If you’ve pinned your hopes for the upcoming COP26 UN Climate Change Conference on the Bidens, Johnsons, Putins, and Macrons of the world you may want to adjust. Keep in mind, the road to COP26 was paved by the political savvy, roll-up-your-sleeves determination, and bottomless optimism of women leaders around the world.
From a 67-year-old quantum chemist to an 18-year-old who told climate-comatose world leaders “you have stolen my dreams,” women have been pushing the world’s response to climate change forward for more than two decades. But what else is new? Research shows women shine in times of crisis, outperform as business leaders and consistently overcome systemic inequities to have an outsized impact on the environment and society. Our planet’s future may very well depend on tapping into the power of an “international feminist climate renaissance.”
Here are six influential women leaders whose words and actions will resonate at the COP26 gathering and beyond.
1. Patricia Espinosa: The Climate Commander-in-Chief
Who is Patricia Espinosa?
Impact: Spearheaded the Cancun Agreements, which established $100 billion fund to help developing nations address climate change.
“Simply not good enough,” said UN Climate Chief Patricia Espinosa after reviewing climate plans submitted in early 2021 from countries that had signed the Paris Agreement.
Added up, the current carbon reduction pledges from 75 of the 191 countries would only cut global warming emissions by 2.8% by 2030—woefully inadequate when the UN’s science panel has said global emissions must fall 45% below 2010 levels by 2030 keep warming at 1.5 degrees.
“We are collectively wandering into a minefield blindfolded, the next step could mean disaster,” warned Espinosa.
As the current Executive Secretary for the UNFCC, Espinosa pulls on her deep experience in foreign affairs. She’s served as Mexico’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Ambassador to Austria, Germany, Slovenia and Slovakia. As a career diplomat fluent in four languages, she’s a true believer in forging alliances among countries to reach common goals, the epitome of what the climate crisis requires.
Espinosa has been described as a “team builder with a ruthless streak” as well as “brilliant and sensitive” with a poker face and a reputation for being unbiased. In advance of COP26, she’s been excoriating countries to show bold and courageous climate leadership to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement.
Why She Matters
What does Espinosa want to accomplish at COP26? She’s outlined four keys to success:
- Deliver on promises – Countries must uphold previously made agreements. One of the biggest is the climate finance promise by wealthy nations to give $100 billion annually to developing countries to help them mitigate and adapt to climate change.
- Finish the agreement – The Paris Agreement must be completed and implemented. Negotiations around operating guidelines have been going on for five years. Espinosa says we have no more time for that.
- Raise ambitions – Countries must set their sights high and deliver on mitigating climate change, adapting to it and financing the transformation toward a carbon neutral future.
- Be inclusive – No voice or solution should be left out as climate change impacts all the world’s societies and everyone must solve the crisis together.
2. Christiana Figueres: The Stubborn Optimist
Who is Christiana Figueres?
Impact: Led the global negotiations for 5 years that resulted in the Paris Agreement
She’s a world authority on climate change who calls the global atmosphere her one and only boss.
What she’s done for that boss is bring governments, companies, activists, NGOs—and other groups often at odds—together to craft the landmark Paris Agreement. In 2015, as the Executive Secretary for the UN Framework on Climate Change (UNFCC), Figueres wrangled almost 200 countries into committing to limit future global warming to well below 2°C. A master architect of climate negotiation, Figueres is known for forging a new brand of “collaborative diplomacy.”
She’s credited her success to avoiding a defeatist mindset and remaining a #StubbornOptimist according to her Twitter profile.
Figueres long diplomatic career has been marked by a collaborative approach to sustainable development, land use, and climate change issues. Successful climate solutions might look different for the global north vs. the south, and may involve unusual allies, she’s said. She’s suggested that oil and gas companies’ expertise in biological carbon capture and storage could be put to work on problems like deforestation. Though she’s also pushed for a permanent ban on fossil fuel exploration and extraction in her native Costa Rica, where the economy has run on 99% renewable energy for more than five years.
Because agriculture is the single-largest contributor to climate change, Figueres has called for an overhaul of the food system, including a shift to more sustainable farming.
Why She Matters
Ever the optimist, Figueres points out how far we’ve come in the journey to climate neutrality as well as how far we still must go.
“Over the past five years, the progress on decarbonizing the global economy has been nothing short of astonishing. We are walking in the right direction but we’re not galloping in the right direction, which is what we should be doing.”
Although she won’t be brokering climate agreements at COP26 herself, Figueres will be watching from the sidelines and she’s expecting strong leadership from the US, UK and EU. The host city of Glasgow should offer an “immersive experience” to demonstrate what a city in the process of decarbonizing looks and feels like, she’s said. Listen to her podcast, Outrage + Optimism for her insight in the run-up to the conference and beyond.
3. Gina McCarthy: The U.S.’s Intersectional Climate Leader
Who Is Gina McCarthy?
Impact: President Biden’s Climate Czar
President Joe Biden has big climate goals for the U.S. He wants the country’s economy to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. He’s relying on Gina McCarthy to make it happen.
