Climate justice: A feminist fossil fuel-free future

Equality of women is a key global pursuit. Here’s how the state of the environment can help or hurt that campaign.

Climate justice: A feminist fossil fuel-free future AFP Photo/Mark Garlick/Science Photo Libra/MGA/Science Photo Library

There is no doubt or absence of scientific consensus about the fact that the climate is changing at an accelerated rate owing to anthropogenic activities. In fact, this era is dubiously named “Anthropocene” by the scientific community, stating: “The significance of the Anthropocene is that it sets a different trajectory for the earth system, of which we of course are part.” This new geological period which our species has sped itself into is witnessing high extinction rates of flora and fauna that will soon lead to the Sixth Mass Extinction, increased carbon dioxide concentrations from the pre-industrial revolution levels of 120 ppm to more than 400 ppm currently and a burden on the planet’s natural cycles through plastics, mining and extractives, nuclear tests, fossil fuel burning and fertilizers. 

In its 5th Assessment Report, released in 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirmed that climate change is real and that human-made greenhouse gas emissions are its primary cause. The report stated that the increasing frequency of extreme weather events and natural disasters, rising sea levels, floods, heat waves, droughts, desertification, water shortages and the spread of tropical and vector-borne diseases are some of the adverse impacts of climate change. Climate change is not just glaciers melting and oceans warming – in effect this is the rampant destruction of lives and livelihoods, dramatically increasing the vulnerabilities of those who were already at risk.

In our Asia-Pacific region, Bangladesh and India are often seen at the very top of the list of countries facing the most risks associated with climate change, while global studies have also placed Nepal, the Philippines, Afghanistan and Myanmar among the top 10 countries facing “extreme risk.” Thus, six of the 10 countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change are Asian nations. Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam could see a 70-centimeter rise in sea levels by 2100. Likewise, the region’s temperature could rise by about 6 degrees centigrade by 2100 if no significant action is taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

For the Asia-Pacific, which is home to half of the world’s extreme poor (at least 641 million people), there is very little capacity and means for coping with these new challenges. The diversity of the region – geographically, economically, politically and socially – means that the inhabitants’ experiences of climate change are distinctive, yet their overall state of poverty amplifies their shared regional vulnerability. 

Climate in action

According to Panos London, a research group: “Climate change is, in theory, the perfect topic for an international environmental agreement. All countries are affected by, and contribute to, the build-up of greenhouse gases, and should be willing to join in the effort to stop it. However, it is far from easy to agree what to do, and how to do it. The challenge is to use far less fossil fuel energy while increasing standards of living in developing countries and avoiding the sort of cuts in standards of living in developed countries that would produce public backlash and political impasse.”

International climate diplomacy and resulting negotiations were formally launched with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Since then, every year there is a meeting of the Conference of Parties (CoP) to shape and strengthen global climate efforts to keep the world’s temperature increase below 1.5 degrees Celsius. This year, CoP24 will take place in Katowice, Poland, in December to formalize the Paris Agreement that was successfully signed and ratified by all but one of the United Nations member countries. Under the UNFCCC positions, there have been responses and commitments made through the principle of the Common but Differentiated Responsibilities instrument among developed and developing countries in emissions reduction (adaptation, mitigation) and climate finance (Green Climate Fund, Adaptation Fund, Global Environment Facility, Climate Investment Funds). But owing to the increasing frequency of disasters and economic losses, the Small Island Developing States and Least Developed Countries, backed by African nations, are now additionally demanding a Loss and Damage fund as a liability and compensation from developed countries (and corporations) with historic responsibility for emissions. 

In the recent rise of increasingly right-wing and corporation-backed governments in the countries of the Global North, there is more confusion and resistance to truly committing to financing climate action or placing effective reforms to curb further emissions. Civil society organizations that engage in the UNFCCC processes are increasingly frustrated at the inadequate action taken in times of unmitigated urgency in the face of the climate crisis. Global civil society networks such as Demand Climate Justice and the Women’s Global Call for Climate Justice are at the forefront in asking for fairer climate deals.

