Who Are the Women Leading the Fight Against Climate Change?

05/05/2017 08:40 am ET Updated May 05, 2017
People’s Climate March, 2017.
Emily Arasim/Women's Earth and Climate Action Network (Used with permission.)
People’s Climate March, 2017.

Marking President Trump’s 100 days in office, approximately 150,000 people marched last weekend on Washington (300,000 globally). The People's Climate March over “jobs, justice, and climate action” added to the already explosive numbers for the March for Science on Earth Day.

The first year of the Trump administration may be known for many disturbing things, but marches opposing his policies will be one of the bright spots at the top of the list. Besides being a boon to the poster board and permanent marker industries, organized protests like The People’s Climate March represent the collective shock felt at the disregard U.S. representatives have for the real and irreparable impact that human activity is having on the planet.

Those who need no convincing are the women leaders on the frontline of climate action—those whose daily work is predicated on the undeniable truth that the world is in trouble. Following the People's March, panels of such leaders—spearheaded by Women's Earth & Climate Action Network, International (WECAN)—met to discuss the reality behind climate change and it’s real life consequences.

(A video of the full event with all panelists can be found at WECAN’s Facebook page).

It is “far past time for a just transition to a democratized, decentralized, clean-energy future,” said Osprey Orielle Lake, founder and executive director of WECAN. She opened up the event putting forward the case for women leaders to engage in climate action. “We know that this is what’s best for our communities and the world...It is essential that frontline communities, indigenous peoples, and...women are at the forefront of decision-making.”

Lake believes that there needs to be a change in American leadership.

“What we’re doing at WECAN specifically, as many organizations are, is that we are really encouraging our networks to engage ever more deeply in the democratic process,” she tells the crowd. “We’re wanting to see more women running across the country for office, and really engaging.”

And clearly, Washington could use the voice of those who are knee deep in the rising consequences of climate inaction.

“Where I live is under assault,” said panelist Cherri Foytlin, an indigenous leader and state director for Bold Louisiana. “We lose a football field an hour of wetlands [explanation here]. Part of the reason for that is because of climate change, because of the rising sea levels, and part of the reason is because the oil industry has built canals through our wetlands that allows for saltwater to intrude upon the root system, and it kills the wetlands off.”

As with Louisiana, the effects of climate change are also felt in tangible ways much further north.

“We started warning this government 15 to 20 years ago about climate change,” added Faith Gemmill, the executive director of Redoil (Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands). Gemmill is from the Pit River/Wintu and Neets'aii Gwich’in tribes in the Arctic Village of Alaska.

“We were the first to notice the changes because we have such a close relationship with the land. We live in little tiny communities that are isolated throughout the state of Alaska. We have to hunt for our livelihood. We have to fish for our livelihood. We gather. We don’t have large grocery stores, so for us it is a matter of survival.”

And while many Americans might wonder why they should be concerned about the impact of climate change on indigenous peoples, panelists were quick to show that as it goes for indigenous lands, so it also goes for the entire planet. Localized climate crises are connected globally.

“The Amazon rainforest is the lungs of earth. The Amazon rainforest is where we get most of our oxygen to breathe,” says Leila Salazar-López, executive director of Amazon Watch.

“Indigenous people, while they may be only 4 percent of the total population of the Earth, their lands make up 20 percent of the planet. And within those lands they contain 80 percent of the biological diversity.”

Indigenous peoples are it’s “best protectors,” she tells the crowd.

“We have a motto in the Congo, ‘Help the bonobo, and the bonobo will help you’,” says Sally Jewell Coxe, president and co-founder of the Bonobo Conservation Initiative (BCI).* Bonobos are great apes, living in a peaceful and matriarchal society. They are also the closest genetic relatives of human beings with a genome 98.7 percent identical to ours.

“Bonobos inhabit the heart of the second largest rainforest on Earth—the Congo Basin rainforest. Together, with the Amazon, the Congo sequesters vast amounts of carbon, produces oxygen, water, and many other ecosystem services our entire planet needs to survive. Protecting these forests is absolutely critical to mitigating climate change.”

Because they are hunted for their meat and their habitat is being destroyed for agriculture and logging, bonobos are extremely endangered. The best way to protect them, says Coxe, is to work with the people who share that forest. “It is their home too, and they need the forest as much as the bonobos and the other animals.”

BCI is preserving their habitat by working with the Congolese to form the Bonobo Peace Forest, where humans and bonobos live together. She notes that it is the women of the region who are taking leadership roles in the Congo conservation efforts.

Motivated by the personal and global costs of climate change, WECAN panelists brought together their unique perspectives and strategies. They also made the case for meaningful action now.

In light of the Trump administration, WECAN is “doubling down” on their “efforts to forge ahead with meaningful climate action,” Lake tells me. “There is simply no time to be discouraged.”

“There is a great deal that we can accomplish at the sub-national level in our communities to resist, rebuild, and move forward. Many studies show that women hold key solutions needed to address the climate crisis in an urgent and meaningful way—and we know that these women will not be deterred in their work for justice no matter the challenges faced. Women understand that the climate crisis is not just a problem to be solved, but rather an existential crisis and struggle for the very survival of all life itself.”

*Full disclosure: I’m a charitable contributor to the Bonobo Conservation Initiative.

<strong>Panel One</strong> (from left to right): Cherri Foytlin (Bold Louisiana); Pennie Opal Plant (Idle No More SF Bay, Co-
Women's Earth and Climate Action Network (Used with permission.)
Panel One (from left to right): Cherri Foytlin (Bold Louisiana); Pennie Opal Plant (Idle No More SF Bay, Co-Founder Movement Rights); Rhonda Hamilton (Ward 6 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner and Buzzard Point Community Leader); Faith Gemmill (Redoil); Leila Salazar Lopez (Amazon Watch).
<strong>Panel Two</strong> (from left to right): Angela Adrar (Our Power Campaign); May Boeve (350.org); Tara Houska (Anishin
Women's Earth and Climate Action Network (Used with permission.)
Panel Two (from left to right): Angela Adrar (Our Power Campaign); May Boeve (350.org); Tara Houska (Anishinaabe Peoples, tribal attorney, National Campaigns Director of Honor the Earth); Sally Coxe (Bonobo Conservation Initiative); and Victoria Barrett (Youth Plaintiff, Our Children's Trust).
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