544 Young Women Want To Tell The U.N. About The Urgency Of Climate Change

CREDIT: AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski

Members of civil society movements walk out of the U.N. talks on global warming held at the National Stadium in Warsaw, Poland on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013

The United Nations is looking for a young woman to, as BBC put it, be the ‘Malala’ of the climate change movement, serving as a voice that will energize this September’s climate change conference.

The organization has put out a call for a woman under 30 to speak at the opening session of the 2014 Climate Summit, which is being held on September 23 in New York City. The woman has to be from a developing country and must have a background that includes advocacy on climate change or work on implementing climate mitigation or adaptation solutions. So far, the call for applicants has drawn 544 women, who emailed short videos of themselves persuading world leaders to act on climate change to the Secretary-General’s office.

Organizers hope to find someone who can capture the hearts and minds of people around the world as much as Malala Yousafzai, a Pakastani schoolgirl who was shot in the head by the Taliban and has since become an advocate for women’s rights to education, did when she addressed the UN in July 2013. But as the BBC notes, the choice to include only women in the candidate pool could create some controversy. Susan Alzner, who works at the U.N. Non-Governmental Liaison Service and is the main person in charge of the search, told the BBC that the decision stems from the fact that women are often the ones who suffer the most from climate change impacts.

“If you consider the huge challenges that still exist for so many women across the world to realize their rights to participate in government and how important it is to show young women that they have this right, then we should give the one available slot to speak to more than 100 heads of state to a young woman,” Alzner said.

Around the world, women are often the most impoverished members of society — making up 70 percent of the world’s poor — which contributes to their vulnerability to climate change impacts. And because in many cultures women are the ones responsible for finding water, making food and securing energy, they’re the ones most affected when extreme drought dries up water supplies or unpredictable weather kills crops.

In addition, as the U.N. states, “by comparison with men in poor countries, women face historical disadvantages, which include limited access to decision-making and economic assets that compound the challenges of climate change.” For instance, according to a 2011 U.N. FAO report, only 10 to 20 percent of women living in developing countries have land rights, even though they make up the majority of small farmers worldwide.

Those barriers to having their voices heard is what Alzner and the U.N. are aiming to chip away at through their selection of the keynote speaker.

“Fully combating climate change is going to require women’s full empowerment everywhere,” Alzner said. “It is essential that we give women the space to speak on this critical topic that is an existential threat to humanity.”

The U.N. is also hoping to capture the interest of youth by selecting a speaker under 30. In recent UN climate talks, youth have been vocal on the need for world leaders to address climate change. During the 2012 climate talks in Doha, Qatar, the Arab Youth Climate Movement organized and led the country’s first-ever climate march, which drew hundreds of protesters. And during the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen, Christina Ora, a youth delegate from the Solomon Islands who was among the applicants for this year’s keynote speaker, addressed negotiators, telling them to “stop negotiating away our future.”

Upcoming climate negotiations have already garnered headlines in the U.S., first for the news that President Obama will attend the summit in New York in September, and second for the news that the administration is working on an international climate change agreement, to be signed during the Climate Change Conference in Paris in 2015. The treaty, according to the New York Times, would be “politically binding” and would attempt to “name and shame” countries into committing to emissions reductions.