Can There Be Climate Justice Without Gender Justice?

by Niamh Donnelly

What does gender have to do with climate catastrophe? The answer may not be immediately apparent if we consider the connections between unequal power relations and natural hazards, for example. It is assumed that such extreme climate events presumably equally affect the lives of all members of a community. To take such a simplistic view of environmental hazards fails to account for the complexity of the political economy and social structures that can impact the everyday experiences of people dealing with the effects of a rapidly changing climate and other environmental challenges. 

It is widely accepted that any monumental environmental crises, including those predicted as a result of human-induced climate change, can be expected to have far-reaching implications for people of all genders. If the planetary boundaries of our physical world are overburdened, most people assume that the devastating effects of ecosystem collapse will be oblivious to our gendered bodies and social identities. Yet these effects will undoubtedly be experienced differently depending on the individual’s gender identity and race for example. As several feminist scholars have pointed out, international climate negotiations thus far have primarily mirrored the structural inequalities of the world economy. That is, they operate within a global political system often dominated by the interests of the most developed, industrialised countries ⎼ and are often debated and dictated almost exclusively by older, wealthier men. 

These grossly unequal economic and political systems often limit the extent to which more marginalised groups ⎼ not to mention lower income countries ⎼ can contribute towards the reduction of growing environmental and socio-economic problems. It is within this framework that grassroots environmental movements, often representing the strategic interests of marginalised groups, are forced to look in from the outside with virtually no power to influence the scope of policy-related discussions. At worst, such environmentalist movements, which are often led by women, can become the target of state aggression.

This movement explicitly opposes the hierarchical thinking that has led to the exploitation of nature and the perpetuation of social inequalities

People have been gradually waking up to the fact that these underlying capitalist market forces and gender structures are too important to ignore in any discussion on environmental policy. This point is one of the main objectives of ecological feminism ⎼ or ecofeminism ⎼ a social movement and philosophical theory centred around the transformative concepts of women’s liberation and achieving social justice while pursuing environmental goals. 

Female activists and protesters have been drawing attention to the parallels between the oppression of women and the destruction of nature. This movement explicitly opposes the hierarchical thinking that has led to the exploitation of nature and the perpetuation of social inequalities. Since the early 1970s, this movement has spread through female-led protests around the globe and is often championed by women from indigenous communities. Recently there has been a revival of the Ecofeminist movement here in Ireland. Local groups such as the Dublin Ecofeminists are mobilising, leading to a renewed interest in the ecofeminist approach to environmental activism. 

Taking the perspective of ecofeminists, it becomes more obvious to see how methods of expropriating women and other marginalised groups are intertwined with the destruction of our natural world. Both, after all, occur as the result of an unjust socio-economic system and are reinforced through male-dominated political processes. Important decisions about our collective future continue to be made behind closed doors, in meeting rooms that are often devoid of any semblance of diversity, despite the efforts of many marketing campaigns to convince us otherwise. 

The release of the latest IPCC report in 2021 highlighted the overwhelming magnitude of the climate chaos facing us in the coming decades. Thus far, our attempts have failed to appropriately address the severity of our climate warming due to greenhouse gas emissions. It may now be time for us to re-evaluate our strategy and consider some more radical ways of thinking about environmental justice. 

We should ask ourselves if environmental justice can be achieved at all without reshaping social power relations

Given the immensity of the task to effectively manage and protect the natural environment on a global scale, the collective input of all people is required. Perhaps we can learn from the philosophy of radical gender and environmental activists to consider what the transformative capacity of climate policy might be? We should ask ourselves if environmental justice can be achieved at all without reshaping social power relations. The ecofeminists among us would probably argue this is not the case. Regardless, the climate challenges that await may force us to finally consider the intersection of complex ecosystems, social institutions and cultural realities encompassed by this pursuit.

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