Apologies that this week's issue is slightly delayed — but I had to tend to a small personal matter on Tuesday. (You can read more about that here.)
Last week, in the midst of COP26 discussions about climate change, I had the pleasure of asking questions to veteran journalist and fellow Bulletin writer Andrew Revkin. Our conversation with African futurist Dr. Katindi Sivi-Njonjo and climate activist Xiye Bastida can be found here.
This week, the roles are reversed and Andrew has submitted questions for me to answer. If you’re interested in learning more about climate from a true expert, subscribe to Andrew’s Bulletin.
Let’s get into it.
Andrew Revkin (AR): Growing up in Pakistan, did energy challenges affect you or your extended family or friends? Do you recall stories from your parents' generation about the transition to electricity or clean fuels?
Yes, absolutely. My parents often shared stories about how their grandparents lived in a time without electricity. They talk about the moment when my grandmother saw a lightbulb for the first time!
AR: In your work for girls and education access, what kinds of situations have you seen where access to clean energy, or the lack of it, affects girls' prospects for a safe, productive life?
I like this question because I think the relationship between girls and energy is overlooked. And I think this oversight is likely because this is a problem that mostly affects the poorest girls and women.
My friend Vanessa Nakate spoke at length about this in Glasgow last week, including on the panel we sat on together with The New York Times Climate Hub. In Uganda, where Vanessa lives, women and girls are responsible for gathering water and preparing food for their families. It’s not a question of whether to send their daughters to school, it’s just unspoken that this is the responsibility of women. And it’s very time-consuming. Women and girls spend all day walking to fill up jugs of water, gathering firewood or preparing food. There is simply no time for them to go to school or complete homework. So not only are girls and women dealing with the health effects — inhaling dangerous fumes from cookstoves and the physical burden of carrying water and other things — they also are not receiving education, learning skills they can use to help support themselves and their families or pursuing their dreams.
Girls and women in these communities are also affected by the fossil fuel industry. Two activists from Brazil spoke about this impact on their lives and education: Alice Pataxó advocated against the deforestation and mining that is affecting her Indigenous community, while Bianca Maria da Silva spoke about how poor air quality is forcing girls out of school.
On the positive side, educating girls can help us transition away from a reliance on unclean energy. Vinisha Umashankar, a 14-year-old from Tamil Nadu and finalist for the Earthshot Prize, developed a solar-powered ironing cart for vendors in India to use instead of ones that rely on charcoal. The people who iron clothes spend all day breathing the unclean air from burning charcoal. It causes lung disease and other health issues — and collectively these carts contribute to wider greenhouse gas emissions that are warming our planet. So Vinisha invented a cart that used solar energy so iron vendors don’t have to risk their health to make a living. This is a small-scale solution, but if we had millions more girls thinking like Vinisha — thanks to a great education system — we could have millions more solutions to reduce carbon emissions.
Given what you've learned in conversations on climate in recent days, is there a key takeaway you think leaders at any level — from students to school superintendents to presidents or prime ministers — should take away from this COP26 moment?
I have been to so many of these global meetings where leaders make grand promises and then fail to deliver on them. I know there are complicated reasons for this and that political decisions involve compromise – but it’s particularly difficult and frustrating around an issue as urgent as the climate crisis. There’s so much talk about quantifying the answer — by emissions totals or billions invested — and not enough about the impact on real people and their lives. What does $100 billion dollars mean to a girl in the Philippines whose school has flooded for the third time this year? What changes will happen in her life?
We need solutions that reach the most vulnerable populations – and the only way to ensure that is to include women and girls in the conversation. So many young women activists came to COP26 to advocate for the change they want to see. I want leaders to listen to them.
We also need solutions beyond new technology to cool our climate — like strengthening our education systems. Schools can become the lifeblood of a small village or community. Children can charge mobile phones and batteries while learning and then bring home for their families to use each day as renewable sources of energy. This way they don’t need to rely on generators or charcoal stoves. Climate education is another way we can create more resilient citizens. If girls could learn about climate change in school, they would know how to prepare for extreme weather events and keep their families safe. But we need to build these schools first in order to educate every girl.
Girls’ education is an untapped climate solution. The research is there – and it’s critical for our shared future.