Why Climate Change is a Feminist Issue
Updated: Dec 7, 2021
Many might be expecting another article about how women are worse off than men but, as women are at the forefront of some ground-breaking responses to climate change, this article doesn’t consider them victims but leaders.
The disproportionate effect on women is not what makes climate change a feminist issue. First, it is the systems feminists are challenging, such as patriarchy and white supremacy, that have directly caused climate change. Second, it is the inequalities between people, which feminists are trying to overcome, that are being worsened by climate change.
Ultimately, the work of feminists can no longer be separated from this climate crisis.
What social systems are feminists challenging?
Different types of feminists believe different systems cause inequalities between people.
Some examples (not a complete list) include:
Patriarchy: A system where power is largely held by men.
In 2020, women held only 21% of government ministerial positions across the world, therefore women are making less global decisions than men.
Patriarchy allows men to make decisions whilst among other men, resulting in the needs of women being unheard. Until 2011, car crash test dummies were only tested on the average male size body, resulting in women being 47% more likely to be injured in a car crash, as the size of a female body was simply not studied.
Patriarchy defines gender in a binary (only involving two things) way by considering male and female as the main recognisable genders. This overlooks the needs of, for example, transgender, intersex, or non-binary people.
White supremacy and capitalism
White supremacy: A system where white people are afforded more rights as they are considered superior to people of other races.
Capitalism: A system where property is privately owned by individuals, instead of publicly owned.
Capitalism promotes economic growth and profit, rather than social benefits, although some believe that generating profit works best to serve the social good (despite 1% of the world hoarding 43% of wealth).
White supremacy and capitalism allow white and/or rich people to make decisions among other white and/or rich people, without considering voices that don’t fit into this identity. The development of a largely black and/or poor neighbourhood, for example, could work well for white and/or rich people, but the effects on black and/or indigenous and/or poor residents are often overlooked. These effects might include being priced out of the area or uprooted from their community.
People with disabilities and/or chronic illnesses are also affected by capitalism which privileges those who are able-bodied. For many years, less able-bodied people asking to work from home, or engage in education from home, were refused. However, during COVID-19, when the world needed to continue making money, adaptations were conveniently made available.
Colonialism: When one country takes control over another country, occupies it with their own people, forces their own language and cultural practices upon it and exploits people and resources for profit.
Many suggest ‘decolonisation’ took place however many systems remain in place that prove otherwise. For example, anti-homosexuality laws imposed by British colonies which continue to oppress queer people worldwide.
Feminists believe these systems grant some safer lives, because their privileges allow more access to resources and opportunities than those less privileged or marginalised. Feminism challenges these structures that silence people based on their gender, sex, race, sexuality, disability, religious belief, nationality, or other identity, and instead promotes more inclusive ways of life.
How did these oppressive structures directly cause climate change?
European colonisers arrived in the Americas in 1492, marking a change across the world when they imposed their own European values. Indigenous peoples were removed from their lands (along with their sustainable land practices) to farm produce for profit instead of communal use. European farming practices, which overuse the land, have now left land unusable and Indigenous practices (considered more sustainable) are now being reintroduced back onto those lands. Not only was the land physically transformed during this process, but mentally the attitude towards land also changed. From then on, land was considered a resource for profit rather than just taking what we need. The exploitation of nature was promoted, instead of nature and people complementing each other.
Scientists describe how increased rates of greenhouse gases (GHGs) are warming the earth faster than it should be. They connect this increase to human activities and their practices of burning fossil fuels and removing forests. Despite these facts, the practice of deforestation continues in order to create profit and space for other harmful industries such as meat production. Rainforests, which absorb harmful carbon, are being replaced by land eroding practices that exploit animals and significantly contribute to GHG emissions.
In addition to values around nature, colonisers also imposed European values around gender, sexuality, and race. The Transatlantic Slave Trade determined black and Indigenous peoples as resources to provide profit to European colonisers; women were removed from decision making roles and replaced with men to mirror European patriarchal values; heterosexuality and monogamy were imposed as the only legal forms of relationship; sodomy laws were enacted; and gender fluid people were portrayed as diseased. Many of these values remain in existence today, including white supremacy, resulting in the continued oppression of many people.
"The mentality of extraction has led to people and nature being devalued and dehumanised"
The mentality of extraction has led to people and nature being devalued and dehumanised, both were exploited for profit by this colonial process. Communal lands became privatised; water sources became controlled by companies; oil companies began extracting from lands and contributing to climate change – all with little regard for impact, preferring to prioritise profit.
The biggest polluters have little to no interest in changing their practices, leaving marginalised peoples to try and rebuild the planet. Indigenous peoples across the planet, for example in Ecuador, the USA and Canada, are rejecting colonial methods that continue to further destroy our planet.
How is climate change worsening existing inequalities between people?
Inequalities that existed before the climate crisis are worsening. Gender inequalities, for example, that exist in many countries where men have access to more jobs than women, result in men moving to urban areas for employment while women remain in rural areas to continue family duties and agricultural work. When climate change effects hit, such as droughts or damage to ecosystems, those in rural areas tend to be more affected. It’s estimated that around 80% of the people currently displaced by climate change are women.
"An estimated 80% of people currently displaced by climate change are women"
Inequalities due to white supremacy and capitalism are also being exacerbated. The UK, for example, who claim to be leaders in tackling plastic pollution are, at the same time dumping their plastic waste on poorer countries. Rich countries developing green-friendly policies that result in increased mining of materials in poorer countries, for example transitions to electric cars, have significant social and environmental impacts too. Rich countries choose these options instead of challenging fossil fuel firms who contributed to 70% of GHG emission in the last 20 years, thereby allowing inequalities to continue.
We saw this mentality emerge this year when the UK bought enough vaccines to vaccinate their population three times over against COVID-19. Whilst, at the same time, blocking a patent waiver that would force pharmaceutical companies to share their vaccine technology and allow countries to create their own versions of the vaccine. This approach to the global pandemic, where money and profit become prioritised (again with an individual over communal gain mentality), needs to be challenged to also respond to climate change effectively.
We are living in a world where the structures that caused climate change and inequalities still exist, and they are now worsening the situation. The extraction and exploitation of resources has devalued nature and people with a mentality to only prioritise money and profit.
Although responses from grassroot communities and charities have been seen, a bigger response is needed from governments, oil companies, polluters, and the wealthy.
If predominantly white, wealthy, able-bodied, heterosexual men are governing the world, climate change will receive a response that is tailored to their experience alone. Boris Johnson’s 10-point plan which promotes electric vehicles, becoming a world leader in technology, and making London the global centre of green finance, fails to address any of the UK's exploitative practices currently contributing to climate change.
Feminists and climate activists understand these interconnected systems got us here in the first place. Responding to climate change in a way that values both humans and nature, so that neither are devalued nor used for profit, is what will help us out of this crisis. Feminists can ask their local MP how they are responding to climate change; join a local climate change group, reflect on their own practices, and continue to learn and read.
If we are climate activists, we are feminists. If we are feminists, we are climate activists.
Patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism, and colonialism are interconnected systems that have directly caused climate change and are worsening inequalities between people.
An attitude that prioritises individual profit over collective gain will never address this crisis.
Respect for both humans and nature is what will help us respond adequately to climate change.
Cara is a writer trying to decolonise her British education and understanding of the world. She believes in communal knowledge and engagement and considers everyone on a journey of learning. Should anything in this article be incorrect or you have comments please contact them at: firstname.lastname@example.org.