crisis, but across the globe we’re using our voices and actions to make real change. Here are 16 women making planet-saving waves
Climate change is a feminist issue. Why? Because women and girls are the hardest hit by its consequences. Water shortages, crop failure, natural disasters: they disproportionately affect women, particularly in developing countries. This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is #EachforEqual – the belief that our individual actions have impact and that collectively we can effect change.
The climate crisis is no different, and it’s inextricably linked with equality. Yes, a warming climate affects everyone, but according to the UN, 80% of people displaced by climate change – through drought, famine and flood – are female. Worldwide, women are more likely to live in poverty, making it harder to recover from climate-related disasters, be that catastrophic hurricanes or devastating wildfires.
It particularly affects women in war-torn areas and the Global South (low and middle-income countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean). “The poorest women in conflict-affected countries are on the frontline of our climate crisis,” says Brita Fernandez Schmidt, UK executive director at charity Women for Women International. “The climate emergency exacerbates existing civil unrest, and conflict amplifies gender inequalities, leaving women even more vulnerable to the impacts of global warming.” When livelihoods are threatened, women are also more likely to suffer exploitation and violence: in the aftermath of climate-related disasters, sex trafficking in affected areas spikes by 20-30%.
Ironically, the silver lining of this dark cloud is coming from women themselves. From influencing environmental policy to launching grassroots initiatives and inventing new technologies to disrupt age-old industries, women all over the world are harnessing their voices, knowledge and power to create lasting change. Countries with greater female representation in power have smaller climate footprints, and at the UN Climate Change Summit, secretary-general António Guterres described women as the “drivers of solutions”.
So we want to shine a megawatt (and energy efficient) light on these women. They are scientists and entrepreneurs. Activists and architects. Lawyers and educators. They are women like you. Some are still in school, some have been protecting the planet for decades. What they all have in common is imagination, optimism and a dogged determination.
This Sunday, the Stylist team will join the #March4Women protest in central London. The focus for this year’s march is the impact of the climate emergency on women and girls, calling on the government to ensure aid for those affected. We hope these women will inspire you to join us.
THE ARCHITECT SAVING A SINKING CITY
Kotchakorn Voraakhom, 39, Thailand
Mission: To protect Bangkok with ‘urban sponges’ that absorb flood water. When devastating floods hit in 2011, Voraakhom, a landscape architect, had to flee her home along with millions of others. Decades of intense urbanisation have left Bangkok vulnerable to flooding and now the city is sinking. Her solution? The Porous City Network, which designs pocket parks, rain gardens and specially engineered ponds and lawns that absorb water and allow the city to breathe so it’s more resilient to future climate change.
Voraakhom’s organisation has built an 11-acre park in the heart of Bangkok designed to hold one million gallons of water, and unveiled Asia’s largest urban farm on the rooftop of the city university.
Why we love her: Voraakhom was inspired by the way monkeys store mashed banana in their cheeks to create underwater pockets around the city that collect flood water.
What she says: “Creating climate resilience is about asking, how can we learn to live with this change? Nature has many of the answers.”
THE ZERO-WASTE TAKEAWAY CHAMPIONS
Anshu Ahuja, 40, and Renee Williams, 39, UK
Mission: To make Friday night takeaways guilt-free, with plant-based recipes, no plastic, zero delivery emissions and no waste. Inspired by the fresh dabba (lunchbox) deliveries Ahuja had growing up in Mumbai, the friends launched DabbaDrop, serving their east London community three nights a week.
To have the smallest environmental impact possible, customers pre-order a vegan curry or stir fry so the kitchen only sources the ingredients it needs. Meals are delivered by bike and served in reusable stainless steel dabbas. Since 2018, they’ve saved the equivalent of 17,820 plastic containers and made 8,700km of emission-free deliveries. They now feed more than 1,450 people every month.
Why we love them: Their motto? More people doing smaller things to be more sustainable is better than a tiny minority doing everything to be sustainable.
What they say: “You have to refine your business model, but it’s absolutely possible to be eco and profitable.”
THE DIPLOMAT HOLDING THE WORLD TO ACCOUNT
Christiana Figueres, 63, Costa Rica
Mission: To encourage countries to meet global climate targets. As executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, she was instrumental in 2016’s Paris Agreement, persuading 195 countries to commit to stopping the global temperature rising by more than two degrees.
