The last decade has seen an increasing focus on gender equality and the impact of the climate crisis. In 2019, Greta Thunberg was named Time magazine’s woman of the year, and in 2022 women and climate change was named a top priority by the UN for COP27 negotiations in Egypt. However, within the dialogue, there is no room for queerness or indeed for intersectionality, or a womanhood that is not comfortably represented in political agency. Experiences of the world which do not fit neatly into a category aren’t accounted for…
Women and Climate Impacts
Growing awareness of the devastating impacts of climate change, from the floods in Pakistan this year to wildfires in London, have highlighted the need to dig deeper into the impacts of climate change and who can adapt.
Non-governmental organizations and grassroots campaigners have drawn attention to the relative inequality women face as a result of the effects of climate change. With less economic access to adapt, responsibility towards family members, and overrepresentation in frontline care industries, women are more likely to experience these impacts of climate change to a higher degree. They are also less likely to be represented in decision making structures across industries and political scales. This means that their interests and specific needs across gender violence, economic inequality and traditional family roles are often not incorporated into policy outcomes to tackle the climate crisis. In the main negotiating spaces of COP27, most state leaders and diplomats are men.
Activists who are leading the way in mobilizing awareness and grassroots action in these spaces have called for more representation of women across campaigning and negotiations, pointing out that
In some ways, these efforts are paying off, with November 14th designated as the official day to draw awareness to the impact of the climate crisis on women.
Women and Representation
However, the relationship between women and the climate crisis is more complicated than this. When women are presented as an agenda issue, or a quota to be filled in political representation, they are both presented as a homogenous category and removed from their agency as political actors. This diverts attention away from the core issues that led to the current conditions of the climate crisis.
When Greta Thunberg was presented on the front cover of Time magazine in 2019, questions were raised around representation and power in climate activism. The media’s continual fixation on her opinions, her actions, and even her physical appearance have launched her into a space so famous she has become a regular household name. This presents her as a shorthand, or key leader, of women and youth in climate activism.
Obscuring the decades of indigenous and Global South climate movements, and current key figures in mobilization around climate justice
It took two more years for Vanessa Nakate, the influential young Ugandan activist, to be represented in the same publication. This followed public pressure after she was cropped out of a photo of other-white-climate activists at the 2020 World Economic Forum in Davos. The lack of interrogation of the structures within which politics are formed allows the same socio-political structures to be reproduced. Through an “idealized climate activist “racism underpins who society deems as a leader, an expert, and a comfortable representative of the category of women in climate politics. The issue of representation reinforces itself by constructing narratives around one idealized figure to represent entire communities or areas of the world.
By focusing on the disproportionate impacts of climate change on women and representation within climate justice movements, the root causes of the climate crisis are also being left out of the conversation. Presented victimhood implies a level of inevitability in outcomes and removes agency in how women with disproportionate levels of power benefit from operating within the same structures that created the current conditions. Black feminist geographer Kathryn Yusoff has pointed to the ways in which framing the climate crisis as a technical and scientific issue reinforces the specific racial capitalist logic that allowed extraction to occur in the Global South from colonialism onwards. Through a decade of UN COP negotiations and the mainstreaming of climate policy commitments across political parties, action has rarely been legally binding and has never named capitalist dispossession for extraction as a key reason for increasing global carbon emissions. When 71% of global emissions are produced by only 100 companies, mainly managed in the Global North, and with the increasing profits of oil and gas companies during a cost-of-living crisis, it’s hard not to see policy negotiations as “empty institutions” that divert attention away from the true roots of capital accumulation. Ensuring women enter negotiating and political spaces such as COP27 is not enough.
The advance of capitalism is intertwined with the patriarchy. Dispossession from land, the creation of racialized labour and the systematic disempowering of communities to extract materials relies on a binary logic amongst those with more power – cis men-and others. There is a framed and enforced divide between humans and nature, geographic distance between the dispossessed and those that accumulate wealth from materials, and an ideology of power that is reproduced in everyday gender relations to ensure that women are kept in difficult economic conditions to maintain the labour pool. To maintain a justification for increasing extraction, the economic structure of capitalism must reinforce these binaries.
Feminism: Beyond Women?
There is still value in exploring the ways in which women are affected by the climate crisis. It is urgent and without a doubt will disproportionately affect those already more vulnerable to inequality and disempowerment.
The framing of women and the climate crisis can be pivoted away from the experiences of women as victims and/or political agents towards feminism as a collective. Drawing on the ideas above, we can recognise the experiences of disempowerment to be a result of capitalism and the patriarchy, and, in order to tackle the climate crisis, there is a call to break down these systems. Women don’t need to be ‘victimised’. Rather the people who continue to benefit need to be challenged if the narrative brings about violence and racism as a result of uneven power distribution.
In response to the reinforcement of binaries and categories of power, ecofeminism and indigenous feminism have worked to reframe responses to the climate crisis as needing to “create wonder in the midst of dread.” Rather than a socio-political or technical issue requiring negotiations and scientific solutions, the climate crisis calls us to examine how we live and view ourselves in relation to each other and nature. If viewing ourselves as separate categories allows for the disproportionate assertion of power and therefore the negative impacts of extraction, then knowledge and modes of collective action that challenge capitalism and cultivate connection need to be embraced. This challenge can come across structures, through climate reparations to the Global South to dismantle capitalist accumulation in the Global North, to the celebration of genuinely radical climate movements that draw on a wide range of experiences of dispossession and indigenous knowledges.
Article by Sophia
Graphic by Peggy Mitchell