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
By Laura Watson
Across the world, many stories are being told about climate change. Below are some you may or may not have heard. The complex interactions in these stories between people and the planet mean that they offer us learning opportunities: about the importance of a balance with nature, about the centrality of climate mitigation to human rights, and about the need for action now.
Stories of too little water
The Aral Sea was once the 4th largest lake in the world, but 60 years ago Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev decided to industrialise agriculture across central Asia with dramatic consequences for the lake. To achieve Khruschev’s lofty agricultural goals, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, which are part of the Aral Sea drainage basin, were diverted into irrigation for cotton fields, and the lake slowly started to dry up. Over 25 years ago, an international fund for saving the Aral Sea was set up, but due to a lack of cooperation between the 5 Asian countries involved on key issues surrounding water, the fund has however had little success; the Aral Sea has now all but disappeared.
The disappearance of the inland sea is an issue in and of itself, but its implications go further. Silt from what used to be the lake-bed can now be subjected to wind erosion, with resulting dust storms in 2018 blotting out the sky, turning rain brackish and causing issues for crops. The industrial production of cotton, often using forced labour, in the surrounding region has led to the salinisation of the soil and serious accretion of persistent, toxic pesticide residues, leading to significant health problems. The loss of the moderating influence of this large body of water has made winters colder and summers hotter and drier.
It’s not just the people in the surrounding area who have been impacted by this disaster. As the lake became smaller and the salinity of the water increased, fewer and fewer fish species were able to survive. The lake ecosystem has now collapsed, contributing to the decimation of the once thriving fishing industry in the towns surrounding the lake, and the loss of a number of land animals whose life-cycles depended on the health of the lake.
Water issues are amplified by climate change, and the ecological crisis. The Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, for example, are fed by glaciers in the distant Pamir mountains which are now rapidly shrinking. But what is even more important is to realise that it didn’t have to go this way. The lesson to learn from the Aral Sea is one which should be applied to the rest of the planet, especially as the climate changes and water becomes more of an issue. This story shows the need to find a balance between extracting water from nature and leaving it where it is, to support the complex ecosystem dynamics which depend on it.
The Aral Sea is a worst-case outcome, but one which could soon become true for the rest of the world, including for large rivers like the Colorado River, USA, in the face of both climate change and human exploitation. Water management issues are playing out across the world, and we could soon have conflict breaking out over access to water. For example, an Ethiopian hydro-electric dam project which will affect water levels downstream for countries such as Sudan who already experience water issues will soon begin construction. Some experts claim this could cause a war over water in as little as a few years. We must learn from the mistakes of the Aral Sea before it is too late.
Stories of snow
The upper reaches of Finnish Lapland are a largely pristine landscape of forests, marshes, deep clean lakes and scree-covered fells. They are also the homeland of the Sami (Saami, or Sámi) people, as well as lynxes, brown bears, wolves and golden eagles. This important region acts as a buffer against climate change: the peat-rich soils of the area trap significant amounts of carbon, acting as a massive carbon sink. Unfortunately, the area is under direct threat from climate change, as well as the proposed construction of a railroad across the region.
The Sami culture is highly adapted to their home in Finnish Lapland. They use hides for clothing, bones and reindeer antlers for tools and handicrafts. Around 1,000 words in the Sami language exist to describe the appearance and behaviour of reindeer, and 360 relating to snow.
But conditions for snow and the reindeer are now no longer predictable; the snow now arrives later, there is less of it, and its structure is different. These changes to snow conditions are threatening the Sami way of life, and in particular their herding practices. Some have now turned to modern technologies to ensure that their reindeer survive in longer snow-free periods. It is likely that as the Sami people lose what was unique to their way of life, the Sami culture and language may begin to disappear too.
Sadly, issues relating to snow are not limited to Finland. Across the world, retreating snowlines have “beached” places like ski resorts. Taking the example of the French mountains, climate change is a threat to the winter ski industry there, as they are receiving declining amounts of natural snow, and the snow they do get falls over shorter periods. The elevation where snow can reliably be expected to fall is predicted to rise, by up to 600m in the Pyrenees, and up to 300m across the Alps.
We can move and repurpose hotels, but the ecosystems that these places had as their foundation are changing and even disappearing. While the depopulation of mountain regions may be a feasible response strategy for humans, it is not necessarily one available to the animals and plants left behind. Further concerns for the non-human population arise in relation to potential conflict between humans and animals. Skiing activities will respond to the retreating snow line by moving further up mountain slopes. At the same time, suitable ranges for high elevation bird species may significantly contract (by up to 67% in the Alps). As bird habitats and skiing areas increasingly overlap, conflict between species may ensue, a pattern that may be seen for many animals and ecosystems as climate change progresses.
What can we learn from these stories?
By Kristiina Joon
With numerous stories of yet another extinction of some beloved species making headlines in recent years, one has to wonder about the extent of this ecological crisis we are causing. Could it be considered the sixth mass extinction?
The geological record shows us that there have been five far-reaching global extinction events over the past 500 million years. These events are defined as relatively short intervals of time, up to a few million years, over which at least three quarters of all terrestrial and marine organisms disappear due to environmental stressors, such as global warming or cooling, meteorite impacts, or ocean acidification and deoxygenation. Based on the rock record alone, though, it is difficult to disentangle what exactly the triggers and mechanisms were that resulted in such large-scale losses of biodiversity, as the geological record is imperfect and not all organisms end up being preserved.
A sixth extinction?
The numbers of lost animals in the human era are alarming. From the conservative estimate of 5 to 9 million animal species which inhabit the planet, we are likely losing between 11 and 58 thousand per year — a figure difficult to imagine.
Is it our fault?
Humans are putting increasing pressure on various groups of organisms via direct exploitation, hunting, the introduction of invasive species, and habitat destruction. However, in the majority of cases, it can be argued that we are not causing extinction per se. Instead, we are driving a decrease in the number of animals within certain species, especially of those located at the tops of food chains. This causes the links in the ecosystem to weaken, eventually leading to a collapse, accompanied by the extinction of the more vulnerable species involved. The old network of intricate food webs is replaced by a new, typically much more simplistic, system as was the case with oyster catching, where the multitude of estuarine species are now effectively gone due to the over-harvesting of only one, fundamental, organism in that ecosystem. Humans start the chain of changes but do not directly cause all the extinctions.
Considering all this information, are we then in a mass extinction? Many scientists would argue ‘yes’ but the answer to this question is slightly more complex. When people think about extinction, they tend to think about the number of species that have been lost. To understand the severity of the current ecological crisis, however, we must also consider the rate at which the species are lost. If species continue to be lost at a similar rate as they have been over the past few centuries, we would be approaching extinction magnitudes similar to the previous five mass extinctions — at least 75% of all organisms lost — in just a few centuries.
Regardless of the terminology we use, it is inarguable that humans are putting severe pressures on the biosphere, and that we are approaching a point after which recovery to the previous state becomes unlikely.
Barnosky et al 2011
Ceballos et al 2017
Dirzo et al 2014
OCS Media Team
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