Aiping Chen: “We need to emphasize how exposed women are to the impacts of climate change"
A conversation with her professor 20 years ago started Aiping’s journey in climate work.
“He said greenhouse-gas emissions are not rocket science,” Aiping recalls. “He used an example of a farm and he said, “If you can count how many cows we have on the farm and how many poops one cow produces every day, you have the activity data and emission factor. Then you multiply the two and you get the emissions of the farm. So that was how I started a whole journey of climate change.”
Since then she has been working with governments, UN agencies, donors and communities on various climate change issues. In addition to the intergovernmental negotiation processes, climate change mitigation, capacity building, climate finance and international cooperation, she has been also learning and sharing adaptation techniques to cope with climate change. Aiping says there has been real progress in talking about women and their role in reducing the impact of climate disasters and adaptation.
“When I started, gender was not mentioned at all,” she says. “In the intergovernmental negotiation process, definitely not. From time to time you’d come across a publication or news article mentioning women as one of the most vulnerable groups to climate change.”
As the climate dialogues deepened, the conversations about how to adapt became more nuanced and inclusive. “Gender was raised by member states at the negotiations and then it was included into the process as a separate agenda item,” Aiping recalls. “They also included an item on indigenous people and other most climate vulnerable groups.”
Aiping says the introduction of this inclusive approach helped shape climate actions in the planning, implementation and in their funding. The vulnerability-lens gave policy-makers a tool to deepen understanding about the intersection of issues, but Aiping says the climate movement has been able to transform this victim narrative about vulnerable women and create avenues for leadership.
“When it comes to addressing the issue of climate change in developing countries, women as a group stand out, “she says. “In the fight for sustainability and development issues like poverty, water scarcity and climate change, women often lead those groups that voluntarily organize people and work on those issues.”
While women are leading at the community level, Aiping says there is still a long way to go to reach gender equality in leadership.
“With mid-level workers women are the majority,” she says. “When it comes to decision-making, then women almost disappear. Women are significantly underrepresented compared to men at the senior levels of governments.”
Aiping says the problem of male-dominated leadership extends to all the fields that need to adapt to climate change. “It's not just climate change but it involves a lot of other sectors as well,” she says. “Climate change adaptation covers all key sectors like water management, agriculture and infrastructure. I see the same thing: not enough women in leadership roles.”
Aiping says there hasn’t been enough action on supporting women’s leadership. “Gender is a cross-cutting issue that we're looking at across all the programs,” she says. “In every project that we help to implement, we specifically list gender issues that have to be considered. But women's role in leading the projects should also be reflected and has to be discussed.”
“At the decision-making level, women are not sufficiently represented in the political community,” she says.
Aiping says the funding community can play a transformative role in emphasizing women’s leadership in the projects it supports. She points to the shift they have made in assessing climate risk.
“Until recently, climate risk was not even considered in the projects funded by multilateral development banks as well as local and national banks,” Aiping says. “Now climate risk is a mandatory indicator to be considered in loans from many multilateral development banks and is gaining more and more attention at the local and national banks. If you don't have the consideration of climate risk in your project proposal, you have to go back and work on it.”
She says that women leadership in climate change projects can be encouraged in the same way. “If women's involvement also becomes an essential step in screening those project proposals, and their leadership will be encouraged, that would be a success,” Aiping says. “It is more than a checkbox, it forces everyone to move in the right direction.”
Diversity of perspectives brought about by the shift towards a more inclusive framework on climate have created space for the understanding of a spectrum of adaptation responses. While donor countries talk about preparedness, Aiping says in small island states, leaders are looking at longer-term realities, because they have no choice.
“For some countries it's not about preparedness anymore,” she says. “Even if the world manages to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels, and that's the best case scenario, small islands like Tuvalu and Fiji, they might still eventually disappear.”
Aiping says these countries are coping with the immediate impacts of climate disasters and the reality that it may be too late for some communities, relocation is the only option.
“Cyclones, typhoons and extreme storms,” she says, “they are facing these on a more and more frequent basis so it's not only about preparedness anymore,’ she says. “It's about longer-term planning and immediate short-term support to cope with recovery because these disasters are already happening.”
She says that limiting discussions in silos of relevant areas including on infrastructure, health, climate and gender would be a mistake that limits the complexity of the connections between all these areas. She says disaster risk reduction is a framework that brings all the experts together in a practical forum.
“It's all linked to disasters,” Aiping says. “When we talk about climate adaptation we are actually talking about how we can avoid and minimise the impact and the risk of the disaster? And how can we then make infrastructure and our system more climate resilient in order to adapt to the changing climate? Women must be part of the leadership in these discussions.”
The Women's International Network on Disaster Risk Reduction (WIN DRR) is a professional network to support women working in disaster risk reduction, in all their diversity. WIN DRR promotes and supports women's leadership in disaster risk reduction across the Asia Pacific region, and aims to reduce the barriers faced by women and empower them to attain leadership and enhance their decision-making in disaster risk reduction. WIN DRR is supported by UNDRR and the Government of Australia.
Aiping Chen has worked at the United Nations Climate Change Secretariat for the past twelve years focused on intergovernmental processes, climate change mitigation, adaptation and supporting the implementation of climate change related policies.