Words by Jessica Kleczka
Climate change is not just an environmental issue, but one of politics and social justice. It is a crisis of exploitation of both people and planet, with the impacts of both inextricably linked. Women and girls are thought to be the most impacted by disasters and extreme weather, and the recent IPCC report emphasised the catastrophic human cost which will unfold if world leaders fail to act with the urgency needed.
In the struggle for climate justice, we must aim to dismantle the dysfunctional societal systems which created climate change in the first place - and the oppression of women is one of the pillars carrying those systems which endanger our hope for a liveable future. For this International Women’s Day, we asked a group of female climate leaders for their message to the world.
(trigger warning: gender-based violence, disaster)
Women are disproportionately affected by poverty - meaning that being poor will affect women more severely than men - and are more likely to suffer hardship, health issues, and marginalisation as a result. While there is a similar number of poor women and men overall, women tend to be affected more by poverty. The majority of elderly and young people in poverty are women who tend to have less access to resources than men in similar economic situations. This is why we must approach gender justice from an equity perspective, rather than just equality - meaning that women deserve access to the resources we need, rather than merely providing us with the same resources as men. Women tend to need more resources, simply because we tend to have more on our plate. A lack of equity was evident in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the United States, when sanctuaries showed a general lack of sanitary products and childcare facilities. This was especially true in areas with higher populations of minority groups, highlighting the intersection of gender inequality and environmental racism.
Women are also highly dependent on natural resources for food: In a lot of countries of the Global South, women make up the majority of the agricultural workforce to feed their families - a lot of which is unpaid. And because those resources are being threatened, many women’s whole existence is at stake from climate change impacts.
Today, women are still less likely to be in positions of decision-making power. Around the world, only 15% of environment ministers are women, and female representation in climate negotiation bodies like COP26 stands at only 30%. This actually undermines sustainability efforts: Women often have a deep relationship with the land and solid knowledge on conservation and climate change mitigation - if our voices are not heard, important perspectives and a wealth of knowledge are missing.
As the climate crisis escalates, women are more at risk of gender-based violence: According to Amnesty International, 80% of people displaced in natural disasters are women. Displacement increases risk of early or forced marriage, teenage pregnancy, rape, human trafficking, and sextortion in exchange for water, food or other resources. After the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia, there were three times more male than female survivors - women often missed evacuation efforts because they were held up looking after children and other relatives.
Women’s important role in the household is the backbone of many developing economies, but also a major risk factor for their physical safety. They are often responsible for securing water, food and fuel for cooking and heating. Those resources are now becoming increasingly scarce, with dry seasons getting longer and women and girls having to walk long distances as a result. This makes them vulnerable to being harassed, abducted or assaulted.
Not all women are equally affected by the climate crisis, either: women of colour, disabled women, Indigenous women, trans women, sex workers, women in the Global South and those at the intersections of marginalised identities have to face increased risks, and increased barriers to meaningful participation. Last year’s floods in Germany, which killed a large number of elderly and disabled people, highlighted that those effects are hitting close to home and that different risks can compound into multiple climate hazards. We cannot look at gender in isolation, but must recognise the many ways in which women’s identities can shape our experience.
Climate justice will not be possible without gender equality. Women need access to equal pay, equal say, and equal access to resources in order to find solutions to the joint crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, and increasing social inequality. Around the world, women are still being paid less than men for the same work and at the current rate, it will take us 170 years to close the gender pay gap. Gender equality will be crucial for food security, too: If women were to be given the same access to land as men, yields could increase by 20-30%, providing an additional 150 million people with food.
Uplifting women in climate leadership benefits all of society: Countries with adequate female representation in politics tend to show better governance, develop policies more efficiently, and have lower greenhouse gas emissions. Parliaments with more women are more likely to ratify environment treaties like the Paris Agreement and protect land for conservation due to their substantial knowledge on resource stewardship. On an international level, women are more cooperative both across the political spectrum and cultural differences.
The importance of political participation is not limited to governments, however: Women’s engagement in activism is thought to contribute to positive policy outcomes, and more prioritisation of environmental and social issues.
Improved access to education is the single most economic factor in reducing women and girls’ vulnerability to climate impacts. Educating women to secondary or higher levels of schooling improves long-term economic outcomes, reduces infant mortality, disease risk and overall emissions.
To achieve equitable outcomes, industrialised western nations will need to step up: We have yet to meet our $100 billion climate finance goal, and the cost of clean energy alone is estimated at $100 billion a year in poorer nations. This comes on top of $20 billion a year in climate change adaptation costs, which are expected to double by 2025 and increase exponentially the longer we delay climate action. There are now loud calls for loss and damage payments, which are a form of reparations from richer countries - who historically have been the highest emitters - to poorer countries, who require support in order to decarbonise whilst maintaining or increasing quality of life. Loss and damage finance will be a crucial aspect of any justice-focused approach to climate action: Already, countries are showing signs of maladaptation because they simply do not have funds for sustainable, resilient development.
Climate change is a man-made problem, caused by those who benefit most from systems of patriarchy and racial capitalism - and we will not solve it without meaningful climate leadership from women and other marginalised genders. This can happen in a variety of ways: gender audits in organisations and government to identify barriers to participation; centring local and Indigenous knowledge; employing gender-sensitive climate finance to uplift women and girls; and focusing on equity rather than just equality. There are a number of great initiatives out there - such as She Changes Climate, who campaign for a minimum of 50% female representation across delegations for climate negotiations such as COP26. The future of environmentalism is one which recognises the intersectionality of climate solutions - and women are leading the fight for a better future.
BIPOC - an acronym which stands for black, Indigenous and people of colour.
Racial capitalism - the process of extracting social and economic value from a person of a different racial identity, typically a person of colour. According to Black Marxism, all capitalism is inherently racial capitalism as capitalism can only function by exploiting social inequality.
Intersectionality - a framework for understanding how aspects of a person's social and political identities combine to create different modes of discrimination and privilege.