By Maria Alejandra Rodriquez Acha | The Huffington Post | 7 March 2016
To the living memory of Berta Cáceres. Courageous woman, environmental defender, feminist, mother and inspiration to many.
You might ask: feminism and climate change? Young feminism for climate justice?
Grassroots experiences are steadily shifting our awareness of climate change, from an abstract phenomenon of carbon levels and future impacts to an ever-more tangible, multi-layered issue that is bringing together all kinds of social, environmental and economic struggles.
We are increasingly recognizing and exposing that climate change is not about carbon emissions alone, but about an economic and political system that churns out emissions to keep its cogs turning and its growth unabated. The same system that, despite its capacity for generating financial wealth, has maintained and exacerbated poverty and inequality in its various forms.
The Justice/Feminism Nexus
As climate justice advocates, we recognize the root causes of the climate crisis: that as we take from the earth to produce and consume, we also take resources, lands and rights from others to enable this process. The changing climate resulting from this exploitative process further increases disparities, as its impacts hit vulnerable populations — who have done the least to contribute to this crisis- the hardest. And among those at the frontlines of climate impacts are the bodies, lives and livelihoods of women around the world — particularly rural and indigenous women.
Women are half of the world’s population, yet it does not surprise that our voices and perspectives continue to be undermined and silenced due to gender-based violence, stifling gender roles, persistently unbalanced political leadership, and continuing economic inequalities between men and women. In the face of climate change, this gendered inequality of rights, resources and power is expressed most glaringly in stark differences in death rates and vulnerability to natural disasters, particularly of women in rural areas and living under poverty thresholds.
As African eco-feminists describe:
It is Africa’s more than 500-million peasant and working-class women that carry the burden of immediate and long-term impacts of both fossil fuels extraction and energy production, and the false solutions to the climate crisis, including corporatized renewable energy. This is because of the patriarchal-capitalist division of labour, our greater responsibility for agricultural production and social reproduction of families and communities, and our structural exclusion from decision-making.”
The Paris Agreement
As feminists for climate justice, we witnessed and denounced how the Paris climate talks (COP21) last December, hailed by media and world leaders as a historic summit and a diplomatic success, failed to adequately address both justice and gender concerns and solutions. Except for two brief mentions of gender regarding capacity-building and adaptation, gender equality, human rights and indigenous rights are limited to the preamble of the agreement, with unclear binding or operational value — that is, largely decorative. Though gender was mentioned multiple times in earlier drafts thanks to delegate and constituency advocacy, and despite an increased recognition of gender linkages within the UNFCCC over recent years, the Paris agreement is by-and-large gender-blind. Even by purely numerical criteria, gender inequality remains a trait of the climate talks, as about one in three delegates is a woman, as is one in ten heads of state.
The agreement further removes us from climate justice by allowing developed countries to shirk their fair shares: despite “efforts pursued” to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees, voluntary pledges put us on a path to a 3 degree warmer world. As commitments are not forced to increase in ambition until 2023, by which time we will have likely met our 1.5 degrees emissions budget, the threat of relying on dangerous and so far non-existent techno-fixes and market schemes is all too real. Furthermore, tangible financial support for most vulnerable countries continues to be a question, as about one fourth of what is needed has been promised, and even less actually delivered - without which effective climate action cannot be taken on.
Feminist Activism on Climate Beyond Paris
Despite its unjust outcome, COP21 was a space ripe for feminist climate activism, and climate justice movement-building moments. Civil-society organized events such as Feminist Trade Union Day, Indigenous Women’s Day and Young Feminist Day, as well as activities held during the UNFCCC official Gender Day, helped bridge diverse constituencies and issues, and strengthen international alliances. Multiple actions, demonstrations and interventions calling for climate justice, fair shares, and gender-just solutions, and focusing on cross-cutting issues such as militarization -a top source of emissions not included in any national mitigation commitments- galvanized groups and caught media attention. The political moment also gave space for the creation of new activist groups, from LGBTI pour le Climat (LGBTI for the Climate) to the Young Feminists for Climate Justice, the latter acting primarily as a safe space for young women activists to share experiences and stories from their struggles and efforts for justice.
For many it is clear that the UNFCCC is an increasingly exhausted and limited arena for change. Spaces for movement building are, however, multi-fold, and in diversity lies strength. In a post-COP21 context, further consolidating our movements implies the multiple feat of 1) not losing sight of the incremental progress we can still push for within UN-hosted platforms; 2) using what we can of the Paris agreement to hold governments accountable, as just days and weeks after COP21 governments ignored all lip-service done to climate ambition by giving out new oil permits and signing the TPP; and 3) at the same time, pushing our narrative and actions much beyond the UNFCCC. The latter implies a “soul-searching” task that we must collectively take on to release our movements from the constraints of diplomacy in an unequal, fossil-fuelled world.
From a climate justice perspective, addressing the root causes of the climate crisis also requires tackling social inequalities and eradicating forms of oppression that movements can also reproduce, including gender inequalities. This includes honoring the fact that the frontlines inhabited by women around the world are not just lines of crisis, but also frontlines of change. Local and national fights against fossil-fuel infrastructure, one of the most well-known of which is the successful campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline, are in many lesser-known cases around the world led by women whose bodies and territories are at the frontlines of extraction impacts, even when subject to sexual violence and repression.
As movements, we need to acknowledge these different contexts in which environmental and climate defense takes place, and fight for the protection of women human rights defenders everywhere. The recent murder of Berta Cáceres should not be seen as an isolated incident, but as part of an increasing violence that seeks to suppress the voices of environmental defenders and women, particularly in the global south. Environmental and climate activists, volunteers, groups and movements everywhere must recognize these inequalities, stand up firmly against violence, and demand justice for those at the frontlines.
To join and support these struggles, an important step is to transcend the narrative of woman as victim. In addition, we must be wary of essentialisms that place women and men in so-called “natural” categories and roles. This means, for example, rejecting attempts to solely task women with “taking care” of climate change, adding to women’s “triple burden” of reproductive, productive and community caretaking. Ultimately, we must all take on and share roles and perspectives on care-taking, if we are to face the climate crisis and ensure the survival and wellbeing of our communities.
A Youth Movement Rising
Young women and young feminists are in many regards leading the way and engaging in increasingly intersectional and gender-aware forms of advocacy. Though socially constructed age barriers both within and outside of movements for justice remain -at times leading to a marginalization of youth insights and concerns-, youth groups globally are engaging in critical, transformative activism for climate and environmental justice.
In the coming months, we can strengthen and grow the Young Feminists for Climate Justice network, both through online exchange and collaboration, and in gatherings and forums for advocacy such as the 60th Commission on the Status of Women, the AWID Forum, the Women Deliver Conference, UNFCCC inter-sessionals, the Allied Media Conference, the IUCN World Conservation Congress and other local, national and international convergence spaces. Making spaces to get together as young women and young feminists to discuss our roles and experiences in climate advocacy, environmental activism and feminist movements is key; as is having platforms and tools to deepen our understandings on the linkages between social and environmental issues. Networks of exchange across borders enrich our local actions, struggles and initiatives.
Let’s honor the endurance, commitment and courage of all peoples fighting for their health, livelihoods, environment and communities, and standing up against the climate crisis globally. Let’s also acknowledge that there is much left to do, including facing the challenge of weaving increased solidarity and collaboration between environmentalists, feminists and justice advocates; to reconstruct our societies based on justice and respect for all people and our planet.
Thank you to Maria Alejandra Escalante and Bridget Burns for their feedback on this piece.