13 Formidable Women on the Front Line of Climate Change

Every year, the United Nations holds a summit on climate change, where it works to persuade countries large and small to give up fossil fuels. This annual gathering, now in its 21st year, is called the Conference of the Parties, and it begins today in Paris. Past negotiations have produced important treaties, such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Copenhagen Accord, but this year’s meeting, the COP21, is likely to yield the world’s first binding, universal agreement to cut carbon emissions and begin to address climate change.

The stakes have never been higher: Scientists have identified 2 degrees Celsius of warming as a dangerous tipping point for the planet, and we are 0.85 degrees of the way there. But hope, too, is at an all-time high: the international community has never been closer to taking decisive action. Here, photographed by Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, are 13 of the formidable women leading the way.


‘For us it’s not the issue of regulation. It’s the issue of survival.’

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim is from the Sahel region of Chad, where devastating droughts and floods are now the norm. As cochair of the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change, Ibrahim works to contain the humanitarian and ecological fallout from the vanishing of Lake Chad, a lifeline for an estimated 30 million people in Chad, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Niger. “If women come together, they can have more impact than any agreement, than any negotiations,” says Ibrahim. “Because we know that the future—it’s coming from us.”


‘There is a lot of innovation coming in, and a lot of space for more innovation. We have to be brave.’

Achala Abeysinghe of Sri Lanka is the legal adviser on climate change negotiations to the Chair of the Least Developed Countries, a group of nations that is highly susceptible to global warming. “I’m working for 48 countries, and these are the poorest and most vulnerable in the world,” says Abeysinghe. Many of the states Abeysinghe represents will arrive at the COP21 with small delegations, and negotiate with the far larger lobbies of developed countries. “For a lot of these negotiators, there’s this strong face in negotiation, and then a strong face you put on when you come back home and you tell people how it went. Inside yourself, you ask: What chance do we have?”


‘Climate change is a choice.’

The United Nations’s top climate change official, Christiana Figueres, is not afraid to cry at work, covertly practices a dance routine to Beyoncé’s “Move Your Body” with her staff, and has played an instrumental role in turning out what is likely to be the most successful climate negotiation in history. The daughter of a former president of Costa Rica who led that country’s 1948 revolution, Figueres is adamant that global warming can be reversed: “It is a choice about what we do with our finance. It is a choice for corporations about the kinds of goods and services that they produce. It is a choice of policy. It’s an institutional choice. It’s a political choice. It’s a technological choice.”


‘Some islands are already buying land in other places to move their populations. That’s real. That’s fear. That’s happening.’

A diplomat for Grenada, Dessima Williams is a long-haul climate activist who served as the Grenadian ambassador to the United Nations. “This is the hottest year,” Williams says. “It’s going to get hotter.” Williams has campaigned to convince the world that even a 2-degree cap on warming is not enough, and urges people to think of climate change as something that is affecting everyone now. “Our very life cycle is in transition, dangerously so, at this temperature.” Still, Williams has hope. “The terrible threats of climate change hold in them incredibly positive opportunities, and we’re trying to ride that wave.”


‘It’s an incredible moment. We can’t do the business-as-usual pathway.’

“I am excited because it’s a period where everything seems possible,” says Laurence Tubiana, France’s ambassador for the international climate talks. “Intelligence can win.” Tubiana’s job at the COP21 is to track the negotiations as they unfold, and to move the process along when it gets stuck. “I’m sometimes impressed and terrified,” says Tubiana, “not only because of climate change, but because of so much violence in the world. At the same time, I think we are bound to fight against that. This gives a lot of energy.” She adds, “People were afraid of changing, and now they are not afraid of changing. This is the core of the opportunity.”

‘It’s hard to confront the fear that your island could be gone permanently and that your people would be wandering.’

Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner is a poet and climate activist from the Marshall Islands, 29 coral atolls in the Pacific Ocean sitting an average of two meters above sea level. The Marshalls have seen severe coastal erosion, sea-level rise, storm surges, and droughts that send emergency teams scrambling to deliver water and food. “There are people who will say, ‘It’s done. It’s a done deal. There’s no way you can turn it back. The island’s basically gone,’ ” says Jetnil-Kijiner. “And then there are those who say, ‘It’s not done. There’s still hope. You can still fight for it.’ I’m just going to go with hope. At some point you’ve got to choose which story you want to believe in.”


