Go back

Women in the Paris COP21 Climate Negotiations: An Interview with Ursula Rakova

Published 07 Nov 2016
Sophie Pascoe

Climate change is one of the most serious collective threats of our time, but the impacts of climate change are distributed unevenly making some groups more vulnerable than others. Women, who constitute the majority of the world’s poor, are disproportionally affected by climate change. In the context of social and economic marginalisation, women are particularly vulnerable to environmental changes.[1] Due to gender norms, the gendered division of labour, and gender inequalities experienced in different societies, women face distinctive challenges from climate change. Despite this, women have been severely underrepresented in decision making around climate change, particularly in the international climate regime under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).[2] While the UNFCCC explicitly acknowledged the need to improve the participation of women in climate negotiations at COP7 in 2001,[3] the gender balance within the climate regime remains a concern. While the past two Executive Secretaries of the UNFCCC have been women – Christiana Figueres, followed by Patricia Espinosa in July 2016 – this has not translated at other levels of the UNFCCC. The percentage of women in governing bodies of the UNFCCC ranges from 36-41 per cent, with women making up just 26-33 per cent of heads of delegations.[4] This leads us to question whether women’s voices, interests, and knowledge are adequately represented in the international climate regime.

To investigate this issue, I interviewed Ursula Rakova following the Paris COP21 climate negotiations, which were held in December 2015. Ursula Rakova is the Executive Director of Tulele Peisa, a local NGO in Papua New Guinea coordinating the relocation of communities from the Carteret Islands to mainland Bougainville due to rising sea levels. Tulele Peisa’s model of climate migration is based on self-determination and promotes environmentally and culturally sustainable resettlement.[5] Ursula Rakova is a prominent environmental campaigner and advocate of human rights and works tirelessly to ensure the future of her atoll community in the face of climate change.[6] She has attended three Conference of the Parties (COPs), including COP13 in Bali 2007, COP16 in Cancun 2010, and most recently COP21 in Paris. In the following interview, Rakova reflects on her experiences in the climate negotiations and the ways that women and vulnerable communities are included in the climate regime.

SP: Ursula, you attended the Paris COP in December 2015 with the Climate Wise Women program; could you explain the background of that organisation?

UR: Climate Wise Women was formed in 2012 by a group of women from Uganda, the Cook Islands, Papua New Guinea, the Maldives and the United States. The main purpose of the organisation is to advocate for the issues experienced at the local level to the international community. The first gathering of Climate Wise Women was supported by Greenpeace US, Oxfam US and the Mary Robinson Foundation. We still receive technical support from the Mary Robinson Foundation and our coordinator tries to find funds and small grants to support gatherings and tours.

SP: How successful do you think the Climate Wise Women are in terms of communicating those local issues at the global stage?

UR: I think a lot of the issues we are facing locally have really been promoted publically because of the Climate Wise Women and our affiliation as a group of women who are affected at the local level but are able to have a coordinated voice. This is particularly true in the United States where our voices are beginning to be heard. Our connection with the Mary Robinson Foundation adds more value to this advocacy process.

SP: Within the international climate regime, specifically the Paris COP, do you feel that your voice is being heard?

UR: I think to an extent it is, but to me the voices of women really need to be heard more. I was at the Paris COP and I would have really loved to see more women there. It was really helpful to see the government leaders of different nations forming an alliance. The women leaders were at the forefront, but this should have also happened with civil society groups. I was fortunate to be involved in a breakfast session with all the foreign affairs ministers who were women leaders in their own countries. I presented at this breakfast, but I think the voices of women need to be heard at a wider level at the COPs. Women leaders from civil society organisations also need to be included in government delegations. This needs to happen.

SP: So how do you feel about the Paris Agreement that came out of the negotiations?

UR: As a person coming from an already affected and very vulnerable community, I feel more should have been done. A lot of the Pacific Islands sold out; they had to do away with loss and damage to get support for the 1.5°C target. That was a compromise. But I guess they couldn’t do any better than that because they are small island states and they had to compromise one or the other. The other thing that came out in the agreement was human rights. Mexico, and later the European Union, really pushed that; but unfortunately the gender inequality content was also omitted from that clause.

SP: Do you feel like your indigenous knowledge and gendered knowledge are reflected in the agreement?

UR: I don’t think so. I mean look at human rights and then gender inequality: that clause isn’t there. I don’t think the traditional knowledge or culture is really in the agreement, and it needs to be. I think the nations refused to acknowledge the clause on loss and damage because they know this.

SP: As an affected community member and someone with cultural and traditional knowledge, do you feel marginalised by this?