Without Figueres’s skilled negotiation, it wouldn’t have happened. Her next goal? To focus on this “critical decade” – in the next 10 years the world must meet carbon emission targets or the atmosphere will be overloaded to the point of no return. To spread the message, Figueres co-wrote The Future We Choose, urging us to embrace a “stubborn optimism”.
Why we love her: Faced with a bomb threat at a crucial stage of the Paris Agreement, Figueres had a choice: call off the talks and lose a once-in-a-lifetime chance to protect the planet, or carry on. She chose the latter.
What she says: “We need individual action. First, food choices: local and plant-based is better. Second, insulate your home. Third, if you can, use public transport, walk or cycle.”
THE STRAIGHT-TALKING CLIMATE SCIENTIST
Dr Kate Marvel, 38, United States
Mission: To figure out how hot it is going to get, and exactly what this means for the Earth. As a climate scientist at Nasa, Marvel predicts the environmental changes we might face in the future – from snowfall levels to where forests will be able to grow – so we can prepare and adapt. Her study of tree rings and soil composition has shown that human activity is already affecting global rainfall and cloud patterns. As a writer and tweeter she breaks down complex issues so people outside the scientific community can understand what’s happening to our planet.
Why we love her: The title of her must-read online essay ‘I Don’t Have Time For Despair. I’m Too Busy Doing Science’ pretty much sums up her #LetsDoThis attitude.
What she says: “For me, it’s comforting to know why the climate is changing. If this was something that was out of our control, that would be more scary. We can’t stop it but we can prevent the worst outcome. We’re not doomed unless we choose to be: call your MP and yell at them to do something.”
THE TRAILBLAZING HUMAN RIGHTS LAWYER
Tessa Khan, 37, UK
Mission: To empower citizens to take legal action against governments failing on climate change.
A human rights lawyer, Khan is co-founder of the Climate Litigation Network, a project of non-profit foundation Urgenda. Representing 886 Dutch citizens, Urgenda won a historic lawsuit in 2015, forcing their government to slash emissions.
This inspired other communities to fight for climate justice, from a group of young Colombians suing their government for inadequately preventing deforestation in the Amazon, to a Pakistani farmer taking action against leaders for not tackling the impacts of climate change. With the help of Khan’s organisation, similar cases are being heard across the world.
Why we love her: Hearing the landmark ruling in 2015, Tessa cold-called Urgenda and offered to quit her job to join forces and create the Climate Litigation Network.
What she says: “Litigation empowers ordinary people living with the impacts of the climate crisis. They have their voices heard in a forum that puts facts above everything else.”
THE CRUSADER AGAINST PERIOD PLASTIC
Ella Daish, 27, UK
Mission: To convince high street shops and supermarkets to stock plastic-free menstrual products. Shocked by the fact that pads and tampons can contain up to 90% plastic, Daish launched the End Period Plastic campaign in 2018 when she was still working full-time.
Targeting a list of 14 major retailers and manufacturers, Daish has convinced Sainsbury’s and Aldi to stop putting plastic applicators in their own-brand tampons, saving over 16 tonnes of plastic each year; persuaded Bodyform to commit to at least 50% renewable packaging in their Ultra lines; and successfully lobbied Tesco, Asda, Waitrose and Boots to stock more plastic-free and reusable period products.
Why we love her: Last Christmas, she used the money she would have spent on presents to donate eco-friendly products to period poverty initiatives.
What she says: “Campaigning takes persistence and patience. In my first year, I wasn’t taken seriously. I kept sending emails until I got meetings. Remain positive and people are responsive.”
THE INSPIRING STUDENT STRIKER
Hilda Nakabuye, 22, Uganda
Mission: To mobilise thousands of strikers. In January 2019, Nakabuye stood at a junction in Kampala, the second most polluted city in Africa, holding a placard that read, “Save our environment. Save our future.”
No one joined her. Undeterred, she launched Fridays For Future Uganda, using social media to call for others to join the global school strikes and ensure the climate change debate wasn’t dominated by Western voices. It worked: 25,000 Ugandan students went on strike. In October, she addressed the C40 World Mayors Summit, saying climate change was a question of “survival or death”.
Why we love her: When she’s not protesting, she’s picking up litter around Lake Victoria. She declined an invitation to a climate conference in Nigeria in order to cut her carbon footprint.