A feminist issue

Evidence shows that  climate change is not gender neutral. Women are consistently, and more severely, affected by natural disasters and extreme weather events, including during post-disaster response efforts. On average, women and children are 14 times more likely to die during a natural disaster than men. During the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, three times more women died than men. Similarly, in Bangladesh 90 percent of those killed in a massive 1991 typhoon were women. The obvious and unequal poverty in the Asia-Pacific limits women’s opportunities to escape, or reduces their chances of survival if escape is impossible. Traditional gender roles keep women at home, caring for children and the elderly, in less stable housing conditions than the men who leave the house for work in public or commercial buildings. 

Entrenched, historical gendered roles mean women are more likely to die in disasters, suffer long-term

On average, women and children are 14 times more likely to die during a natural disaster than men.

health impacts, deal with reduced incomes and the increased burden of unpaid care work, and the destruction of livelihoods. They have limited access to resilient resources, making it harder to break the cycle of poverty. But women of the Global South have precious knowledge in resource handling, adaptation and survival. A study by the National Federation of Peasant Women in the Philippines on the coping strategies of women affected by Typhoon Haiyan found communities with zero casualties and deaths, and the women interviewed asserted that there was community preparedness for disasters, and that women were involved in the process with the local government. Excluding them from decision-making prevents effective, gender-responsive policy-making, and stops women from contributing their skills, knowledge and experiences that can benefit entire communities.

Climate change exacerbates patriarchy for many women. In Bangladesh, a persistent link has been suggested between the loss of land and livelihoods due to climate change and early, child or forced marriage. Researchers also found that climate change has increased demands for dowry payments, as other forms of livelihood become less dependable, and in most instances child marriage and dowry have become local adaptation strategies. Climate change exposes women to an increased risk of violence, trafficking and conflict. In the last 60 years, at least 40 percent of all intrastate conflicts have had a link to natural resources and the environment. Increased economic insecurity related to climate change increases the susceptibility of people, including young women, to be recruited into combat. Gender-based violence is increasing within the countries of the Asia-Pacific region, and there is a numbing acceptance to the everyday reality of violent solutions to disputes, within and among communities. For instance, women and girls in the Philippines were already vulnerable to sexual violence and trafficking due to high poverty rates. Their displacement during Typhoon Haiyan has only made it worse. The United Nations Population Fund estimates that 5,000 women in the city of Tacloban were exposed to sexual violence in December 2013. 

Climate change is now posing an existential threat to humanity, with increasing conflicts, resource wars, human rights violations and insecurity among the masses. But understanding climate change or solving the crisis is not limited to the science and technology elements as we often perceive. Climate change is a manifestation of the global capitalist and neoliberal economic order that continues to fail us and remains a stronghold with the endless loyalty offered to it by governments and corporations alike. Modern globalization has offered endless economic boom to a few and put the planet in the crisis that we currently face. The deepening inequalities make the climate crisis complex, beyond quick-fix solutions, and calls for an overall system overhaul. Today, only 1 percent of the world’s population owns 48 percent of global wealth. Eight of the world’s richest people own as much as the poorest 3.7 billion, and the bottom 50 percent of the global population share just 1 percent of the wealth. Even “democracies” such as India are befuddled by the rise of the wealthy and deep corruption in governance, and absolute unaccountability in both. Developed economies, accounting for 15 percent of the global population, use about half of global resources and contribute the most to global warming and environmental degradation. Adding to the burden is global tax evasion and illicit financial flows that keep the poor getting poorer, and without justice. 

