Educating young women is the climate fix no one is talking about

Saac Kasamani / AFP via Getty Images

What springs to mind when someone says ‘climate change solution’? Probably wind or solar farms, maybe meatless burgers or ‘moonshot’ technologies. These are all important if we are going to urgently cut our carbon emissions in line with the science, but they also all happen to be solutions in the model we have been taught to see them – from the market, with potential to make money.
In fact, there are a wide range of climate solutions with huge potential. We have been talking more about restoring nature, but what about educating girls? Universal education can start improving people’s lives right away, as well as stabilising our climate. Educating girls, together with family planning, is listed by Project Drawdown as the fifth most impactful solution we have, if we want to limit global heating to 1.5C. The climate change mitigation project calculated that taking steps toward universal education, as well as investing in family planning in low and middle income countries, could result in a massive reduction in emissions of 85.42 gigatons by 2050. That’s almost a decade’s worth of China’s emissions.

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Why are we not talking about this? Across sub-saharan Africa, nine million girls between the ages of six and 11 will never go to school at all. Girls who have been able to go to school grow up to be women who are economically and politically empowered, and who are not forced into early marriage to bear children. Lower fertility can lead to healthier, more secure families, and it reduces emissions well into the future.
But, while fertility rates are important, they are far from the only reason why educating girls is important for our climate future. Women are also disproportionately impacted by climate disasters: the UN estimates that 80 per cent of people displaced by climate change are female. With the climate crisis, as so often, women’s suffering is intensified by the structural gender inequalities that dominate their lives. Women in Uganda are most likely primary caregivers, responsible for feeding families and gathering water, for subsistence crops and for protecting children when climate disasters strike.
Men can travel to cities for work when extreme weather hits, are often responsible for cash crops, and are more likely to have access to credit to rebuild in the aftermath. On top of all these, devastatingly, it appears that climate change and girls’ rights are also part of a vicious climate circle. There is already evidence that droughts are causing more child marriages and even FGM.
Education can give women the tools they need to be more resilient to these disasters. But, once again, the injustices seem to collide, and the global south countries where the climate crisis is already hitting hardest are often also the places where girls are most likely to miss out on school. Economic empowerment, empowerment within their communities, and knowledge about how to respond to extreme weather, are crucial for our women and girls to survive.

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Finally, we need to educate more girls so that they are able to lead the world in addressing this crisis. In the past few years we have seen a wave of young people demanding climate action – and these movements are being led by young women. But this is not new, female leaders like Christiana Figueres, Amina Mohamed, and many more have been driving ambition for years. Women know what is at stake, they know that their rights are likely the first to disappear when times get tougher. We need to empower women to lead on climate on a local and national level too. We have seen during this global pandemic how female leadership can steer us through crises. Equally, we already know that countries with female leaders are more likely to ratify environmental treaties.
Unlike many girls in Uganda, I was lucky to receive a full education. I attended university and wrote my dissertation on climate change. It was during this process that I came to realise the shocking extent of what humanity is facing. I started looking around at events in my country – droughts, flooding, landslides, people losing everything, and I knew I had to speak out. We need many more girls around the world to be given these opportunities. Educating a girl will provide her with a brighter future; educating girls will provide us all with a lifeline.
Vanessa Nakate was one of the speakers at WIRED Live – the inspirational festival bringing the WIRED brand to life. Find out more about future WIRED Events here
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