Missing women might explain failure of UN climate change talks


This giant spider has reminded me once again of who’s too often missing from the climate conversations we sorely need.

The spider straddles the main concourse of the Qatar National Convention Centre in Doha, host of COP18 — the 2012 round of UN negotiations aimed at tackling climate change.

This is a massive irony. While the spider — called ‘Maman’ — is a monument to motherhood, the negotiators who passed beneath her during the two-week conference were largely men.

In fact, there has never been a conference of parties (COP) to the UN climate change convention at which even one-third of the negotiators were women. In recent years women were the heads of fewer than 15 per cent of the national delegations. This chart from GenderCC shows the disparity.


This shameful pattern is set to change. One of the few rays of light to shine out of the Doha conference was a decision [PDF] by the nearly 200 governments present to promote gender equality in the negotiations.

What’s shocking is that it has taken 18 years for governments to get to this point. What’s saddening is that the language of the binding decision remains weak. It only “invites” countries to strive for gender balance in their delegations. What’s a source of hope is that gender and climate change will now be on the agenda of all future negotiations.

Until more women participate in the UN climate change conferences, we can expect a male-skewed view of the problem and ways to solve it. We can expect outcomes that fail to reflect fully the needs, wisdom and vision of half of the world’s population. And we can expect more of the bullying and indifference to suffering that have tainted the talks over the years.

The failure of the talks so far — the slow progress, the weak agreements, the lack of leadership — has been the failure of men. I’ve attended the negotiations for each of the past six years and each time I’ve come away less sure that the big men of the world who claim to be leaders have any real desire to lead.

This time it’s personal. This time I am a father-to-be with a child in my mind. So when I arrived at the Doha conference and saw the giant spider, it mesmerised me. I knew that Louise Bourgeois had made the sculpture as a tribute to her mother, who had died when Bourgeois was 21. I spent 30 minutes there deep in thought about my wonderful pregnant partner, thousands of miles away, about the family we will form together and the climatic changes our child will experience.

For the next five days, I took a photo of the spider every time I passed it and counted the number of men and women who stood beneath the sculpture. It’s not scientific, I know, but for every woman, there were 2.6 men. I wonder how many of them saw the plaque on the wall that named and explained the sculpture with a quotation from the artist:

“The spider is an ode to my mother. She was my best friend… Like spiders, my mother was very clever… spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother.”

Clever. Helpful. Protective. That’s just what the UN climate change negotiations need to be but what, mostly in the hands of men, they are not. Perhaps they will be when more women —  more mothers — take part.


9 thoughts on “Missing women might explain failure of UN climate change talks

  1. 35 years ago, my partner of, now, 39 years was like yours is today: pregnant. Concerns that haunt your heart for your anticipated child filled mine back then as well–though not with the specifics that the spector of Klimakatastrophe now reveals to us. For what it’s worth, in the early ’70s I did not want children. I did not want to be responsible to them regarding the world we were even then being warned we were creating in our own image. My wife’s pregnancy is the story of a disagreement lost. The unfolding tip into a new climate state is a story that I am a character in: our shared economy’s systemic irresponsibility toward the commons that sustain our species.

    To think that an increased involvement of women will make a difference in climate change negoiations is twice wrong. One it is too late–even by the conservative climate modeling science–to wish for a better past as a possible future. Two, like the disagreement my wife and I had about children, feelings trump rationality in terms of what, in practice, is trusted; is created.

    Isn’t it true that COP18 reaffirms what was sealed at COP15, and proponderately by my nation, the United States: when push comes to shove, isn’t stupid what stupid does? Isn’t that stupidity–trusting feelings over science–a strength of the 51%? And, regardless of gender, isn’t the trust in greed-as-good capitalism what has placed a trust in science beyond the purview of the COP?

    Consider the instructions regarding reporting on the climate and being positive which you previously wrote about. Isn’t such a pandering to the emotional condition our gender differences gift much of the 51% with?
    As a male I feel I can deal with bad news better than the majority do. This is due to the relative strengths I can bring to the table. This is because of the lesser role feeling have in my thinking. If the thinking and feelings that create a problem cannot be used to imagine its resolution, how does a meme get to a different way of thinking and feeling if a ‘positive’ framing of news, relegates the potential strengths I have to offer to the trash bin?

    In every empire, the privilege that such affords–and to both genders–leads to a piety that predestines it’s collapse. The ’empire’ of limited liability law enabled market capitalism is lost to such a piety; a trust in it, by both genders–if differently–makes this attention that is being given to the gender balance within the COP worse than irrelevant. Systemically, in capitalistic democracies, “leaders” follow. Because men tend to pre-decease women in these nations, the wealth tends to be controlled by the 51%. The way forward into the terrible problems of klimakatastrophe–and not crab-walking around them–is already, motivated reasoning withstanding, in the hands of the 51% (and those differing to it for approval/sexual relations . . . and the COP dynamics reflect the truth of this.

    Tonight, over dinner my wife and I discussed the import of COP18•CMP8’s conclusion. The irresponsibility I see in the outcomes relative to the science, and our nation’s shame due to its role in irresponsibly creating them was something she would not give countenance to. Shaming is a no-no for her. She does not trust that shaming can result in positive behavior change. This interchange is a metaphor for the failures I have had within my matriarchal family, 2nd wave feminism-dominated liberal Quakerism, and politically correct progressive social action–ie profession–groups as I have worked to systemically effect environmental, social, and economic justice. In my experience women tend to resist–psychologically and sociologically–information and thoughts that trouble their trusted privileged feelings. And, to the degree these sensibilities have been pandered to by what is understood to be “good” reporting, how can they experience that they aren’t right? What, besides motivated reasoning, supports the perception that a reverse of the current gender difference is of significance relative to the systemic dynamics of globalized capitalism?

