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Climate Justice in the Time of COVID: 5 Lessons From Women and Girls Leading the Fight

COVID-19 is a health, economic and social crisis, but it also holds out an opportunity for the world to move forward into a more equitable and green recovery. Women climate leaders sounded notes of hope, solidarity, and urgency during a webinar convened by the Skoll World Forum in partnership with Connected Women Leaders and The Rockefeller Foundation.

Xiye Bastida demonstrating with Greta Thunberg outside the United Nations headquarters in New York. | Photo by Felix Kunze
Xiye Bastida demonstrating with Greta Thunberg outside the United Nations headquarters in New York in September 2019. | Photo by Felix Kunze

This post is coauthored by Sundaa Bridgett-Jones, director of policy at The Rockefeller Foundation.

COVID-19 is a health, economic and social crisis, but it also holds out an opportunity for the world to move forward into a more equitable and green recovery.  Women climate leaders sounded notes of hope, solidarity, and urgency during a webinar convened by the Skoll World Forum in partnership with Connected Women Leaders and The Rockefeller Foundation.

“We’ve come a long way in a month,” said Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. “We now have a global recession, hundreds of thousands of people out of jobs, and great concerns about health.” But even before the coronavirus, Robinson said, “we were not on course for a safe world.”

The good news is that we’ve seen the global community is capable of changing behavior quickly and dramatically to face a serious threat. We are doing it—staying at home, social distancing, self-quarantining—responding responsibly to protect ourselves and our fellow human beings.

The climate crisis is as serious and personal an emergency as the COVID-19 crisis. The world must put to use the lessons learned in these days, namely that science matters, that human behavior matters, and that our collective power — particularly the coalitions of scientists, business, entrepreneurs and governments bringing vital innovations — are all critical to solving both problems.


The response to COVID-19 has 5 key lessons for tackling the climate crisis:

  • Science matters; we must listen to the experts.
  • Human behavior matters; people’s agency is vital to bending the virus curve and also the climate curve.
  • Collaboration matters; the coalitions of scientists, businesses, entrepreneurs, and governments are bringing vital innovation needed for COVID-19 and climate.
  • The economic crisis is also an opportunity; we have to emerge with a green, resilient, equitable economic recovery with just transition.
  • Everyone must be healthy, for the protection of all; neither COVID-19 nor the climate crisis can be solved without solidarity and support for developing countries.

“It’s got to be a green, resilient recovery. We’ve got a shock now, let’s move in a way that recognizes that we need a different model for how our economy is run… 2019 should be the peak year for global emissions that are hurting our world,” Robinson said. “If we can do it with ferocious love, we can change everything.”

The webinar was scheduled after the Skoll Foundation had to cancel its 2020 World Forum, which was to be held at Oxford University, due to the pandemic crisis. The theme of the global forum this year was Collective Strength and the webinar’s focus was Climate Justice in the Time of COVID: Women and Girls Leading.

Robinson came together with an intergenerational and intercultural panel of women climate activists all calling for the world to use this moment to change its behavior on behalf of the climate. One shift all would like to see is the voices of women and the needs of developing countries be put front and center going forward.

“Every crisis presents us with opportunity to grow,” said Xiye Bastida, a high school senior and leading youth climate activist. The coronavirus crisis “has ultimately taught us how to have solidarity with our community… not only our local community but our global community.”

Bastida grew up in the Mexican town of San Pedro Tultepec embracing the Otomi indigenous belief that “if you take care of the earth, it will take care of you.” A year ago, she organized a strike at her Manhattan school and 600 students walked out with her. She began mobilizing students and adults to join the Global Climate Strike.

“Every crisis presents us with opportunity to grow. The coronavirus crisis has ultimately taught us how to have solidarity with our community… not only our local community but our global community.”

Xiye Bastida, leading youth climate activist

The Global Climate Strike scheduled a series of global actions to begin in April, but they’ve had to be cancelled. To stay active during the pandemic crisis, Bastida is coordinating #WeThePlanet to speak out online. “It’s a campaign that aims to bring together all the different youth movements happening around the country,” she said. Everyone is asked to commit to both an individual action and a systematic action.

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, an environmental activist and co-chair of the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change, is a powerful voice for the many indigenous communities who are most adversely impacted by climate change but so often missing from the negotiating tables on climate agreements. Hindou joined the webinar from her home in Chad. Due to poor internet connectivity there, she was knocked off the call a few times, but she thanked the webinar organizers for including her nevertheless. “We must empower everyone to be at the same level so that we can protect the people and protect the planet at the same time,” she said.

Hindou spoke strongly in support of traditional knowledge, citing her own grandmother’s connection to nature, and argued the climate crisis is best addressed by “putting the indigenous peoples’ and the scientists’ knowledge together.”

We have “a huge opportunity to lean into climate solutions” as part of our post-COVID-19 recovery, said Project Drawdown’s Dr. Katharine Wilkinson, an author known for her work at the intersection of climate, gender equality and women’s leadership.

“We can avoid catastrophic warming with just the climate solutions in hand today, but doing so will require immense ambition and bold action,” she said, and then echoed Ibrahim by reading Alice Walker’s rallying poem, “Calling All Grandmothers.”

The fifth panelist, Megha Agrawal Sood, extolled the power of narrative and storytelling to reach new audiences and change behavior. “Storytelling is how we create shared meaning,” said Sood, director of programs at Exposure Labs, the production company behind the Emmy Award-winning films Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral. “Culture is the dimension where the battle for the relative importance of climate change, compared to all the other priorities, has to be fought and won.”

Up to now, climate change storytelling has been dominated by the voices of white men from the global north, she said, and this must change. Megha called for a “biodiversity of stories as diverse as the ecosystem we seek to save.” And she finds reasons for optimism, because “everything we were told before the pandemic wasn’t possible—we see that it is.”

“We need to envision the world we want to see,” agrees Robinson. “Everybody needs to take both crises, COVID-19 and climate change, personally in their lives. We need to do all the work that is important, moving to a green, resilient, fair and just transition to the future, and in order to get there, we need to imagine it and build it together.”

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