“Sure, I am all for access to education for women in developing countries, but what does it have to do with climate change,” a friend asked me recently over diner. I had just made the claim that development funding for women’s education was perhaps the most under discussed tool for preventing climate change. Hear me out.

The discussions of climate change tend to localize around a few main topics: renewable energy technologies, carbon tax (or trade), consumption, climate science, culture, policy and politicking, . My experience (confirmed by a few minutes of Google searches) is that gender rarely makes it into the topic mix. For the sake of this article, lets accept that as part of a comprehensive response to climate change that we want some combination of:

  1. limiting population
  2. limiting consumption
  3. basing remaining consumption in sustainable systems

Put differently, we want less people consuming less and we want what they consume to be greener. I would argue educating women is the most powerful (and politically feasible) way to control population, and thus is a key to one of three major objectives in getting climate change under control.

How important? The correlation on this database is 77% (Pearson’s R .77  for stat geeks), and historical data suggests that the relationship is causal. With broad women’s empowerment, and access to literacy is of key importance in empowerment, fertility can drop rapidly. For instance, Iran’s fertility rate plummeted from 7 in 1980 to 1.7 today through a range of media and womens empowerment interventions, as well as a secularization of the society.

Top Five Reasons to Support Women’s Education to Prevent Climate Change

  1. Free public education is democratic (many have argued it is a cornerstone of democracy) and is thus very desirable compared against more authoritian means of population control such as those practiced in China over the last 50 years.
  2. It is cheap, ($35/year in Nigeria for instance)
  3. It has the side benefits of alleviating poverty, empowering women, and improving the life of impoverished children (few other climate change policies have this much punch on other progressive goals)
  4. It is not controversial for political conservatives in a way family planning funding is, but achieves many of the same goals
  5. A global surge in more empowered, educated women is likely to sway climate and resource debates positively

So while womens literacy is definitely not the whole answer (SUV drivers can read!), I do think it deserves to be a cornerstone of thoughtful policy. The US could fund global education as part of a climate change plan for a fraction of its military budget, generating good will and global democratic stability in the process.

Next time you picture climate solutions, place young girls learning to read in India or Africa right next to the picture of the wind farm and critical mass bike ride!


Brian Toomey lives and works at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage. He writes for Sustanablog.org, and runs their eco comparison shopping engine, check out their hemp backpacks and 10,000 other eco products. He is also a sustainable business consultant to Appoutdoors.com.

Photo Credit: prakhar