Thursday, President Donald Trump announced his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris climate agreement, a widely-endorsed deal between more than 200 countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and make other environmentally-friendly changes.
As one of the biggest greenhouse gas emitters, a US withdrawal would be devastating to the climate agenda and could potentially lead other nations to follow suit.
And this decision won’t just affect future generations — 2016 was the hottest year on record. As the planet continues to warm, it brings about rising sea levels, increased floods, drought, migration and civil war, and women and girls in developing nations are bearing the brunt of these consequences — already.
There are many complex factors that have perpetuated the conflict in Syria, and prolonged drought is just one of the factors contributing to the ongoing conflict, which has forced millions from their homes. Many of those who have fled have taken migrant trails that are extremely dangerous places for women and girls.
Away from their homes and often separated from their families, they’re more susceptible to violence, rape, human trafficking and sexual exploitation. Climate change not only affects the natural environment, it has a major effect on the most vulnerable populations.
But there’s hope — the simple act of sending a girl to school can drastically reduce climate change because education empowers them to make better choices. So does access to contraception.
On the eastern border of Iran and Syria, sex education classes are being offered in remote villages. Christina met dozens of women, mostly illiterate, many who had more than 10 children. Many were poor, unable to pay school fees, and overburdened by child care. They expressed a desire to control their pregnancies but had no access to any kind of contraception — and they aren't alone. Some 225 million women in the world say they want to choose when and where to become pregnant, but can’t access contraception — which means a lot of overpopulation.
Giving women access to contraception could reduce the more than 74 million unintended pregnancies each year which, according to environmentalist Paul Hawken’s new book Drawdown, is the eighth-most powerful way to to curb climate change. And, Hawken claims educating girls could reduce CO2 emissions by 59.6 gigatons by 2050, making it the sixth-most powerful solution, ahead of recycling and even solar panels.
These results are not only widely recognized, they are written in the language of the Paris agreement itself. The preamble specifically acknowledges that adapting to extreme weather must consider issues specific to women and girls and calls for increased gender equality and women’s empowerment to tackle the issue of climate change.
Even though President Trump has chosen to withdraw from this agreement, other foreign leaders, including from the European Union and China, have re-affirmed their commitment, stating “the EU and China consider climate action and the clean energy transition an imperative more important than ever and commit to significantly intensify their political, technical, economic, and scientific cooperation on climate change and clean energy.”
As the former US Ambassador Cathy Russell said, “improving the lives of women and girls is 'mission critical' for saving the planet” and her message and the science behind it, can’t be signed away by an executive order.
Women and girls are essential to solving the problem of climate change – we are both its victim and it’s change agent – and education is the most powerful start.
Christina Asquith is editorial director of PRI's Across Women's Lives and founder of The Fuller Project for International Reporting.
Rebecca Winthrop is Director and Senior Fellow of the Center for Universal Education at Brookings.
This story was jointly published with glamour.com.