Why the UK needs a diverse leadership team for COP26
Last week, the UK government announced the team of politicians and negotiators who will host the UN COP26 climate negotiations in Glasgow next year – and they are all men. This decision to exclude women from the top team running the vital global climate talks which the UK will host defies international diplomatic norms and has been widely criticised by business leaders and civil society groups alike.
All of the senior civil servants assigned to COP26 are very experienced, highly committed and well respected by their peers. There is no argument that the UK has a high-powered negotiating team. Nevertheless, critics were right to question the lack of balance in the team, for several reasons.
A first concern is procedural justice. Women, like other minority groups, are more vulnerable to climate change impacts than members of majority groups. For their interests to be adequately considered in climate change policy responses, women need to be involved in decision-making about these responses. Women’s vulnerability to climate change has been a longstanding concern in the international negotiations, especially with regards to women in developing countries. The inclusion of women’s voices in the climate change negotiations sends the clear message that these concerns are taken seriously. For the host country to neglect this opportunity to take a stand on strengthening minority voices in the international climate debate would be a step back for climate change justice.
But a lack of gender balance in key political decisions on climate is likely not only to be detrimental to women and girls, there is every reason to expect it will impede effective action to tackle the climate emergency. It is notable that women have played a decisive role in previous UN climate talks – for example, Christiana Figueres was chief architect of the 2015 Paris Agreement, and along with Connie Hedegaard and Maite Nkoana-Mashabane promoted bold climate action at the 2011 talks, despite strong opposition. The UK delegation in Paris was led by Amber Rudd, the then Secretary of State for Climate Change and one of the more influential figures at the talks. The senior UN diplomat in Glasgow will be Patricia Espinosa, Figueres’ successor as Executive Secretary to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. She previously chaired the successful 2010 Cancun summit, which re-established momentum after the disappointing Copenhagen COP.
In other contexts, gender diversity also leads to better outcomes: firms with diverse boards perform better than those involving only men. Research on deliberative democracy similarly highlights the importance of diversity for tackling climate change: more inclusive and participatory decision-making improves the quality of decision-making because it incorporates a wider range of perspectives and expertise. Not only this, it addresses the need for participatory justice (i.e. involving people in decision-making who will be affected by these decisions) which is known to strongly influence policy support among the public. This was very clearly demonstrated in the Climate Assembly UK’s report, launched in September, which strongly advocated more societal involvement in climate decision-making and highlighted fairness as a top consideration for net-zero policies. In other words, involving diverse groups in decision-making improves decision quality and acceptability.
We can also expect that there could be substantive differences between climate change policies formulated by men and those developed by women. Climate change risk perception and concern is consistently higher among women than among men; but also women tend to be concerned about different aspects of climate change from men (e.g. the health impacts), and to be more in support of policies and lifestyle changes to tackle climate change. Consistent with the so-called ‘white male effect’, those from more powerful groups in society (e.g. men) are more likely to oppose regulatory policies to tackle climate change because they threaten the status quo. Climate change scepticism is overwhelmingly white and male.
Further, alongside being more vulnerable to climate change impacts, women tend to have different roles and are responsible for different daily decisions from men in many societies, meaning their capacity to mitigate and adapt to climate change is often lower. In other words, women and men experience and shape climate change in very different ways, something that is well-understood by the UNFCCC.
Taken together, there is strong evidence from a number of areas to suggest an all-male leadership of the UK-hosted climate talks in 2021 could be less effective and less trusted, as well as less representative, than a more diverse line-up. We strongly urge the UK government to reflect on this evidence and on the fact that not having a diverse COP leadership may undermine their global leadership on climate change and their call to other nations for ambitious and just climate action.
Lorraine Whitmarsh is the Director of CAST – the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations. Sam Fankhauser is the Director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and Co-Director of the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy. Katharine Steentjes is a Co-Investigator at CAST. Candice Howarth is a Senior Policy Fellow at the Grantham Research Institute.
This commentary was first published by CAST and is reproduced here with permission.