Climate Change is a Gender Issue, Take It From A Woman Who Knows

“We need gender equality to fight climate change, and we need women in powerful positions to make [the] change that we need.”

Finland's Prime Minister Sanna Marin at Columbia University's World Leaders Forum in March 2020. Columbia University/ Eileen Barroso
Finland's Prime Minister Sanna Marin at Columbia University's World Leaders Forum in March 2020. Columbia University/ Eileen Barroso

Sanna Marin, the world’s youngest woman prime minister, has a plan, and she’s got a team of women in place to help her execute it. 

The 34-year-old Finland PM is working aggressively to show gender equality is essential to the fight against the climate crisis, not only in terms of those in power, but also for those most at risk of devastation imposed on them by climate change.  
During a visit to Columbia University’s World Leaders Forum in March, Marin gave a detailed look inside her country’s plan to become carbon-neutral by 2035. But the crux of the matter is who becomes most harshly impacted if the world doesn’t find a climate solution.

“We need gender equality to fight climate change, and we need women in powerful positions to make [the] change that we need,” Marin said, later adding that to get the job done, everyone (not just women) needs to be involved. She then noted how the climate crisis disproportionately affects women and girls — particularly in less developed countries. 

According to a study conducted by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), in some of those underserved countries, women are typically responsible for collecting food, water, and fuel for cooking. But with more extreme weather events and dwindling resources, that task has become near-impossible, resulting in an increase of violence against women and forced prostitution. 

Dr. Grethel Aguilar of IUCN said in the study that the “damage humanity is inflicting on nature can also fuel violence against women around the world – a link that has so far been largely overlooked.” 

About 70% of the world’s poor are women, and their involvement in fighting climate change is difficult in some regions. “Restricted land rights, lack of access to financial resources, training and technology, and limited access to political decision-making spheres often prevent [women] from playing a full role in tackling climate change and other environmental challenges,” according to the IUCN.

A Progressive Past, A Progressive Future 

Marin’s election victory in December 2019 made international headlines: She’d just become the youngest leader in the world at age 34 and would be leading a coalition government made up of five women all under the age of 40.

But even before she was elected, Finland was already significantly progressive in terms of gender: in 2018, the country ranked fourth in the world for the closest gender wage-gap. The country has also elected three women prime ministers over its 102-year existence, and it was the first country in Europe (and second in the world) to give women the right to vote and hold office.  

But leading a country — even one with a modest population of over 5 million —  at the age of 34 has inevitably brought up questions about her role in politics. Marin told NowThis that while her experience dealing with several other world leaders has been mostly positive, that hasn’t always been the case. 

“I haven’t had a negative experience as a prime minister, but before when I have been in politics, of course I can see that there [is a] discriminatory atmosphere,” Marin told NowThis. 

Although she mentioned the prejudice women leaders face in her own country, after she was elected, she had a positive showing in the polls — with two-thirds of citizens supporting their government with so many women in leading positions.  

“We are showing the world that we can lead, and [that] we can also get people behind our policies and our leadership,” she said.

Finland's Prime Minister Sanna Marin with Minister of Education Li Andersson, Minister of Finance Katri Kulmuni and Minister of Interior Maria Ohisalo | Reuters

While she is a clear advocate for having all genders on board when it comes to making systemic changes, Marin noted that the difference in priorities between women leaders versus men in power are clear.

“Many women politicians endorse and want policies concerning issues of education, childcare, family life, social and health care, and men tend to promote and emphasize different issues; economics, military issues, etc.,” she said. “I want to think that climate is also important for men, of course, we need everybody on board on this. We cannot [change the climate] only us women.”

The Example The World Needs

With a history of setting precedents for change despite its size, Finland’s robust climate policy under Marin’s leadership could be the nation’s next milestone.

To achieve the ambitious goal of carbon neutrality, Marin said the country will need to cut emissions by 35 million tons and phase out fossil fuels. That’s not an entirely impossible goal for the Nordic country; in 2018, 80% of Finland’s electricity production was based on carbon-free energy sources. By 2029, the use of coal will be banned completely, she said.

“We’re setting an example as a country and our example is you can make the change in a way that is also socially just and fair,” Marin said of the policy, which she described as holistic in terms of economic, social, and environmental factors. “We’re a small country, we cannot make the change by [ourselves], we need everybody on board.”

That includes the United States. In November 2019, the Trump administration pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, which left a gaping hole from the world’s largest economy in the plan that has nearly 200 nations involved. In the agreement, each country pledges to cut greenhouse emissions and aid less developed countries who feel the impact of climate change the most.

But Marin isn’t letting people forget that individual states and cities have power.

“It’s very sad that the U.S. is leaving the Paris climate agreement,” she said. “We need every country to fulfill their climate targets… because the U.S. is a big player.. She added that there are, however, many states and cities in the U.S. making a lot of changes, so “not all hope is lost.”

No matter the country or issue at hand, Marin’s message to women is to step up, run for office even at the city level, and take action.

“It’s their right and everybody’s obligation to try and make change in the world.”