International Women’s Day 2020: Why is climate justice a feminist issue?

“In a patriarchal world, climate change simply magnifies the existing inequalities within our society.” On International Women’s Day 2020, Kate Metcalf, Co-Director of the Women’s Environmental Network (Wen) calls for an intersectional feminist approach to the climate crisis.

Activists with placards marching in a demonstration
Activists with placards marching in a demonstration
Kate Metcalf

What has International Women’s Day got to do with the climate crisis? Everything! As we celebrate International Women’s Day this Sunday (8 March) we would like to take this opportunity to focus attention on the gendered impacts of the climate crisis. 

Although there is an increasing awareness about the impacts of climate change on women, this is still limited.  At Wen (Women’s Environmental Network) this is a topic close to our hearts and one that we have been championing for a long time. We believe that it’s essential to take a feminist approach to climate justice. We’ll be discussing just this at our upcoming Wen Forum event in Manchester on the 11 March.  Please join us if you can – everyone is welcome!

Why is the climate crisis a feminist issue?

The climate crisis is a key environmental, social, racial and gender justice issue. Climate change is affecting everyone but not in the same way. Women, especially women of colour and poorer women, are more impacted due to different and unequal roles and status. The climate crisis disproportionately affects women and girls precisely because women and girls are already marginalised. In a patriarchal world, climate change simply magnifies the existing inequalities within our society.   

Women and children are 14 times more likely to die than men from natural disasters.  Women are more likely to suffer violence, including sexual violence, in resource conflicts exacerbated by the climate crisis. Women throughout the world (even in the Global North) also tend to carry the main burden of child-care, care of the elderly and the sick and domestic tasks. This work is often invisible in society and to decision-makers as it is not counted in the GDP, yet it underpins our whole economic system and society. With the climate emergency these gendered roles are likely to increase women’s work significantly.  

Women often have a different relationship to the environment through these different and unequal roles and status. This can also give them a unique perspective on solutions to environmental harm. Wen doesn’t subscribe to the view that this relationship is necessarily an inherent trait of women, that we are inherently closer to nature – it is the prescribed gender roles that have created this. We don’t believe in essentialism. We think that childcare, domestic tasks, caring for the sick and elderly should be shared equally between men and women.  

Hurricane Katrina is often portrayed as simply a race and poverty issue, but of the people left behind and unable to escape, 85 per cent of them were African American women. Why didn’t they escape? They were poorer, didn’t own cars and had dependent children or relatives making it harder to escape in time. 

An intersectional feminist approach 

That’s why we believe that it’s important to take an intersectional feminist approach to the climate crisis. This means looking at how different types of discrimination such as race, poverty, class, disability interact with gender inequality and affect people’s experience of their environment and climate change. The starting point for any climate change policy should be ‘who will it affect the most?’ Equality should be at the centre so that existing inequalities are transformed rather than exacerbated. 

Some of the biggest challenges facing our world today are gender inequality, racism, the climate crisis, poverty and militarism. We believe that they are inextricably linked and have the same root causes. 

Our patriarchal racist capitalist system is both a driver and a cause of the climate crisis. This system devalues both nature and women, people of colour and poorer communities. The system is inherently gender, race and nature blind, with its roots in colonialism and an extractive mentality.

If we want to achieve a net-zero society then we need to question and challenge existing power structures that are preventing this. For us at Wen, an intersectional feminist approach to climate justice does just this.  Equality is at the heart of achieving climate justice. Any climate action must also address equality – gender, racial and social equality. We cannot achieve a net-zero economy without addressing equality. As Mary Robinson said, ‘When the problems are man-made the solutions are feminist!’

Women are not equally involved in decision-making at all levels around the climate crisis.  Major environmental and political decisions are overwhelmingly male. Men dominate across all spheres of climate politics including business, government and science. This affects the solutions adopted. 

This is a missed opportunity as women are often leading the way in community-based responses to the climate crisis. Yet their understanding, experience and priorities are often overlooked or invisible. So whilst they are the most active and forward-thinking, they are the last consulted. 

Patriarchy pervades our attitudes to the environment and how we address it. Yet, as it is not often openly acknowledged it is invisible – an invisible power. If we want to address the climate crisis then we need to talk about patriarchy – how it is a driver and cause of climate change and is fuelling the crisis. We need to challenge bloated petrochemical masculinities that are hindering a just transition.

We need to ensure that diverse women have a seat at every table, that they are listened to and that responses to the climate crisis alleviate rather than exacerbate social injustice and promote greater equality.  

For a net-zero society, we need to value the culture of care. Care jobs should be seen as green jobs and properly paid, unionised and valued. We believe that low-tech solutions are equally important as high-tech initiatives and that we need a balance between the two.

Feminist Green New Deal UK (FemGND)

Wen, in partnership with The Women’s Budget Group, is developing work on a Feminist Green New Deal in the UK in the lead up to COP26 in Glasgow in November and beyond.  

We’ll be producing a FemGND Policy Paper which will be presented to the Commission for a Gender Equal Economy as well as a FemGND Set of Principles.  We’ll be launching the Principles document at a Wen Forum event on a Feminist Green New Deal at COP26.  Valuing the care economy will be central to a FemGND as well as advocating for expanded and affordable public transport for all. 

We’re delighted that Caroline Lucas will be speaking at this event. The event is a partnership event with WEDO (Women’s Environment & Development Organisation), The Women’s Budget Group, CEMVO Scotland and others. We’re planning to run a series of grassroots workshops with diverse women’s groups to feed into the FemGND Set of Principles. These will be complemented by roundtables with different groups to gain their insights about what they think are important elements to include in a FemGND for the UK.  We’ll be reaching out to organisations, unions and political parties to sign up to a FemGND.