‘CLIMATE change is a man-made problem that requires a feminist solution.”

These words from the former president of Ireland and UN high commissioner for human rights Mary Robinson acted as the inspiration for a series of events which took place in Glasgow nearly a year ago aimed at putting the voices of women and girls front and centre during COP26.

“Girls At COP26: The solutions are feminist” was organised by Glasgow City Council, Glasgow Caledonian University’s Mary Robinson Centre For Climate Justice, and the Women Of The World (WOW) Foundation.

The events saw more than 2500 young women from secondary schools across the city participate in sessions where they heard from all-women panels of local and international experts. Now these events – and women’s role in COP26 – are being celebrated through a photography exhibition featuring portraits of 50 women who contributed.

But what does a “feminist solution” to the climate crisis look like? Bailie Annette Christie, Glasgow City councillor and chair of Glasgow Life, is one of the women whose portrait can be found on the walls of Street Level Photoworks in Trongate as part of Kris Kesiak’s exhibition Women At COP26.

Christie was instrumental in bringing the Girls At COP26 mini-conference to life, an endeavour she says was made necessary by the dearth of representation of women elsewhere.

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“There were no women leading on the main COP events and conferences at the top level in the organisation,” Christie said.

“My colleagues and I found that very striking in a city where the leader and the chief executive were women, let alone that Scotland’s First Minister is a woman. Globally, women are leading on many initiatives around climate change, so that didn’t sit quite right with us.”

For Christie, a feminist solution to the climate emergency means “looking at how women are impacted differently and often disproportionately by climate change”, be that through the impact on women’s bodies, on displacement from fires and flooding, or on their experiences of violence.

“Women’s voices and experiences need to be heard because their experiences are different,” she adds.

These were the themes which underpinned the events, and which the council intends to carry forward as part of the legacy of COP26.

The exhibition’s official launch last week coincided with International Day of the Girl, an event, Christie says, the council will focus on annually “to ensure our young women are recognised and feel they have a voice and can contribute as much, if not more than, any boy or man”.

The National: Author Sara SheridanAuthor Sara Sheridan (Image: COP26 exhibition)

With this in mind, Glasgow author Sara Sheridan spoke to the young women about some of the women who broke ground in climate science and law, as featured in her book Where Are The Women?.

“One of the important steps is understanding how unequally our history has been taught,” Sheridan says. “Schools and colleges very often focus on white, English-speaking, upper-class, heteronormative histories.

“We walk around our streets and we don’t commemorate women so there is this sense for young girls that they will have to be the first. “[We need] to understand this doesn’t mean women haven’t achieved amazing things, we just aren’t remembering it in the same kind of way. And, therefore, if these women can do it, you can do it too.”

EQUALLY important, in Sheridan’s view, is taking a gendered perspective to planning for a more sustainable and localised future. “The way we design our cities and travel systems and plans to use less electricity and renewables impacts women’s lives differently, so we need to be mindful of that,” she says.

“Women are the primary caregivers in our society – whether it should be that way or not, it is that way – so women take different kinds of journeys every day. There are studies that show that men tend to take much more linear journeys, whereas women make more of what they call ‘neighbourhood journeys’.

That needs to inform our transport systems and how we design new neighbourhoods. This is just one example of why listening to women’s experiences is important.”

In many ways, Sheridan says, the ways in which society has been structured are not conducive to a good quality of life. For her, this is interlinked with a feminist approach to the climate crisis: “The object of capitalism at its extreme end is to suck out joy and replace it with achievement. I think the feminist solution Mary Robinson is talking about is an anti-capitalist solution.”

These reflections chime with Amanda Janoo’s work at the Wellbeing Economy Alliance, which seeks to support a change from the “idea that people and planet are here to serve the economy and start recognising that the economy is here to serve us”.

Janoo touched on some of these issues in her contributions to the Girls At COP26 events, where she said the young women “asked really tough questions”.

On Mary Robinson’s “feminist solutions”, she says: “I loved that prompt, because I think what is needed is a fundamental paradigm shift around economics, and it has been constructed by a very particular white, Anglo-Saxon, male ideology that legitimises destructive practices, not just for women but for humanity as a whole.”