As the first ever White House Climate Advisor, McCarthy’s job is to put into action Biden’s all-of-government approach to fighting climate change. Luckily she’s got lots of experience making things happen at large organizations.
Previously, McCarthy led 700 attorneys, scientists, advocates, and policy experts working on environmental protection as the President and CEO of the National Resources Defense Council. During the Obama administration McCarthy headed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), overseeing a radical shift in national policymaking linking cuts in air pollution, water resource protection, reduced greenhouse gases and strengthened chemical safety to protecting the health of Americans.
She’s credited with helping turn Boston Harbor from a place where kids come out of the water sticky with tar into a clean and swimmable place. Her resume includes advising five Massachusetts governors. She’s also worked internationally with the UN and World Health Organization on cleaning up high-risk sources of pollution.
Why She Matters
Up until now, protecting the environment has been the job of agencies like the EPA. Biden’s strategy tasks every department and agency with the job of transitioning to a low-carbon economy. For example, the Department of Agriculture could support regenerative agriculture to help soil sequester carbon. The Department of Housing and Urban Development could integrate energy efficiency into the buildings it oversees. The Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) now has a policy advisor focused on climate change and environment, social and governance (ESG) investing.
At this year’s World Electrical Vehicle Day, McCarthy highlighted how important the transportation sector is to reducing carbon emissions and reducing air pollution and the Biden administration’s push for industry investment. “We know the future of vehicles is electric,” she said.
In fact, the vision of climate change as an intersectional issue that needs to be fought with all our resources is what attracted McCarthy to her job. She was persuaded to join the administration when Biden “made the connection between climate and health and environmental and racial justice, and he framed it in terms of what needed to be done after the pandemic for job growth,” she has said.
She is charged with implementing Biden’s environmental justice plan and putting 40% of the US government’s energy investment into communities bearing the brunt of fossil fuel and chemical pollution.
In an early victory for Biden’s climate agenda ahead of COP26, McCarthy has hailed a US roadmap for reducing hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are thousands of times more harmful to the planet than CO2. She has called the roadmap “a win on climate and a win on jobs, and American competitiveness.”
4. Angela Merkel: The Climate Fight’s “Grand Dame”
Who is Angela Merkel?
Impact: Critical negotiator on the world’s first and only binding climate pact, The Kyoto Protocol.
Merkel, the recently retired chancellor of Germany, has been dubbed the “climate chancellor.”
She was an early aggressive champion of green policy reforms for the German economy as an environmental minister in the 1990’s and led the world’s first UN Climate Conference in 1995, showcasing Germany as a climate leader. In 1997, Merkel headed up the Kyoto Protocol negotiations, resulting in the world’s first (and only) binding climate protection treaty.
As the host of the G8 summit of industrialized nations in 2007 Merkel pushed the climate agenda even further. She persuaded G8 leaders to finally accept the science behind the climate threat as outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which continues to sound the alarm. She also convinced world leaders of the need for binding CO2 reduction targets.
At home in Germany, Merkel’s been criticized in recent years for being more effective at hammering out global commitments than making progress regulating carbon intensive industries. However, Germany has reportedly doubled how much money it’s given to support the energy transition since 2015, and also pledged to give more. They’ve also announced plans to cut emissions 65 percent by 2030 and aim for climate neutrality by 2045 instead of 2050.
Why She Matters
Although she stepped down this fall as chancellor, Merkel’s legacy as an international climate leader continues to be written. She’s defended progress made, but admitted there hasn’t been enough of it. Her 16 years in office, leading one of Europe’s primary economic engines highlights how hard it is to implement aggressive climate policy.
This summer Merkel hosted a climate summit in Germany to build momentum for ambitious goal-setting at COP26. And in the wake of devastating floods that swept through towns in West Germany and Belgium killing over 100 people, Merkel has urged an ambitious agenda at the summit. She’s said “we must do everything humanly possible to overcome this challenge for humanity. This is still possible. ” Even in retirement, watch for Merkel to continue to have an outsize influence on the world stage as a climate change policy pundit.
5. Amina J. Mohammed: The Climate Adaptation Champion
Who is Amina J. Mohammed?
Impact: Instrumental in the adoption of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
The daughter of a Scottish nurse and Nigerian herdsman/vet, Mohammed is a champion for underprivileged people on the front lines of the climate crisis and the current UN Deputy-Secretary General. She played a key role in 2015 in the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which included the all-important UN SDGs.
“The entire planet is going through a season of fire and floods,” she recently said to a high-level climate meeting. Countries and populations worldwide—particularly those most vulnerable and least responsible for the climate crisis—will experience even more devastating consequences.”
Mohammed grew up partly in the Lake Chad region of Nigeria, the ambitious eldest in a family of five daughters. As a young woman she raised money to study hotel management in Italy by undertaking a fundraising walk of nearly 50 miles from the city of Kaduna to the city of Zaria.
