Feminism and Climate Change

By Kyla Bender-Baird

This Saturday I trudged through the snow to attend the 35th Scholar and Feminist Conference put on by the Barnard Center for Research on Women. Quite appropriately, considering the recent weather, we were discussing feminism and climate change. Commenting on the nearly 36 inches of snow dumped on New York City, Janet Jakobsen, director of BCRW, asked in her welcoming remarks, “Is this a once in a century event or a sign of global climate change?”

Women’s empowerment is a pre-requisite for sustainable development, said Rachel Harris of WEDO. Women play a vital role in environmental development and are disproportionately impacted by global climate change, which exacerbates existing inequalities. Eleanor Sterling reminded us that communities as a whole do not react to climate changes in singular way: different gender and social roles produce different reactions. Women are often primary food, fuel, and water gatherers; they make the majority of consumer choices for households; they have less access to medical care and limited mobility; and they are disproportionately impacted by natural disasters. All these factors result in women being differently impacted by global climate change than men.

This fact is not accounted for in climate change policy. Much of the climate change policy community has unquestionably accepted as fact that we’ll be okay if the planet doesn’t warm more than 2°C. However, Joni Seager pointed out in her keynote address, feminists and other social justice thinkers have long questioned the relativity of “danger” by posing such questions as safe for whom? What Joni laid out in her talk is that this 2°C standard is defined by privilege, power, and geography—not science. In fact, there is a high degree of uncertainty about specific thresholds for global warming and how the warming will impact different ecological environments. While the science remains fuzzy, the economics are clear: reports have shown that 2°C of global warming is the point at which models suggest global changes supersede regional ones. In other words, up to 2°C of global warming, countries in the global North will most likely not be negatively impacted (and may actually see some positive outcomes). It is the global South that will feel the brunt of the warming. As a leader of the G-77 said, 2°C “condemns Africa to death.” After 2°C, the global North will join the global South in suffering the severe consequences of global warming.

This is where feminists can step in. Joni Seager calls upon feminists to follow the time-honored tradition of pointing out the emperor has no clothes: to challenge and resist dominant frameworks and offer alternative ways of framing climate change policies. These alternative frameworks could be based on the principles of do no harm or caring or even mutual responsibility. Unfortunately, the current climate change policy community—dominated, predictably, by men—rejects these frameworks as irrational, leaning instead on the questionable science and logic of the 2°C paradigm.

Throughout the conference, scholars and activists offered alternatives to this problematic and dangerous paradigm. Laila Iskandar Kamel from Egypt emphasized that in the global battle for rights to recycle, they do not refer to what people throw out as “trash;” instead, they talk about “harvesting materials.” By burying materials in landfill, Laila said, we are depriving the earth of organic fertilizer. And instead of recycling plastic bottles, we draw up more oil. If we were to follow the model of recycling, however, not only would we have environmental justice but economic justice as well. According to Laila, every ton of materials generates seven jobs. Recycling also helps with the education of girls and providing technical and vocational skills to communities otherwise marginalized in the global labor market. Recyclers tend to be unskilled, poor, slum dwelling families whose voices (and innovative ideas) are ignored by multi-national corporations who come into a country and insist on bad policies such as landfills.

Winona LaDuke also brought the voices of another largely ignored population into the conversation: Native Americans. In her work for environmental justice, Winona LaDuke advocates appropriate technology and local, sustainable food. For instance, in choosing a wind turbine for her reservation, she made scale and culturally appropriate technology choices so that her community could become less dependent on outside sources for electricity. She also pointed out that pre-industrial, non-patented crops are tougher and more nutritionally significant. It is therefore beneficial—environmentally, economically, and health-wise—to buy local food and invest in appropriate technology rather than rely on the newest high-tech solution.

Majora Carter closed the conference by stressing the importance—and viability—of environmental justice right in our own backyards. Environmental justice is based on the principle that no community should bear the brunt of environmental waste without enjoying the benefits of environmental beauty. There is an all-too-common trend of economic degradation leading to environmental degradation followed by social degradation. Environmental racism essentially paints a pathway to prison rather than prosperity for low-income communities. Studies have shown that there is a link between fossil fuel emissions and learning disabilities and when students do poorly in school, they are more likely to end up in jail. Green ways and green space, on the other hand, allow people to feel part of their community. The presence of greenery has also been shown to lower stress levels, increase test scores, decrease crimes, and lower teen pregnancy as girls self-esteem rises. Environmental practices, such as green roofs, benefit communities environmentally, economically, and socially. But it is up to us to make it happen.

As Winona LaDuke said, “change is made by our hands and our minds.”

More Resources:

10 Principles of Climate Justice

Honor the Earth

Global Gender and Climate Change Alliance

The Story of Stuff (documentary)

Sun Come Up (documentary)


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