    Postscript: The same day as this appeal for gender inclusion, as a way to make a difference, is posted, the national tree was lit in Washington, DC. This is a first family activity headed up by the First Lady. The tree’s lights uses 16,000 fewer watts thanks to them being LED bulbs. This ‘saves’ two tons of carbon dioxide emissions this holiday season over incandecient bulbs–while requiring the emission of half a ton. On the day when the President sealed-the-deal on a scientifically irrelevant COP18 conclusion, would a woman lead differently; sacrifice her holiday festivities? And if not, please note: her husband didn’t.

  2. Hi Greg. Thanks for taking the time to read and to write so much in response. You don’t think an increased involvement of women will affect the climate-change negotiations? I disagree. It may be too late to avert a 2-degree C increase in temperatures above the pre-industrial average but it is never too late to do the right thing, and fair representation is the first step. Nor do I think that women have a monopoly on feelings and men a monopoly of rationality.

    I’m reminded now of what Pablo Suarez said about men during the Climate Communications Day event I helped to organise in Doha earlier this week. Suarez is the associate director for research and innovation at the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Center. “We men are collectively stupid,” he said. “Women are more smart at risk taking. More men stick to the wrong choice even when they get the right advice.”

    • Hi Mike–&, I assume, welcome home,

      Even though it looks like I failed to communicate clearly, the time it took to do so in the previous comment was a welcome diversion. Since President Obabma did what he did at COP18, it is hard for me to watch motivated reasoning unfold unchecked in these economic maneuverings. I’ve been following the process long enough to know that our tip into klimakatastrophe is effected. As I factor in the sciences of psychology and sociology, the tip was likely effected with FDR in the 1930s. Blowing an economic bubble based on consumer credit, and to have it guaranteed by the indebted had quite a run.

      Anyway, It sounds like you are feeling there is either yet time to hold the rise to below an average 2° C rise, and/or that where we are in our warming the planet is a place where the change that has been set in motion can be dialed back like a rheostat. For the sake of your sanity as a new father, and the partner of a new mother, I can see such wishful thinking would be pursued for as long as the denial holds up. For your sake, but not only yours, I’d wish myself wrong if I could.

      In spite of my generalizations regarding our gender differences, such were not intended to be without nuance, nor gender exclusive. Your points are well taken but, from my perspective, both obvious and not terribly germaine to the critique I was trying to articulate. And to continue the discussion, a shared understanding of where we stand within the Anthropocene, and the nature of the type of change the climate has entered into may be both a perquisite and an impossibility. How far down the climate rabbit hole can you comfortably go; do you want to go?


  3. Very interesting article Mike!

    For those questioning the difference women can make in climate change negotiations, here are my thoughts on the subject matter.

    Women maybe tagged the ‘weaker sex’ and yes we may give way easily to tears but according to psychology experts, women are more liable to take risks in positive decision making and not let their emotions sway their judgments.

    Historically women are making life changing decisions every single day whether it is on how and where to get fuel to cook and feed their household; to bring up children, ensure the home is clean. The reality of how thick-skinned women are, can be seen and felt in the most populous continents of the world (Africa and Asia), where women are traditionally treated as second class citizens.

    I think the only reason the man is free to make decisions is because women take the load off their shoulders.

    Women die young in these poor countries because they carry so many loads. This confirms the adage that states that: ‘A man is only as good as the strength and encouragement his wife gives him’.

    However, the biggest flaw is that some men fail to recognize or perceive the contribution they make.

    During Rio+20 in Brazil in June 2012, the list of challenges advocated for by UN women includes the Nairobi Forward-looking strategies for the Advancement of women, Chapter 24 of Agenda 21; Section K of the Beijing Platform for Action, and the Conventions on biodiversity and Climate Change initiated in Rio in 1992.

    At COP-18 in Doha, Qatar, Christiana Figueres, the UNFCCC Executive Secretary, told delegates that: ‘…women are global leaders and powerful agents of change’.

    In another meeting, Dr Nawal Al-Hosany, director of sustainability at Masdar emphasised the need for gender equality in the fight against our changing climate: ‘…men and women have a responsibility to play an active part in the dialogue and movement to address climate change’.

    Some of the most influential and dynamic leaders in the world today and historically, have been women. Without their contributions and the critical decisions they made, countries would not have the democratic freedom they enjoy to this day.

    An example of how times have changed with regard to integrating women into roles which could historically be considered ‘men’s territory’ as requiring high risk decision making where emotions cannot sway your judgment is portrayed in how the Royal Navy in recent years allow women to serve on active duty warships. In fact not just to serve, but even command some of the most highly technical vessels in the world today.

    Given this scenario, shouldn’t women be included in climate change negotiations? Can they not be part of those influencing debates and add value to the subject matter? It is however consoling to note that a decision on gender inclusion was approved as a DRAFT at the just concluded COP18 in Doha, Qatar.

    Perhaps the tide has turned on women’s participation on effective decision making to tackle the challenges of a changing climate!

  4. Thank you for posting this. I passed the spider two weeks without knowing its significance. And delegations including women will be for the positive, with added importance allocated to not mere presence of women in the delegation, but women being there as a contributing party to the delegation.

  5. Congratulations Mike – me too! And yes, yet another global summit orchestrated and attended mainly by men, it’s unsurprising that little has been achieved. Grrrrrr!

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