UR: Well the agreement basically sets us outside of this, so yes. It’s kind of hypocritical in the sense that it talks about protecting our rights as vulnerable people, but then it places us outside this agreement. We are left to either swim or drown; that’s our business. Most of the affected communities have cultural knowledge and cultural beliefs, but where is the justice when all of these beliefs and values are completely forgotten? We have to deal with things the way other people think.

SP: Do you think that in the negotiation process, the largely Western, scientific discourse dominates?

UR: Yes to an extent. The IPCC report is everywhere. Westerners need scientific information and science to illustrate the impacts of climate change. For us, living in the atolls and islands, we don’t need facts. We are seeing things; it is happening before our eyes. And when you look at what is happening, what is really destroying the fabric of our culture, where are human rights and where is justice? For us, our coral reefs are being covered with sand that is being washed from the island. Our reef is dead. There is hardly any coral left in the shallow parts of the water, where previously we couldn’t paddle our canoes because of coral and huge giant clams.

SP: So do you feel like your lived experiences of climate change aren’t really represented?

UR: That’s why I say that doing away with the clause on loss and damage really undermines our cultural beliefs and norms. This is why we really need to see justice redressed in the international arenas like the UNFCCC.

SP: What do you think needs to change within the international climate regime, specifically within the COP negotiations and UNFCCC, in order for vulnerable communities and women, like yourself, to receive climate justice?

UR: Climate change is already upsetting people’s lives. Countries need to act now. If we want to stop global warming, we can’t wait twenty years to act. I really believe Australia needs to act immediately on this because impacts are getting worse. Australia is our biggest neighbour and it has the ability to work now. The richest countries need to put resources in place to provide support, especially to communities that are most affected.

SP: In addition to wealthier nations contributing more to supporting mitigation and adaptation, is there anything in the structure of the climate regime that you think could be changed to facilitate climate justice?

UR: I think that climate investment funds should be made available to communities finding their own solutions and initiating their own futures. Climate funds should really be going towards supporting these communities; it shouldn’t just be going to governments. And the other thing is that governments need to sign and ratify the Paris COP agreement and fulfil their commitments to the agreement. It’s not just business as usual anymore. Governments also need to work closely with civil society to find ways to respond to issues that are affecting their own communities. They need to take action seriously.

Ursula Rakova highlights that in order to ensure that the impacts of climate change do not further marginalise already vulnerable groups; we need to include women’s voices, interests and knowledge in the international climate regime.[7] Gender aspects are rarely addressed in climate change policy making, partly because of a lack of gender-sensitive data and knowledge about the links between gender inequality and climate change, but also due to the limited participation of women and gender experts in climate change negotiations. [8] While literature on climate change and gender typically frame women as vulnerable or virtuous in relation to the environment, these assumptions and discourses can divert attention from inequalities in decision-making. [9] In addition to understanding the impacts of climate change on women, we need to recognise their voices and agency in addressing its threats. Ursula Rakova’s reflections on her experiences at the Paris COP21, and in the climate change regime more broadly, provide valuable insights into the ways that women participate and engage in decision-making around climate change. She also exposes some of the obstacles and challenges that they face. With this knowledge, the international community not only need to improve the participation of women in the climate change negotiations, they need to critically examine the systems and structures in the international climate regime and the ways that they enable or constrain the involvement of women in future decision-making.


[1] Alam, Mayesha, Rukmani Bhatia & Briana Mawby (2015) Women and Climate Change: Impact and Agency in Human Rights, Security, and Economic Development. Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security: Georgetown.

[2] Ivanova, Maria (2015) Paris climate summit: why more women need seats at the table,, 14 September 2016.

[3] UNFCCC (2002) Report of the Conference of the Parties on its Seventh Session, Held at Marrakesh from 29 October to 10 November 2001. FCCC/CP/2001/13/Add. 4.

[4] UNFCCC (2015) Report on gender composition. FCCC/CP/2015/6.

[5] Pascoe, Sophie (2015) “Sailing the Waves on Our Own: Climate Change Migration, Self-Determination and the Carteret Islands” in QUT Law Review, Vol. 15, No. 2, 72.

[6] Tulele Peisa (n.d.) Executive Director, Ursula Rakova,, 14 September 2016.

[7] Denton, Fatima (2002) “Climate change vulnerability, impacts, and adaptation: Why does gender matter?” in Gender and Development, Vol. 10, No. 2, 10.

[8] Hemmati, Minu and Ulrike Rohr (2009) “Engendering the climate-change negotiations: experiences, challenges, and steps forward” in Gender and Development, Vol. 17, No. 1, 19.

[9] Arora-Jonsson, Seema (2011) “Virtue and vulnerability: Discourses on women, gender and climate change” in Global Environmental Change, Vol. 21, 744.