What she says: “I have seen the effects of climate change: heavy rains washed our crops away, high temperatures dried our streams, unpredictable weather makes farming impossible. My parents had to sell land and livestock to keep us alive. I missed school.”
THE ENTREPRENEUR INVENTING SOLUTIONS
Miranda Wang, 26, United States
Mission: To transform unrecyclable plastics into new materials and keep them out of landfill. The Canadian entrepreneur is CEO of Silicon Valley start-up BioCellection where, using cutting-edge chemical technology, unrecyclable plastics like bubble wrap and bin bags (which typically take 500 years to degrade) are broken down at a molecular level and purified to create chemical ‘building blocks’.
The really clever bit? These building blocks can replace traditional fossil fuels used to manufacture manmade materials – a double whammy of innovation. Wang’s pilot programme in California won a UN Environment Programme award, and now she hopes to roll it out across the world.
Why we love her: She’s hugely ambitious. Not only has she raised over $3million of investment, she’s set the goal of recycling 45,500 tonnes of plastic waste by 2023.
What she says: “As consumers, we can tell the brands we buy from to adopt products made with recycled content. And we should be willing to pay what that’s worth, too.”
THE COMPOSTABLE PACKAGING PIONEER
Daphna Nissenbaum, Israel
Mission: To start a packaging revolution with material that looks like plastic, feels like plastic, but is 100% compostable. As CEO of Tipa, Nissenbaum has created a fully compostable alternative to flexible packaging (95% of which can’t be recycled) – the kind used for granola bars, sandwich bags and wrapping clothes in your online shopping orders.
Tipa packaging, which is now used by Waitrose and Stella McCartney, contains high-tech bio-based polymers (partly made from renewable raw materials) that break down in your compost bin. Nissenbaum wants the fact that Tipa is compatible with existing packaging machines to “go viral”, so manufacturers have no excuse not to switch.
Why we love her: Her inspiration for this sophisticated technology was the peel of an orange, which protects the flesh but returns to nature when it’s thrown away. Genius.
What she says: “We can’t avoid packaging, but let’s make it from the right materials. Tipa is not against the plastic industry; we’re working with it to create change.”
THE DIVER CLEANING UP OUR OCEANS
Swietenia Lestari, 25, Indonesia
Mission: To clean up marine pollution with an army of volunteer divers. Lestari grew up on the Thousand Islands, home to hundreds of coral reef systems that protect coastlines from erosion and absorb carbon dioxide. Seeing how litter suffocated them, she co-founded Divers Clean Action, turning her scuba diving hobby into environmental work.
She now has 1,500 divers and snorkellers collecting rubbish that would end up caught on the coral, leaving it diseased or dead. Last year, they collected 12 tonnes of waste – most of it textiles and single-use plastics. As well as clean-ups, the team map marine pollution and campaign for better waste management.
Why we love her: She launched Divers Clean Action during the final year of her degree in environmental engineering.
What she says: “The underwater scenery of Indonesia is beautiful, but if we don’t do anything now, future generations won’t be able to enjoy it: by 2050 it’s predicted there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.”
Five young activists fighting for the future
GRETA THUNBERG, 17, SWEDEN
Thunberg has become the face of climate action, and this year her focus is on fossil fuel subsidies. The #FridaysfForFuture founder wants global investment in coal, gas and oil to stop immediately.
JAMIE MARGOLIN, 18, USA
Margolin wants to translate the youth climate movement into real political change. She co-founded the Zero Hour activist group, has led marches in 25 cities and is a big advocate for youth enfranchisement.
LICYPRIYA KANGUJAM, 8, INDIA
Campaigning since age six, Kangujam wants to reduce air pollution in India, where schools have had to close due to “unbearable levels”. Last year she was awarded the World Children Peace Prize.
AUTUMN PELTIER, 15, CANADA
A member of the Wiikwemkoong First Nation, Peltier fights for indigenous communities whose drinking water has been contaminated by oil pipelines. “We can’t eat money or drink oil,” she told leaders at the UN in 2019.
AYAKHA MELITHAFA, 18, SOUTH AFRICA
A spokesperson for the African Climate Alliance, Melithafa submitted an official complaint to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child over the South African government’s lack of climate action.
Images: Getty; courtesy of subject