Women and the Climate Crisis
I first came across International Women’s Day back in 1998 whilst studying in Italy for the year. Although they didn’t call it that - in Italy, the 8th March is more often referred to as the ‘Festa Della Donna’ (celebration of women) and is an important annual event. As I walked through the streets of Trieste on this day 22 years ago, strangers handed my flat mate and I bunches of beautiful bright yellow mimosas and thanked us. Not for anything specific, but just for being women. It was actually rather lovely. I suspected at the time that it was steeped in the reverence of matriarchs by Italy’s notorious mamma’s boys, and didn’t take it that seriously.
What I realise now, as the 8th March message has become more mainstream, is that International Women’s Day has an important social and political back story, founded in the early 20th century struggles of women across the world. From workers’ rights to the suffrage movement - the day exists to reflect upon the social, political and economic achievements of women and to reinforce the ongoing need to remove inequality across the globe.
So what’s all this got to do with the environment, I hear you ask? Well actually gender inequality is a huge consideration in the Climate Crisis. Simply put, women are much more likely to suffer the effects of Climate Change than men. But why so?
In developing countries, women are often socially responsible for familial tasks such as gathering fire wood for fuel and collecting water. As Climate Change negatively effects the availability of water and fuel, women are often having to travel further to fulfil their duties. And this clear direct impact in turn puts pressure on the wider family, and more and more girls are being taken out of education to help around the home or look after siblings.
In addition, where family livelihoods are effected by extreme weather events, many resort to marrying off young girls, to remove the financial burden that they bring. Women are also more likely to die in the developing world at the hands of extreme weather. This can be because they are held socially responsible not just for their own safety, but also that of their children or elders. It can also be because they don’t have the same skills as their male counterparts for climbing trees or driving vehicles to escape emergencies. And the injustice doesn’t end there, studies have clearly shown that incidences of physical or sexual violence against women increase during and after such events.
When Greta Thunberg talks about Climate Justice, this is part of it. Climate Change is already having the highest impact on those countries that have contributed the least to it, and within that women are suffering the most.
But in the spirit of International Women’s Day, as well as acknowledging the injustice that women and girls suffer at the hands of environmental crisis, let’s also talk about the huge opportunity that involving women in the solution could bring.
The World Economic Forum states that its Sustainable Development Goal for gender equality is essential because:
“Women have the knowledge and understanding of what is needed to adapt to changing environmental circumstances in order to determine practical solutions. But women remain a largely untapped resource due to existing biases, including restricted land rights, lack of access to training, technology and financial resources, and limited access to political decision making due to under representation. For practical and effective climate change mitigation, we must unleash the knowledge and capability of women.”
And what about closer to home? Even in the developed world, women are still at the forefront when it comes to duties and decision making within the domestic sphere. And while this is definitely shifting, it remains true that the woman in a family is much more likely to decide to switch to a renewable energy provider, buy more sustainable products or reduce the amount of meat her family eats. Domestically at least, it’s predominantly women who will be the conduits of positive change.
But anecdotally, I think women just see the environmental crisis differently from men. I can, as an example, tell you that 90% of the people that follow my blog are female. Most of the people I know that are vocal about green issues or are running environmental businesses are female. It seems that when it comes to taking individual action, women just seem more willing and able.
So why is this? Well studies have shown that many men identify environmentalism as a feminine trait. A 2019 paper published by Penn State University even showed that “men could be disinclined to carry a reusable shopping bag – or recycle, or undertake any environmentally friendly activity that had been gendered as feminine – for fear of being perceived as gay or effeminate”. How crazy is that?
Along the same vein, a 2014 paper in the International Journal for Masculinity Studies found that: “For climate sceptics, it was not the environment that was threatened; it was a certain kind of modern industrial society built and dominated by their form of masculinity.” So are men just more reluctant to see the world that has this far served them so well, change to the extent that it needs to? Frankly, we just don’t have the time for them to get over themselves on this one.
Now I really don’t want to come across as a man basher, I live with three boys of varying ages and I love them all with every inch of my soul. I don’t even pretend they are useless at getting eco stuff done. In fact my husband proudly told me how he actively went through the changing room bin after his rugby match yesterday, and made sure all the beer cans were separated and recycled. If there was ever an environment to show that ‘real men recycle’ it’s inside the walls of a rugby club. But I can categorically tell you, if I were putting a task force together to solve pretty much ANY crisis, my dream team would be made up predominantly of the amazing, smart, proactive, multi-tasking and creative women I surround myself with. Girls, you know who you are.
And my hero Christiana Figueres, orchestrator of The Paris Climate Change Agreement agrees. She says “Women often have a leadership style that makes them more open and sensitive to a wide range of views, and they are better at working collaboratively, with a longer-term perspective. These traits are essential to responding to the climate crisis.”
So if we want to put up the best possible fight against the Climate Crisis, we have to continue to accelerate and promote female equality. We need more women in positions of power within corporations and many more sitting in parliaments and around council tables. We need better and more far reaching education for girls, that helps put the brakes on population expansion whilst making the absolute most of their brilliant brains. We need more Christianas and more Gretas; more women who are prepared to fearlessly stick it to the likes of Trump.
It’s never been a more exciting time to be a woman, at least not in the developed world. We have such a long way to go, but I really believe this could be our finest hour. Girls, maybe just maybe, we can save the world.