Climate change will force change. We can choose to change in ways that are more equitable and just for women and communities, or we can continue on a path of destruction and a dystopian future of gross violations, inequality and, ultimately, annihilation. The feminist philosophy of “personal is political” and its constant criticism of a globalization-fundamentalist-militarized form of systems such as capitalism must therefore be at the core of any deliberate climate action. Gendering “global” governance can lead to the “paradigm” shifts and “transformational” solutions that the UNFCCC aspires to, but fails to achieve in its current business as usual function.

Developed economies, accounting for 15 percent of the global population, use about half of global resources and contribute the most to global warming and environmental degradation.

Bringing the women in

In the history of civil society advocacy and interventions to lobby for change through a strong gender lens, there have been considerable efforts by women’s groups through constituencies such as Women and Gender, Indigenous Peoples Organizations, Green Climate Fund Watchers, to name a few, in the UNFCCC processes to shape policies with strengthened safeguards and a just and equitable transitions approach. This has culminated in policies especially addressing gender, and various ethical safeguards in financing attempting to keep the interests of women and indigenous persons in the consideration of member countries. This is still a relentless work in progress that often calls for action. There are whistleblowers of “false” and unjust actions undertaken in the name of climate action, for which most of the organizations and movements in our region often do not have the necessary access, capacity or resources. 

Developing world feminists have long rejected the dominant conservative view of women of the Global South as only victims of colonization, conflicts and climate change. Undocumented and often forgotten, our region is rich with the individual and collective stories of women who have been at the forefront of defining adaptation and resilience before they were taken over as a service offered from the developed country perspectives. Bearing the brunt of the global neglect to their realities, women, especially from indigenous and marginalized communities, still continue to challenge the norms of development, often paying a heavy price for it in their subsistence and lives. The rising instances of the state-industry-military nexus of violence against female human and environmental rights defenders question our belief in the “system,” and complicity of agencies such as the United Nations that no longer place “people over profits.”

Inspiring stories of women across the world, such as Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring,” Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement in Kenya and Jane Goodall’s conservationism, have been celebrated; but lesser known are the struggles (and occasional wins) of the women in the endosulfan protests in India, peasant women alliances in Philippines, female human rights defenders in Mongolia and in the Pacific against large mining corporations. Their struggles are seldom accounted for in the mainstream policies or projects in our region. The world is not without the strength and capacities of these women. They are still at the forefront of many of the present fights against large-scale dams, deforestation, monocropping, oil and gas development, mining and polluting industries, which all contribute to climate change. They have also for quite a long time spearheaded initiatives for local adaptation and livelihoods through frugal innovations and traditional knowledge. These remain unacknowledged and are often annexed as case studies or success stories of “big” development agencies. 

Histories that have seen women empowered and collectively involved in decision-making show resulting decisions to be more community and environmentally positive. When women are involved in climate or environment-related decision-making, their power and position in communities is strengthened through access to land and livelihoods. For instance, development with a difference was made during the democratic decentralization and the people’s plan campaign of the government of Kerala, in India, during the 1996-97 period, which marked a new approach to development planning in the state. The gender dimension that had been built into the planning process, along with the Women

Component Plan, contributed to the Kudumbashree idea. Kudumbashree, which is an association of women in the grassroots, has been considered as a successful poverty eradication program in Kerala. In cooperative models of public-public partnerships, it provides many services such as microcredits, saving facilities, children’s education, health and well-being, safe food and microhousing. In the heart of the women-led movements and struggles in the modern climate of activism is the thought, “What kind of world will we leave to coming generations?”

A fossil fuel-free future

When mobilizing finances and resources from the global pool it is never taken into account if the proposed project or policy improves the situation of women and the marginalized in the long run, or if the benefits are just tangible in the short term. Market-based false solutions (agrofuel, CDM, REDD+, geothermal, etc) and environmentally unsustainable applications of renewable and clean energy (massive-scale solar farms, microhydros, geothermal) are detrimental to both the environment and human rights, as women’s rights groups such as Solidaritas Perumpuan in Indonesia have constantly pointed out. “A woman can have adequate food and health while still having less access to it than men, and without seeing any changes in her educational opportunities, her vulnerability to domestic abuse, her level of political voice in her society,” academic Serene J Khader was quoted as saying in July.

