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Why Climate Change is a feminist issue.

November 2, 2009

So tck tck tck had a “blog action day” like weeks ago, which I was planning to write this for, but oh well. I hope it’s the same in the United States, but Scandinavia is a-buzzin’ in preparation for COP15 – the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen, which will hopefully bring us a new climate change agreement. With the varying viewpoints of the EU, US/Umbrella group, and G77 and China, it’s hard to say what the agreement will be and whether there will be an agreement at all, leading some to question whether no agreement is better than a bad agreement. But obviously, we must remain hopeful that we can make the necessary changes to slow down climate change before the damage is irreversible. For me, motivating myself about this issue is not about the scary numbers, but contextualizing it as one of “Climate Justice” and particularly for me, justice for women.


Johannesburg, South Africa.
Photos from the International Day of Climate Action, sponsored by 350.org

So why is climate change a feminist issue?

1. Discourses of consumption are gendered
I think climate change is often presented, because of it’s universality, as a non-gendered issue. But this is obviously untrue. Even the gendered discourses surrounding consumption impact the actuality of climate change. I found two very interesting articles in a magazine from the Nordic Gender Institute about how we conceive of men and women as consumers. At least in western discourses, women are often presented as materialistic consumers, in contrast to men who work hard to earn what is necessary to provide for their families. Think of the concept of retail therapy and the shopping montages in every “chick flick” you’ll ever see. The qualities are shamed with labels such as “shopaholic” and “golddigger”. In the Norwegian context, Nora in Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” is the epitome of a spendthrft women relying on her husband’s hard-earned money. Of course, self-sufficiency versus greed has long been a moral divide, but it has gained new and gendered relevance in the context of climate change and the need for reduced consumption.

But masculinity is about consumption too: consumption of cars and meat. While I think I could go on forever about masculinity and the sexualization of meat, I think this ad (via) sums up this discourse I’m describing pretty well:

However, these purchases are not considered over-consumptive in the way that feminine matierialism is displayed, but rather as necessary goods. As the “meat” link above shows, men need meat to be masculine and at least in the United States cars are seen as a necessity, especially for families, while fashion, clothing, and household decorations are frivolous. While ok, I do think a lot of those things are frivolous, what’s interesting is the actual damage caused to the environment. Relatively, meat production and carbon emission from cars are way bigger factors in climate change. In fact the meat industry is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions and 19% of all global energy is spent on transport. And in this case, the gender stereotypes are true: men eat more meat than women, and women are far more likely to take public transport. It seems it may be necessary to dismantle these concepts of masculinity in order to curb western consumption, which is historically responsible for current C02 levels. But unfortunately….

2. Women (particularly in the Global South) are most affected by Climate Change
There are so many reports on this.
So many.
This one’s particularly good.
Seriously, it should be common knowledge by now.
We already know that people in the global south are affected most strongly by environmental issues today. They live in more vulnerable areas, often rely more directly on the natural resources, and do not have the safety net that rich countries do. Women in the South are particularly affected because they are already marginalized and environmental changes make their competition for resources even more difficult. Climate and environmental change displaces refugees, spreads diseases and creates hunger – and it’s affecting women harder. While these issues are tragic on their own, the inequality of who is affected makes climate change not just a fundamental problem in the world today, but a fundamental problem, and source of injustice. What makes this particulary unjust is:

3. No one is held accountable to these women.
In UNIFEM’s (the UN fund for women) recent report on the progress of the world’s women, they ask the question: Who answer’s to women? In this report they argue that “the most powerful constraints on realizing women’s rights and achieving the Millennium Development Goals is a deficit of accountability to women.” That question has stuck with me since I read it, and I think it is an incredibly important one to ask in this case. The Conference of the Parties (COP) is made up of representatives from all countries involved and is the highest decision-making authority of the convetion. I don’t have the numbers, but I think we can guess that the proportional representation of women will not be high. Members of the G77 (and many NGOs) are struggling to voice that developing countries may need to increase their emissions in order to continue to develop, and that richer countries should shoulder the majority of the financial burden of climate change. What’s gets lost is the voices of women from the global south, those who are struggling with and marginalized by environmental issues today, not further on down the graph of carbon emissions. This is not an issue for our children it’s for women, mothers, today.

Who is accountable to these women?

Dhaka, Bangladesh

How can we hold our leaders accountable?

Johannesburg, South Africa

How can we, as feminists, hold ourselves accountable?


Girl scouts in El Salvador made a movie about 350 to help educate their fellow students about climate change.

***If you want to make a difference on this issue, almost every link on this page is connected with a campaign. Honestly, I’m not sure what it’s going to take to make our leaders take this issue seriously and think beyond short term economics and reputation, so if you have any campaign that’s got you really hopeful, please share!***

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