Later this month, political leaders will gather in Dubai for the 28th United Nations Climate Change Conference—COP28—to discuss approaches to mitigating the climate crisis while simultaneously preparing for its destruction. Recent UN reports on climate change confirmed what we already knew: We are at our “now or never” moment. From food insecurity to more frequent and severe natural disasters, climate change is putting us all at risk. And the climate crisis is not gender neutral. When crops fail, women are often the last to eat. When disasters such as floods, hurricanes, and cyclones strike, women are more likely to die—in some circumstances, twice as likely. If they survive, displacement brings heightened risks of sexual violence and other human rights abuses.
I have lived and worked in over a dozen countries and have seen firsthand how, as the world’s largest bilateral donor to global health, the United States can quickly change a woman or girl’s life around the world. Having the privilege of administering the Global Fund for Women’s current investment in feminist climate justice movements and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) program as a foreign service officer, I know with certainty that both programs require funding as pathways to supporting real, long-term solutions for global sustainability.
Climate Justice on the Global Stage at COP28
Activists working at the intersection of climate and gender justice are eagerly planning for COP28 as a moment to press forward critical policy. At last year’s COP in Egypt, some of these activists called for climate reparations. Their advocacy helped propel the historic decision to create a loss and damage fund to support countries recovering after climate catastrophes.
This year, grassroots feminist groups are once again making their voices heard at and around COP28. They’re calling for a new approach to the climate crisis—one that puts the solutions of women, girls, and historically marginalized people, who are bearing the brunt of the impacts of climate change, at the center. And they’re demanding that climate decision-making processes at all levels—including those around the new loss and damage fund—include dedicated space for diverse women’s networks and feminist movements.
Global Fund for Women supports many of these groups through the USAID-funded Women’s Economic Security & Localization Activity, focused on strengthening locally led solutions in regions already facing climate change’s deadly effects. Under this initiative, grassroots climate groups are strengthening biodiversity and food sovereignty, promoting clean energy alternatives, resisting extractive industries, and much more. And they’re working hand in hand with feminist networks on the frontlines of disaster response.
But the current divisive political climate within Congress has put programs like this in its crosshairs. Despite the program’s timeliness—with weather and climate extremes increasing in every region across the globe—Congress recently defunded the program. The money previously authorized for this work was withdrawn on the grounds that the money would potentially support abortion services or advocacy abroad, violating the Helms Amendment.
The premise of this attack is entirely and demonstrably false. Under separate programs funded by other sources, Global Fund for Women supports feminist groups working for full access to reproductive healthcare. But USAID funding to Global Fund for Women is used solely for climate resilience and crisis response work. Yet the funds were still revoked.
A Growing Wave of Anti-Gender Equality Rollbacks
These funding cuts are not only applied to climate initiatives but are part of a troubling and rising trend of cuts to international health and gender initiatives, made without any evidence that U.S. government funding is supporting abortion. Recently, these same false claims resulted in Republican legislators in Congress failing to reauthorize one billion in funding for PEPFAR—a program that has been successfully fighting HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria worldwide for decades.
PEPFAR began under the Bush Administration and has always enjoyed bipartisan support. The program has been credited with saving more than twenty-five million lives since 2003. Now, despite a lack of evidence, Republicans have whipped up false claims to suggest that PEPFAR may be supporting abortion.
These political debates have real and deadly consequences for girls and women around the world. In Sub-Saharan Africa, where the majority of PEPFAR funding is directed, data shows that girls and young women are up to fourteen times more likely to contract HIV. PEPFAR’s programs also screen HIV-affected women for cervical cancer, the leading cause of cancer deaths in the region. It’s no surprise that when programs like PEPFAR are weakened, women and girls suffer most.
These vulnerabilities are amplified with climate justice being the latest casualty in the fight over international aid. There was already insufficient money to address the immense challenges of a changing climate: currently, climate-related efforts receive less than 2 percent of global philanthropic giving. And funding for the intersection of gender and the environment makes up only a tiny fraction—less than 0.2 percent—of philanthropic dollars distributed.
The Hidden Costs of Defunding
Cuts to these global initiatives not only devastate local communities around the world, but also fly in the face of U.S. interests. Defunding these programs sends the message to global partners that the United States is backing away from its position as a champion for the climate, health, and gender equality worldwide. And in today’s interconnected world, we know that global public health crises and climate threats don’t just happen “over there.” Working towards equitable and resilient communities is our collective responsibility if we are to weather the challenges that lie ahead.