Event summary by Bridget Stuart
During this event, we had three brilliant and distinguished women discuss the complex intersection of race and climate.
Elizabeth Yeampierre is an attorney and climate justice activist leader born and raised in New York, with Puerto Rican heritage and African and Indigenous ancestry. She is the Executive Director of UPROSE, Brooklyn’s oldest community-led organisation. In her speech, she imparted a resonant message: we cannot tackle climate change and race as separate issues.
The lives of non-white communities around the world are disproportionally impacted by pollution, toxic air, extreme weather events, which—when compounded with poorer healthcare and less support from organisational bodies—makes them increasingly vulnerable to the negative effects of climate breakdown. And yet, Elizabeth posed the stark question, “Why do people care more about polar bears than people of colour?"
The roots of the climate activism can be found in the social justice movement, and a just transition must be led by front-line communities, striving for people-centred solutions towards a resilient, regenerative and equal society.
Dr Ariadne Collins is a lecturer in International Relations at St Andrews University, and her work lies in market-based conservation and post-colonial development. She focused on the countries of Guyana and Surinam, and how their 500 years of colonial histories need to be recognised as structural conditions in order for conservation interventions to be effective. Detailing the histories of both nations, Ariadne critiqued the UN-led REDD+ programme, highlighting how the programme side-steps the colonial past.
Archana Soreng is an environmental activist and UN Youth Advisor on Climate Change, who belongs to the Khadia Tribe in Sundergarh, India. She started off by talking about how the colonial, extractivist, developmental worldview has been demeaning and destroying indigenous people and their ways of life for centuries. These indigenous communities are the least responsible for the climate crisis, yet it is these people who are both disproportionately suffering from the negative effects of climate change and who are on the front-line of climate justice activism and action.
Archana made the point that the traditional expertise and first-hand perspective of indigenous people is extremely valuable in the fight against climate change. These marginalised voices must be included and listened to, if we are to create real change.
Here are some take away points from the Q+A:
By Emily Passmore
Although we are all affected by climate change, we are not all affected to the same degree. Those in poverty, who are most reliant on natural resources and least able to adapt and rebuild following natural disasters, are most severely impacted by the effects of climate change. As women make up 70% of those in poverty worldwide, they are more vulnerable to climate change than men. Tackling climate change fairly requires a sensitivity to this gender disparity, but we must guard against slips into gender essentialism in the climate movement.
Patriarchal structures and climate
Women’s vulnerability to the effects of climate change stems from oppressive social, economic and cultural institutions. Women are not only more likely than men to live in poverty, but patriarchal structures also often mean that women are more locked into poverty than men. For example, they are excluded from ownership of land and property, making up 50-80% of the world’s food production workforce yet owning only 10% of the land. They are therefore reliant on others for their livelihoods and homes, and are often unable to make proactive changes to adapt to climate change. Furthermore, motherhood often means women are less able to move around for work or in the aftermath of climate disasters.
Despite these challenges, women are often in the best position to design and implement ways to adapt to climate change. For example, women in Latin America have designed new, more sustainable ways to farm, such as patio gardens, applying their existing knowledge of how to source and provide food to a new problem. Policies designed solely by men are likely to miss out on these insights, thereby creating less effective solutions, or perhaps ignoring certain climate issues altogether as they have simply never had to think about issues specifically faced by women.
A just climate movement must platform women’s voices – however, it is important to remember that women’s experiences are incredibly diverse. A truly feminist climate movement cannot just include white 'Western' women and believe it can speak to the problems faced by all women. What we need is an intersectional approach to climate, acknowledging the ways in which both racial and gender hierarchies, along with countless other axes of oppression, combine to make different groups more or less vulnerable.
It is clear that women are a key part of a just climate movement, and can provide key insights on how to move forward. However, some have taken this argument further, claiming that women are innately more suited to tackling the climate crisis—it is said they are inherently more altruistic and caring than men, and as givers of life, far more suited to protect the world. Nature is often characterised as feminine – think of Mother Earth. This perspective can sometimes tip into assigning responsibility for nature to women, seeing them as connected to the environment on some deeper level.
This gender essentialism, claiming that differences between men and women are at least in some way innate rather than socially constructed, cannot play a part in any truly just climate movement. Though claiming to empower women, it in fact reduces them to a caring role, embedding existing stereotypes and assigning women responsibility for a problem they are largely not responsible for, particularly in the case of women from the developing world, while absolving men of responsibility.
