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 Celine Barclay
“The least responsible are disproportionately affected by climate change”. It’s taken a while, but the phrase is finally taking a hold in our consciousness and our conversations. Fittingly, OCS’s flagship event tackled the issue of climate justice with two truly inspiring speakers; Mary Robinson and Dr Vandana Shiva. They illuminated the various forms of injustice that have made the climate crisis a legacy of colonial and patriarchal structures. Crucially, the two speakers highlighted the need for a paradigmatic shift in our conception of “development” in order to confront the climate crisis fairly and effectively.
The first speaker, Mary Robinson, served as the first female president of Ireland. She went on to become the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, before setting up her own foundation ‘Climate Justice’ and publishing a book of the same name.
Dr Vandana Shiva is a leading human rights activist who founded Navdanya International (an organisation helping farmers protect seeds from the genetic patents of large corporations) and is the leader of the International Forum on Globalisation. She has authored over 20 books in which she defends traditional practices, helping to shift our idea of development in favour of acknowledging the value of small-scale farmers.
Mary Robinson took a structured approach by identifying 5 layers of climate injustice:
1) Responsibility: the first layer related to the phrase at the beginning of this post, that climate change disproportionately affects those least responsible for creating the problem, such as indigenous people and the inhabitants of small island states;
2) Gender: women are particularly vulnerable to climate change because of their different social roles, and because they often don’t have access to land rights or insurance. As with all intersecting levels of inequality, women in poorer countries are doubly vulnerable where these factors are concerned;
3) Intergenerational injustice: the injustice that future generations will suffer the consequences of inaction by the generation currently in leadership positions;
4) Pathways to development: industrialised countries historically built their wealth on fossil fuels. Poorer nations are currently attempting to follow the same path of development while also under pressure to transition to renewable energy. Richer countries have failed to provide the financial support for such a transition, leaving industrialising countries caught between fighting poverty on a national scale and fighting climate change on a global scale;
5) Nature: As a firm advocate for the nature-based approach, Mary signalled the injustice against nature that climate change has wrought, threatening as it does the survival of millions of species. It is interesting to note that she personified nature as a female, not only emphasising that the earth is living, as Dr Vadana would do, but also identifying the injustice to the earth in association with the gender dimension she mentioned above. She stressed the need to conserve at least 30% of land and oceans under the Convention on Biodiversity.
Mary then gave her assessment of the current state of global action on climate change. She managed to find hope in response to the current Covid-19 crisis, which she credits with teaching us various lessons that can be carried forward in our future approach. Compliance with the lock-down has shown us the collective power of simultaneous changes in our behaviour. Just as we have stayed at home to protect the most vulnerable to the virus, we must shift our behaviour to protect those most vulnerable to climate change. It has also demonstrated the importance of good government, science and compassion.
Mary finished by expressing hope that we will take the opportunity to create a new beginning. Covid-19 has taught us to learn what we can do without and to make radical changes to our lifestyle, two lessons that are essential if we are to throw away our ‘throw away culture’ and embrace nature-based solutions.
Yes, this will require large scale investment, borrowing from future generations, but only in order to safeguard their future. So Mary is less worried now than she was at the beginning of the year: “Covid has broken the system that wasn’t working anyway”.
The unanimity between the two speakers was clear the moment Dr Vadana took her turn to speak. Chuckling warmly, she noted that she had also identified 5 layers of injustice:
1) Picking up where Mary left off, she raised the injustice against nature as part of a history of colonialism and exploitation. The glorification of conquest in colonial times is a model for our relationship with the earth as dead matter to be possessed and exploited. She passionately insisted that we must revoke this mentality and recognise not only that the earth is alive, but that it regulates its own systems.
Her speech was incredibly powerful, drawing an analogy between the fossil age and the fossilisation of our minds and hearts that has resulted from extracting fossil fuels. Dr Vadana sees a comparison between mechanisation and industrialisation and the development of a mechanical mind, closed off to human empathy and capable of wreaking such destruction on human communities. Yet we have erroneously believed developing the technologies for extraction demonstrated our intellectual superiority;
2) This led Dr Vandana to speak of the injustice against those who lead ecological ways of living. Vandana grew up in India and related how India was called barbaric in colonial times within a discourse of ‘development that propped up the colonial regime. In the 80s she observed that behind every ecological disaster there seemed to be a loan from the World Bank financing some project in the name of “development”’. When she investigated the loans, she found that ‘under-development’ meant not using plastic or pesticides, and adhering to the hydrological cycle. But it is the promotion of these rationalised “developed” techniques of agriculture which have caused the ecological destruction we see today;
3) This damaging approach to agriculture is itself linked to a third layer of injustice: that the most vulnerable are disproportionately affected. Vandana said drought “is the single biggest crisis” and a result of a false definition of development that, for instance, promotes the use of fertilisers and neglects to replenish organic matter in the soil;
4) Her fourth injustice was the injustice of false solutions. She denounced the ‘voluntary’ approach to emissions reduction commitments characteristic of the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement.
She identified 3 unjust false solutions: geo-engineering, genetic engineering, and the “disease” of offsetting. Geo-engineering falls short because it fails to take into account how the earth functions as a system. Genetic engineering fails to recognise that resilient traits are in the plants and not in the gene that is extracted.
Vandana then railed against offsetting which she compared to the Roman Catholic sales of indulgences. Like unrepentant sinners who bribe the church to keep on sinning, rich countries can continue emitting by “offsetting”, a solution that in no way tackles the root of the problem. In fact, after the Kyoto protocol, emissions increased by 15% and the economic inequality between countries increased.
Vandana concluded by emphasising that the injustices framing the climate crisis can only be resolved by removing the colonisation paradigm and the concomitant definitions of “productivity” “efficiency” and “development”. Her research shows that when we work with nature and biodiversity, we can produce more food by healing broken carbon and nitrogen cycles. Doing so will end the injustice of labelling ecological ways of living as primitive and be part of a shift from an economy that measures GDP to one that measures happiness. Returning to the repeated theme of earth and life cycles, Vandana identified this as a “shift from the circulation of money to circulation of life.”
This was truly a highlight of the term card; it was inspiring to hear from such passionate and experienced speakers. Their long history of collaboration was testament to the central theme of the discussion: the intersectionality of the injustices within the climate crisis which must be addressed.
Climate change is arguably the one disaster that unites the world; something that will wreak havoc across countries and oceans alike due to its all-encompassing nature. Despite the unbiased nature of CO2, climate change itself is not a gender-neutral phenomenon; the impacts are found to have disproportionately negative effects on women, especially those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. With the fate of (effectively) half of the world’s population hanging in the balance, this is something that deserves immediate attention though research in adaptation and prevention specifically targeted at the impacts on women.
OCS Media Team
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