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Climate change – is it a feminist issue?

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The climate emergency feels like something that should be a universal experience – a unifying threat to the planet we all share. But in reality, the climate crisis poses more of an immediate threat to some groups than it does to others. Some people will feel the effects of climate change more quickly, and more deeply, and some have solutions that are inaccessible to others.

For many of us in the global north, although we are increasingly aware of the effects of climate change, it doesn’t yet impact our day-to-day lives. The impacts of climate change – such as deforestation, water scarcity and land degradation – disproportionately affect those whose livelihoods depend on these ecosystems. The poor and other marginalised groups are especially vulnerable to climate change, since their livelihoods are often more dependent on natural resources that are sensitive to climate variability.

But the hardest hit by the climate emergency? Women – particularly women of colour.

UN figures suggest that 80 percent of people displaced by climate change worldwide are women. In 2016, the Global Gender and Climate Alliance found that women are more likely to suffer food insecurity as a result of the climate crisis. A report this year by the IUCN found the climate crisis was fuelling violence against women around the world. And that has a knock-on effect in terms of equality of access to education, exacerbating existing inequalities.

The impact of climate change makes stark the entrenched inequalities that already exist across the world. Women still have less economic, political and legal power – and are hence less able to cope with, and are more exposed to, to adverse effects of a changing climate.

Of course, gender is not the only factor at play – experiences of climate change are also influenced by factors such as age, class and race, among others. You only need to look at the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic – which has disproportionately impacted black and minority ethnic communities and women – to illustrate how crises can affect people differently across existing power lines of gender, race and class.

So, what can we do?

As we take action against the climate crisis, we mustn’t treat it as separate from gender equality – we need to view these as intersectional issues. In order to fight the gendered impacts of the climate crisis, we also need more women in power. Women and girls must be at the centre of decisions made on climate – at a local, national and international level. 

Studies show that countries with higher representation of women at a parliamentary level are more likely to set aside protected land areas and to ratify multilateral environmental agreements., while evidence also suggests that women play a vital role in dealing with disasters by mobilising their communities. Just this year, research conducted by the Centre for Economic Policy Research and the World Economic Forum found that countries led by women experienced fewer deaths from COVID-19. Women leaders were found to be more “risk averse” around loss of life but “more willing to take risks in the domain of the economy”.

2021 is set to be a big year for climate action. As hosts of this year’s UN climate summit, COP26, the UK needs to commit to integrating equality and inclusion in our response to climate change. But when the UK’s leading negotiators and civil servants for COP26 are all men – with not one woman represented at a senior level – how can the gender divisions in climate be taken into account?

Women are hit harder by this crisis – they must be at the centre of our response. The fight for women’s empowerment and climate justice go hand in hand; there can be no fight for one without the other. Want to read more about this issue? I recommend Ecofeminsm by Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva, Why Women Will Save The Planet by Friends of the Earth and Critically Sovereign by Joanne Barker.

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