Majora Carter: ‘Women represent a new vision’

By Anna Kramer
Environmental justice advocate Majora Carter delivers the keynote address at Oxfam's Sisters on the Planet Climate Leaders Summit. Photo: Anna Kramer

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From droughts to floods to storms to rising sea levels, climate change hits poor people hardest—especially women. But when women speak out, they can fight back against the crisis.

That’s the message from Oxfam’s Sisters on the Planet Climate Leaders Summit. Held in Washington, DC, on International Women’s Day, the event brought together 94 women leaders from 33 US states—plus “climate witnesses” from Mississippi, Peru, Uganda, and Senegal—to honor women who are tackling climate change at the community level. In an effort to bring women’s voices to the forefront, these leaders met with 125 members of Congress and officials from the Obama administration, where they called for US climate legislation that helps poor people adapt to the crisis.

Environmental justice advocate Majora Carter delivered the keynote address at the summit. Carter is president of The Majora Carter Group, LLC, a consultancy specializing in environmental justice and sustainable economic development, as well as host of The Promised Land on NPR and the Sundance Channel’s Eco-Heroes.

In an exclusive interview with Oxfam, Carter talked about poverty here and abroad, the need for climate change adaptation, and why women can lead the way in coming up with solutions.

Oxfam: Why did you get involved with Oxfam and the Sisters on the Planet initiative?

Majora Carter: The similarities between people living in poverty anywhere—including the "developed" world—are very often greater than similarities between rich and poor in the same country.  It mostly boils down to inequality within societies, and I am very familiar with what that looks like in the US.  I want to learn more from the solutions that are being developed elsewhere, where different conditions have inspired creativity; and see how our work can play out in scenarios that may look different, but are really quite similar just under the surface.

How does climate change affect women in particular, especially women living in poverty? How can women lead in coming up with solutions?

Decades of dirty energy infrastructure … has been disproportionately burdening poor people in various ways. One way in particular is the public health of children, and care for these kids almost always falls on women—a mom, a grandmother, an older sister. The same holds true in places where water is scarce—women are the ones who have to travel further to transport it back home.

The good news is that because women are so in touch with the effects of climate change and its causes, they are in an excellent position to devise local solutions. But we have to use this unfortunate moment that history has cast our way. It is easy to shine a light on the mistakes of the past and where they have delivered us. We can't be afraid to use this position and contrast past practices against new ideas. The old arguments of inertia which say: "that's how it's always been done before..." are very vulnerable at the moment. Women (who have been excluded from any of the decision-making processes that brought us here) represent the possibility of new vision—but only when they realize that command is taken, not given.

During the summit, “climate witnesses” from places like Uganda told firsthand stories about how climate change has affected their lives. Why should Americans support their efforts to fight back against the crisis?

The dire situations that the "climate witnesses" described—in terms of literally losing their ability to support themselves, and in some cases, their land—represent a clear moral concern. However, my personal experience growing up in the South Bronx has made me skeptical about the strength of moral arguments in our society.  It's usually the economic argument that carries the day.

How we embrace climate adaptation here, and the practices we influence abroad, will affect our global economic systems in many ways. … All the choices we make as a society can be thought through a little better than we have been; but putting the environmental equality of all people at the forefront of any process will guarantee better climate adaptation and better economic health for everyone. …

Climate change mitigation strategies are important too, and will have positive or negative effects on our economic health as well—depending on whether we lead, or back into the issues as they become impossible to ignore. We want to lead, even if it looks like it costs more up front; the advantages of leadership outweigh disadvantages of playing catch-up in matters big and small. I am proud to be associated with Oxfam and its very pro-leadership stance.