‘If I were a young person, I would start to ask my government very seriously, ‘Why didn’t you listen?’ I would start to look at companies and corporations and ask, ‘What did you do when you knew?’

International climate lawyer Farhana Yamin attended the very first climate negotiation in 1992, in Lima, Peru. Four children and 20 negotiations later, Yamin is still coming back, this time representing the Marshall Islands, with a clear message: Zero emissions by 2050. “What keeps me going is a sense of change. In the negotiations that I follow, we’ve had a whole decade where the dominant narrative was, ‘I’ll do something if you do something. You go first, and then I’ll do something.’ And now I think that’s really being replaced by, ‘Let’s all do something together.’ ”


‘We happen to be the last generation that can end climate change.’

Rachel Kyte, vice president of the World Bank Group and special envoy for climate change, jokes that she is both “an activist and a bureaucrat.” Her mission is to incorporate climate change, “the ultimate curveball,” into all of the World Bank’s growth agendas. The most difficult aspect of her job? “The hardest part of the job is not getting shrill, not getting angry, because people don’t listen when you’re shrill and you’re angry,” Kyte says. “The hardest part of the job is not being contemptuous of those who don’t listen to the science or don’t want to hear the arguments. The hardest part of the job is not walking out of the meeting when, for the 55th time, the same person raises the same nonevidence-based argument in the face of the evidence. You have to stay in the room. You have to stay and fight.”


‘There isn’t actually a substitute for an international agreement. That’s why this year is so important. We need governments to act.’

As executive director of the grassroots climate change organization 350.org, May Boeve helped to turn out the largest climate demonstration in history, last September’s global People’s Climate March. “There’s no sugarcoating the fact that we’ve been relying on coal and oil for long enough that some of the impacts are with us now, and they will be forever,” says Boeve. Of the People’s Climate March, she adds, “That was one of those days where you really do believe that something has shifted. Something you thought was not possible is now becoming possible.”


‘Where is the future of young people if we don’t do anything?’

Priscilla Achakpa is an environmental activist from Nigeria. As executive director of the Women Environmental Programme, Achakpa has introduced thousands of women to sustainable solutions to everyday problems, such as waste-to-energy machines that can process rice husks. In Nigeria, Achakpa says, “The impact of climate change on women is huge. The men are forced to migrate and they leave the women, who are now the caregivers because they find they cannot leave the children . . . We don’t want a top-down solution” to climate change, says Achakpa. “We want bottom-up. But we need to be at the table.”


‘To pretend that climate change is not here, and that we can go about our business and leave the climate change conversation to the climate change people, is not to be reading the signs.’

If you attended the People’s Climate March in New York City last fall, or even if you only saw a photograph it, it’s likely you caught a glimpse of Elizabeth Yeampierre’s organization, Uprose, leading the 400,000-strong demonstration down the Avenue of the Americas, sunflower signs in hand. Yeampierre wants climate change to redefine what it means to be American. “People who have not been in a room together are now at the table as equals,” Yeampierre says. “I would love to see the climate lens integrated into every aspect of our life.”


‘When people have made up their mind that they want to fail before they start, that’s the hardest. Because at risk are millions of people, and they matter.’

“In Africa, you don’t just think about the children that you bear,” says Amina Mohammed, special adviser on post-2015 development planning to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. “Every child is yours.” In Mohammed’s home state of Nigeria, she says, climate change has exacerbated poverty. “It has come together as the perfect storm to create situations that have fueled Boko Haram, the terrorists that live in my part of the country.” But, says Mohammed, “I think we’re getting nearer the light at the end of the tunnel.”


I’ve got a 25-year-old son named Abe. I’ve got a 20-year-old daughter named Jessie. I would throw myself in front of a bus if it was coming at them. We all need to throw ourselves in front of this bus called climate change.

Twenty-six years ago, Joan Bavaria and a small group of investors founded Ceres, a nonprofit coalition that advocates for sustainable business practices, largely in response to the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Today, as president and founding board member of Ceres, Mindy Lubber directs a network of 110 institutional investors who manage more than $13 trillion in assets. “Think about it,” she says. “The Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act have changed the United States. We’ve seen good progress that has made a difference. Climate change is our big challenge of today . . . We need to move more quickly, but there’s much reason for hope,” Lubber adds. “If we don’t address climate change, it will be a different world.”



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