Why Captain Planet should have been a woman

People look at a globe which is a part of of an installation in downtown Copenhagen December 6, 2009. Copenhagen is the host city for the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009 which starts from December 7 until December 18.   REUTERS/Pawel Kopczynski  (DENMARK ENTERTAINMENT ENVIRONMENT IMAGES OF THE DAY) - GM1E5C61T3J01

If you’re a kid from ‘90s America, you might remember the TBS cartoon, “Captain Planet and the Planeteers” (later known as, “The New Adventures of Captain Planet”): Five Planeteers from around the world are tasked with defending the planet from the environmentally disastrous activities of a squad of eco-villains. When environmental problems grew to crisis proportions, the teenaged Planeteers used their magic rings to summon superhero Captain Planet to help thwart the impending disaster. As I watch old episodes of the show now with my five-year-old daughter—made possible by the Captain Planet Foundation—I can’t help but think: If Captain Planet were real, he should have been a woman.

Why? Research shows a clear linkage between women’s leadership and pro-environmental outcomes. For example, studies have found that countries with higher proportions of women in parliament (or equivalent government bodies) are more likely to ratify international environmental treaties, to create protected land areas, and to have stricter climate change policies.

Now, you might say that it’s not really because of women in politics, but because countries with greater political freedoms are more likely to designate protected status to nature preserves or wilderness areas. Or, that ratification of international environmental treaties like the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is more likely a product of a country’s existing position in the global political economy, and not because of the gender distribution of its leaders. But these studies controlled for such factors, including countries’ level of political rights and civil liberties, per capita GDP in purchasing power parity (to take into account a country’s level of development or wealth), number of environmental organizations per million population (to take into account the presence of environmental activism in a country), and even the prevalence of international tourism (to take into account exogenous pressures on a country to preserve its land), among other variables. And still, women’s political participation remains a powerful and significant predictor of environmental protectionism.

Other studies found that countries where women enjoy greater social and political status produce fewer carbon dioxide emissions and have lower climate footprints (a measure that balances out a country’s contributions to carbon dioxide emissions and its sequestration of carbon dioxide due to its forestlands). For instance, one study of 91 countries found that women’s political status (defined as having a longer history of women’s suffrage and higher representation in parliament) had as strong a predictive relationship with lower carbon emissions as factors like a country’s level of urbanization had with predicting higher levels of carbon emissions. Researchers of another study found that a 10 percent increase in female parliamentarians was associated with a 0.24 metric ton decrease in carbon dioxide emissions per capita—or roughly the equivalent carbon emissions avoided if the average American didn’t drive her car 587 miles per year. Similarly, another study using panel data from a sample of 72 countries between 1971-2012 found that a one unit increase in a country’s score on the women’s political empowerment index was associated with a nearly 12 percent decrease in the country’s carbon emissions over the long term—the caveat here being that it took years for the effect to materialize.

While the studies above do not tell us about the mechanism(s) of impact—that is, how women’s leadership and political representation has this positive effect on the environment—many suggest that this relationship can be explained by women’s greater concern for the environment. Here, I would caution against assuming that those who demonstrate greater concern necessarily translate this into greener behaviors, and against jumping to the conclusion that women represent the “greener gender”—although, I still think a female Captain Planet would have been the more appropriate embodiment of a hero for the planet given the connection between female leadership and pro-environmental outcomes. Instead, researchers proffer that women’s heightened concern for the environment may be a result of increased perceptions of vulnerability to risk. This itself is tied to the traditional social roles that women occupy around the world as caregivers (e.g., feeding their families, collecting drinking water, and firewood, etc.) and subsistence providers (e.g., in subsistence farming or fishing)—roles that ultimately tie their lives to the health of the environment. As such, the exploitation of women and the degradation of the planet are intricately interlinked; there can be no climate justice without gender justice.

As the U.S. wraps up its annual monthlong celebration of the achievements of women in American history—and as young activists like Greta Thunberg remind us that future generations may not have a future to celebrate any history—what a perfect time to amplify the achievements of women leaders around the world driving solutions to climate change and pursuing climate justice (also, a binge-worthy podcast).

In fact, today, the United Nations General Assembly is convening a high-level meeting on Climate Protection for All in New York City. This meeting is intended to identify ways to better leverage the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development for the protection of the planet for future generations of humankind. In other words, world leaders, private sector, civil society, and other climate actors will be encouraged—for a day—to focus on summoning our individual and collective power to achieve both our global goals for sustainable development and for reversing climate change. While it would be amazing if my female version of Captain Planet were to swoop into the closing plenary, the next best thing would be for world leaders and climate actors to commit to working actively to raise women’s status by investing in girls’ education and creating leadership pipelines for girls and women—especially in climate decisionmaking and green sector industries. Once these foundational pieces are set in place we can begin to realize the political power of women and the collective power of humanity. After all, it was the global Planeteers who were at the heart of the show, not Captain Planet.