A feminist climate movement must therefore acknowledge the increased violence women suffer as a result of climate change, and tap into the insights women have on fighting climate change thanks to their roles in society, while at the same time guarding against a regressive gender essentialism that threatens to segregate the fight for a sustainable future.
We are all part of the environment, and we all have a duty protect it; theories advocating this theoretical equality, whilst acknowledging the historical factors making some more susceptible to or responsible for climate change, are the most progressive way forward for the climate movement. Take hydrofeminism, which sees each of us as a watery body, taking things in and giving things out alongside every other body on Earth. We can and should acknowledge humanity’s connection with nature – however, unlike so many other aspects of the climate crisis, this connection is not gendered.
Image credit: Pascal Bernardon, Unsplash
Event summary by Laura Watson
Professor Joni Seager:
Links between gender and climate change can most easily be seen in the differential impacts of climate change. However, the impacts of climate change ripple through society along lines of vulnerability not limited to gender. The impacts of natural disasters are particularly notable, often exacerbating existing social issues; and the recovery from natural disasters also tends to be biased against women.
In recent years, increasing attention has been paid to the connections between the drivers of—and solutions to—climate change and gender. For example, overconsumption, considered a key contributor to climate change, is a gendered behaviour, due to masculine and feminine identities and the consumer habits these identities encourage. Further, around the world, studies have shown that women are more perceptive of climate and environmental issues and potential solutions to climate change, and thus their role in building a sustainable future cannot be overlooked.
Lorena Aguilar Revelo:
As the impacts of climate change become more significant, and more people become vulnerable to these impacts, women are often portrayed as passive victims. But, in reality, they are often agents of change.
There are some links between climate change and gender that we are only just starting to research. For example, sea level rise and its associated rise in water salinity has been linked to an increase in complications during pregnancy for women in affected areas. There may be many more links between climate change and gender that we do not yet know about: this area requires more research.
Gender has now become a guiding principle at climate change Conferences Of Parties (COPs), but much more can done to address this constantly evolving issue.
Q: Women are often seen as passive victims of environmental degradation, but key figures in environmental movements are often women – why do you think this trend exists?
Joni: Joni favours a structural explanation: that crises cause fractures along pre-existing social lines, and those more vulnerable are more likely to perceive these threats to their wellbeing
Lorena: Women often see issues more readily, and pay attention to them. It should however be recognised that not all women act in the same way and come into discussions for different reasons.
Q: Have you seen governments become more likely to take equality implementation more seriously now its so clearly linked with climate change?
Lorena: Gender has to be addressed in any project addressing climate change in order for funding to be given, so it is now an addressed part of climate action.
Joni: There has been progress in equality over the decades, but it is fragile and halting. Gender requirements can be seen as a box people have to tick, and gender is often done for the purposes of ticking this box rather than as an issue which needs to be tackled for its own value.
Joni: Gender is part of the toolkit for action on climate change, and in the face of crisis, it is a part of the toolkit which cannot afford to be left behind.
Lorena: No amount of planning can mitigate the impacts of climate change, and there are uncertainties surrounding humanity's capacity to act.
To watch the rest of this speaker event, please head to our Youtube channel here.
About the speakers:
Joni Seager is a feminist geographer and Professor of Global Studies at Bentley University in Boston. She is the author of author of many books on gender equity and global environmental policy, including her award-winning feminist classic 'The Women’s Atlas', 'The State of the Environment Atlas', and 'Earth Follies: Coming to Feminist Terms With the Global Environmental Crisis'. She has been an active consultant with the United Nations on several gender and environmental policy projects, including consulting with the UNEP on integrating gender perspectives into their work on disasters and early warming systems, and with UNESCO and the Division on Economic and Social Affairs on gender in water policy.
Lorena Aguilar is the Regional Coordinator of International Cooperation and Research at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO). She previously served as Costa Rica’s Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs and Worship where she participated in the development of the first Decarbonisation Plan for the country and lead the UNFCCC “unconventional 25 Pre-COP”. Until 2018, Lorena was also Global Senior Gender Advisor and Global Director of the Governance and Rights Program of the International Union for Conversation of Nature (IUCN). She has been a pioneer in the creation of international international gender networks such as the Network of Women Minister and Leaders of the Environment and the Global Gender and Climate Alliance (GGCA).
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