Isobel Downie considers the complexities of the climate crisis and gender.
Is climate change a feminist issue? The simple answer is yes.
The more complex answer involves analysing how gender, class, race, geography and history intersect to create a system in which women in the Global South are disproportionately impacted by climate change.
As a Politics and International Relations student, I closely followed the pivotal COP26 climate summit in Glasgow this year. Although the summit raised many important issues, the main questions I asked when watching footage of the event were where are all the women? Are women’s voices being systematically ignored in international climate politics? What impact does this have on women who are directly experiencing the effects of climate change?
Shockingly, 10/12 of the UK leadership positions at COP26 were male, the most prominent being the president of the summit Alok Sharma. Furthermore, research has found that women are underrepresented on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), with only 20% of authors being female. These are important forums in which key decisions about the future of the planet are being made and it is therefore worrying that women are systematically excluded from them. Although men in leadership positions may have good intentions, a lack of personal experience means they cannot fully consider how climate policies (or lack of) impact women, particularly those in the Global South.
Nevertheless, it is too simplistic to suggest that COP26 ignored the concept of gender altogether. A whole day was devoted to gender and climate, representing a growing awareness of the way in which climate change intersects with social and global inequalities. This is also reflected in the success of SHE Changes Climate, an activist group calling for a 50:50 balance of women at the top of all future climate negotiations. An open letter to the UK government on this issue was produced and signed by over 450 environmental leaders.
Although increasing representation at the top is important, its effectiveness will be limited if only white western women are promoted. In order to achieve true equality of representation, it is necessary for voices that have historically been marginalised to be brought to the forefront of international climate negotiations. Furthermore, future negotiations must consider that it is difficult for women in the Global South to physically attend summits and therefore be included in the decision-making process, a factor which has been exacerbated by Covid-19.
Women in the Global South are the most affected by climate change. The UN estimates that 80% of people displaced by climate change are female and there is an increased risk of sexual violence during this process. Due to traditional gender roles, women are more likely to be responsible for finding food, water, and shelter for their families, all of which are potentially impacted by climate change, for example due to extreme weather events. The COP26 summit did make significant progress on addressing these issues. For example, the UK has pledged to provide £165 million in funding to address gender issues in climate change and the US has invested £14 million of the Gender Equity and Equality Action Fund towards gender-responsive climate programming. Countries in the Global South, such as Bolivia, have also pledged to promote female leadership in sustainable development projects. These actions by states suggests there is an increasing awareness of the intertwined nature of gender and climate change, however the success of the COP26 summit should be judged on whether these policies are implemented in an effective manner.
In contrast to formal summit negotiations, the climate activist movement has a clear female leader in Greta Thunberg. Due to her role in inspiring the School Strike for Climate, she has become a martyr for the movement, a factor which may have worrying consequences. Although she has a fantastic ability to mobilise and inspire people, she has no concrete political power of her own. Despite this, she is treated as a pseudo-politician and has met world leaders such as UN-Secretary General Antonio Guterres, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen. This elevation from a social activist to an international political figure obscures her position as a young teenage girl with Aspergers. Arguably too much pressure has been placed on her to produce a solution to the climate crisis, in contrast to male politicians who have hard political power. For example, Boris Johnson attended the opening days of the COP26 summit and later flew back to Westminster on a private jet. The lack of response to this by the media emphasises how the actions of male politicians (particularly Boris Johnson) face less scrutiny than women who are also in the public eye.
Furthermore, the martyrdom of Greta Thunberg reveals how white western voices are often promoted over those from the Global South. It is important that voices from communities that are directly affected by climate change are heard. For example, Autumn Peltier is a climate activist from Manitoulin Island, however she has received very little coverage in comparison to Greta Thunberg. In order for climate change policies to be truly inclusive, we must move away from a western-centred bias in both activism and negotiations. Valuing and truly listening to the lived experiences of those directly impacted by climate change will allow for more effective policy solutions to be implemented.
It is evident that climate change is a feminist issue. More work is needed to bring women and their experiences to the forefront of climate change negotiations. However, this cannot just be a white feminist issue; it must be an inclusive and expansive process which recognises the different experiences of women across the globe.
Artwork by Nancy Taylor.