In order to address the complexities of the current crisis, feminist, community-led research methods in the development of national, regional and international advocacy strategies are our most promising chance at successful, gender-just equitable and sustainable climate change solutions at all levels.  Bringing power to the movements and waves of social actions that start at the grassroots and work their way up to wipe out the top-down approaches that have become the norm are of crucial importance to accomplish this. One of the models that acts as a tool in this process is the Feminist Participatory Action Research that is rooted in movement-building, which becomes the key to bringing about long-term, lasting and sustainable change. There is a need for focused research from think tanks and academia in linking decentralized planning and investments in the commons, leading to positive redistributional as well as climate impacts, thus creating an actionable framework for policy reforms and other interventions. 

In the Asia-Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development’s manifesto for a Feminist Fossil Fuel-Free Future, we share a vision: 

•    Challenging the gender division of labor, and a just and equitable transition of the economy and employment. This transition must challenge the gender division of labor, which often places women in low-wage, insecure and informal subsistence and service industries.

•    Affirming the critical roles of women in the equitable transition, in the establishment of the fossil fuel-free economic system and in sustaining the system.

•    Rejecting the vulnerability-victimization, protectionist discourse on women.

•    Energy and resource democracy, where local people, particularly women, are able to make decisions over the production and use of local resources and the best way to fulfill their needs.

•    Reclaiming power from big agribusinesses to give it back to small food producers and encourage agroecological farming practices. Agroecology delivers multiple co-benefits, from retaining biodiversity and limiting the utilization of chemicals fertilizers to enabling food sovereignty, increasing the capacity of soils to sequester carbon and improving food quality and health benefits.

•    Dismantling trade rules within and outside the World Trade Organization that prevent just climate action. This includes stopping the negotiations of free trade and investment agreements and provisions of intellectual property rights that diminish the ability of states to regulate in the interests of the environment and public good.

•    A global tax body that can end tax competition and evasion. Innovative sources of public finance adopted such as a global financial transaction tax, the redirection of military budgets, additional taxes on the arms trade and extractive and shipping industries, the elimination of tax havens and tax evasion from transnational corporations and wealthy individuals. Redistributive taxes support gender-equitable outcomes.

•    A social wage could have large benefits for the climate and for gender equality. A social wage would allow paid employment to be better distributed and give people more time to contribute to the work of living sustainably and equitably.

People’s solidarity

Climate justice affirms the need for solutions to climate change that do not externalize costs to the environment and communities, and are in line with the principles of a just (and equitable) transition. Climate justice opposes military action, occupation, repression and the exploitation of lands, water, oceans, peoples and cultures, and other life forms, especially as it relates to the fossil fuel industry’s role in this respect.

Climate justice rejects the global capitalist and neoliberal economic order that spawned deep inequalities and poverty of peoples and caused the massive exploitation of the earth’s resources that brought about the crisis the world is faced with today. Affirming the principle of ecological debt, climate justice protects the rights of victims of climate change and associated injustices to receive full compensation, restoration and reparation for loss of land, livelihood and other damages.

 There is no equality or sustainability on a dead planet.

Climate justice affirms the right of all workers employed in extractive, fossil fuel and other greenhouse gas-producing industries to a safe and healthy work environment, without being forced to choose between an unsafe livelihood based on unsustainable production and unemployment. There is no equality or sustainability on a dead planet. So what can a world that keeps the welfare and dignified lives of communities and its members at the core look like? Building on the Feminist Fossil Fuel-Free Future manifesto, an alternative development paradigm needs to be designed based on a radical ecological democracy that functions on the principles of collective commons and solidarity, human rights and respecting planetary boundaries, diversity and the interconnectedness of life in its pursuit of advancement that is equitable and just.

Shradha Shreejaya is a member of the Asia-Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development

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