Janoo says her personal journey to advocating for a well-being economy “started from a feminist perspective”, as she observed that assumptions in economics that “everyone is inherently rational, individualistic and self-interested” were based on a very “masculine” viewpoint.

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This approach, which treats economic growth – how much we’re producing or consuming – as “the definition of progress and success” is inextricably linked to the climate crisis. Janoo explains: “The last COP almost seemingly purposefully excluded any real discussions of the economy but we know that 100 corporations account for more than 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

"So, the way we structure the economy and the fact we don’t value our national resources until they’re transformed into goods to be consumed is part of the problem.”

On the other hand, Janoo feels there is cause for optimism: “I think we’re in a moment of a pretty profound shift which I also think of as quite a feminine shift. We’re moving from really linear and mechanistic and siloed ways of thinking and doing things to more connected, holistic, compassionate forms of structuring our world.

“Coming out of Covid, I think people are questioning what really matters, and what they really value. For me, a lot of those values are feminist, in terms of the ways in which we care for one another. Even the identification of essential workers was profound because it wasn’t the hedge fund managers who were viewed as essential, it was the nurses, delivery drivers and care workers.”

For the Wellbeing Economy Alliance, which has hubs in countries around the world – including Scotland – a vital part of instigating these changes is working across borders and movements in recognition of “power in numbers”. The importance of international collaboration and valuing the diversity of experience of women around the world was also integral to the Girls At COP26 events and its line-up.

Among the speakers was Kathy Risko, executive director of the Sister Cities Association Of Pittsburgh in the US. The aim of the “programme is to connect cities around the world to enable them to “work together to address and solve global challenges”.

In November 2020, Glasgow became one of 20 “sister cities” connected with Pittsburgh, and Risko says it is now their “most active relationship”. “I probably talk to someone in Glasgow every other day and we have a work plan which aligns with UN sustainable development goals,” she said. “It’s about ‘what are you doing really well in your city, and what do we want to learn from it?’.”

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AS a result of its involvement in Girls At COP26, the Association won the Sister Cities International award for innovation and youth education.

Risko feels the feminist focus of the Girls At COP26 events served two important goals: “What we were trying to achieve was giving these girls an opportunity to engage in this huge international event. When Pittsburgh hosted G20 in 2009, I don’t think school students had any part in that. The next generation are going to be the standard bearers for how we address climate change, so their involvement is very important.

“It was also about being thoughtful and diligent about women and girls in this conversation, which is overwhelmingly dominated by men. So, how do we introduce these issues to girls so they think, ‘maybe that’s what I want to study, maybe I want to be the next Susan Aitken’?”

Core to the Sister Cities Association’s work is unleashing the potential for local solutions to global problems. Risko says: “For some thorny issues such as climate change, the solutions can be hyper-local. In the US, we think of issues as federal and we look to Congress or the White House to address them but what can a municipality do?”

Local action can be particularly powerful, Risko suggests, when there is a need to “move past divisiveness”, which often characterises national politics, or to overcome inaction at higher levels of government.

She adds: “This became especially important when we had a president – the last one – who absolutely refused to address these issues. Cities and states have the opportunity to stand up and decide ‘this is what we’re going to do’.”

Glasgow Caledonian University film students have been editing recordings of the events, to be aired at the exhibition and used as learning aids in schools across the west of Scotland and ensure that young people of all genders are confronted with the issues raised.

Kesiak, the Polish-born Glasgow-based photographer behind the exhibition, says working on the project was “a privilege”. He says: “I see myself as a feminist. There are so many things about patriarchy that are detrimental to men as well.

“I grew up gay in a super-conservative, Catholic country behind the Iron Curtain and the kind of masculinity that was presented to me and expected of me was completely alien. I could never fulfil that idea of being the ‘real man’; to plant a tree, build a house and produce an heir. I feel there is an affinity between women and LGBTQ people because we are fighting the same oppression in many ways.”

Indeed, this message of solidarity is one shared by Mary Robinson herself. Speaking to the young women at the final day of the events last year, she said: “A feminist solution includes as many men as possible, so I want you to do me a favour and make all your brothers feminist.

A feminist solution isn’t a solution of only women – it’s a balanced solution between women and men, but done the woman’s way.”