On returning to Nigeria as a professional, she eventually launched her own engineering and consultancy company focused on development. She began her work with the UN addressing gender inequality and education—issues interconnected with climate change. In 2015 she was named Nigeria’s Federal Minister of Environment before becoming UN Deputy-Secretary General in 2017.
Mohammed also played an instrumental role in bringing about the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including the Sustainable Development Goals.
Why She Matters
Emerging nations are already suffering from climate change, while at the same time having fewer resources to protect themselves.
More than a decade ago, developed countries committed to give $100 billion per year by 2020 to finance the fight against climate change in these emerging countries. In 2019 only $80 billion was paid out. In addition experts say the world must spend 50% of those climate finance dollars on adaptation – things like shoring up land from rising sea levels and relocating people whose homes are at risk. So far emerging nations have gotten “only a fraction” of what’s needed to help them adapt to global warming, Mohammed has said. Why? Because along with the climate aid falling short, most of it has also been earmarked for CO2 emission reductions.
But poor countries also need money to help them thrive in a new climate reality. Investment in infrastructure, crop diversification and protection against biodiversity loss is desperately needed.
Mohammed’s passion for climate equity has been fueled by firsthand experience. Returning to her childhood home near Lake Chad after decades away, she described the fundamental changes:
“Here I was, maybe 40 years later, looking at it, and it was a tenth of the size it was. It is in an area where, of course, terrorism has taken hold and all the livelihoods are lost; the fishing lost, no jobs, no trade. In our youth there used to be trailer loads of fish going from the north down to the south—that’s lost. This has exacerbated poverty, it has created a sense of no hope, a lack of governance.”
Mohammed has called 2021 a “make-or-break” year in the fight against climate change and has pointed to concrete actions the UN says are needed for a breakthrough. They include rich countries earmarking 50% of their climate finance for adaptation and resilience, more financial tools to handle disasters and encourage resilience building, and also access to risk management tools so developing countries can embed climate risk in planning, budgeting, and procurement strategies.
“We must support efforts that provide local actors, including indigenous people, women and youth, with a much greater voice in the decisions that most affect them.”
In advance of COP26, Mohammed has joined other global leaders in calling for a climate policy shift toward adaptation, “We need massively scaled-up investment in adaptation and resilience. This is absolutely critical for those at the frontlines of the climate crisis.
6. Greta Thunberg: Our Climate Conscience
Who Is Greta Thunberg?
Impact: Started global student strikes to demand political leaders take climate action
She’s the climate action wunderkind whose fearless calling out of political inaction riveted the world and ignited a movement.
In 2018, at just 15 years old, the Swedish teen skipped school one Friday and spent her day standing alone in front of the Swedish parliament. She held a simple, homemade sign that read “School Strike for Climate.” Her goal? To pressure her government into cutting the CO2 emissions fueling global warming.
Little by little, Thunberg was joined by other students and the crowd swelled, eventually gaining worldwide attention and inspiring an estimated 20,000 students around the globe to start their own strikes.
The Fridays for Future climate strike movement was born and continues to grow. Thunberg was invited to take the stage at the 2019 UN Climate Change Conference. After sailing across the Atlantic (to avoid the carbon footprint of flying) she took part in Global Week for Future—an estimated 4,500 protests and marches across over 150 countries, which were likely the largest climate demonstrations in history.
Facing political leaders at the UN, Thunberg accused them of not doing enough to combat the climate emergency.
“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you come to us young people for hope. How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.”
Thunberg has been nominated three times for the Nobel peace prize, is the youngest person ever to be named Time’s Person of the Year and put on Forbes’ 100 most powerful women in the world list. While she’s turned down environmental awards, saying the “the climate doesn’t need awards,” she’s also donated prize money she’s been awarded to environmental groups through her foundation.
Why She Matters
No one has had a bigger influence on the global awakening of climate consciousness than Thunberg. Especially for the world’s youth, she has provided a model for activism. She has proven that even people without power or authority can fight climate change by boldly speaking out about the problem and bluntly demanding action from politicians and decision makers.
Although Thunberg originally planned not to attend COP26, to protest inequitable COVID-19 access, the decision by the UK to vaccinate all delegates made her change her mind. Expect the media spotlight to shine brightly on Thunberg during COP26 and for her judgement of its success to be amplified by her 5 million Twitter followers.
However, Thunberg has refused to view COP26 as a “make or break” moment. “We don’t have to wait for conferences nor anyone or anything else to dramatically start reducing our emissions,” she has tweeted. “Solidarity and action can start today.”
On the recent third anniversary of her school strike, she reflected on both how much the movement had accomplished and how much more work needed doing.
“You can either see it as we have been able to mobilize millions of people and raise the level of awareness. But you can also see it as the emissions are still increasing and the changes necessary are still nowhere in sight. We need to begin to treat the crisis like a crisis. If we don’t do that, then we won’t be able to do anything else. That is the only step forward.”
As the countdown to COP26 continues, follow these leaders’ own social handles and tune into the official conference channels below.