By the time you read this, you may know the final result of COP 28 in Dubai, but as of Monday, it doesn’t look very hopeful. Could feminist thinking unlock some of the logjams that continue to frustrate action on the scale and speed that we need to avoid catastrophe? In a new paper by UN Women: Feminist Climate Justice: A framework for Action, we outline what the term ‘Feminist Climate Justice’ means and how it can be operationalised to ensure that gender inequalities can be addressed alongside climate change.
To do this, we revisited the work of Nancy Fraser (whose theory also framed our 2015 Progress of the World’s Women report), who identifies three Rs to bring gender and race into class-based theories of justice: Recognition, Redistribution and Representation. We added a fourth R: Reparation. So, what do these four dimensions of justice mean for policy action on climate change and gender equality?
First, climate policies must recognise women’s rights, labour and knowledge. The rights of women and other groups that face multiple forms of discrimination, diminishing their resilience to climate impacts, cannot be sidelined any longer. Otherwise, climate mitigation and adaptation will not benefit them or be effective. Alongside scientific knowledge, policy needs to take into account the situated knowledge and expertise that grassroots women have, including indigenous, rural and young women. This is essential to avoid the problem of maladaptation – well-intended adaptation projects that either don’t work or cause more harm than good.
Second, there is a need to shift and redistribute resources away from male-dominated, environmentally harmful economic activities towards those prioritizing women’s work, regeneration and care for both people and ecosystems. Just transition, which is gaining prominence on the climate agenda, must extend beyond providing new jobs for men laid off from fossil fuel industries. While limited lip service to gender issues was visible in the first annual ministerial roundtable on this topic at COP, there is a long way to go to address the longstanding economic disadvantages women face— persistent wage gaps; vast inequalities in land ownership, labour force participation, access to education, training and technology; inadequate or absent social protection. Policymakers need to get concrete about how new economic models are going to raise and redistribute resources to close these gender gaps.
Third, it is crucial to equally represent the voices of women and other marginalized groups in environmental decision-making at all levels. Bina Agarwal’s formative research showed how women in India shaped decision-making on forest resources at community level , while the efforts to have more women environment ministers, and better gender balance within COP delegations are also important. It also involves protecting civic space so that women organizing collectively within and across movements have the right to be heard, without being threatened, harassed and even killed for their activism. Ending impunity for violence against human and environmental rights defenders is essential.
Fourth,to repair historical injustices involves acknowledgingthat the Global North bears the largest share of responsibility for historical emissions,and urges those countries to recognize the resulting climate debt, make amends, and guarantee not to repeat those harms. Making good on longstanding climate finance commitments and ensuring resources get to grassroot women’s organizations at the forefront of this crisis is one important component. Generously funding the loss and damage fund is vital: as campaigners chanted at COP, ‘billions not millions, make polluters pay’. And this fund needs to be set up to address both economic and non-economic damages, such as increased levels of gender-based violence or unpaid care work that are caused by environmental stress and disasters, and which impact on women the most. Non-repetition entails reining in corporate overreach and an end to fossil fuel economies.
In addition to the ‘what’ of feminist climate justice, the paper argues that the process of ‘how do we get there’ is equally important. The massive gap between the demands for bold climate action and sluggish government responses raises urgent questions on how to ensure accountability. There are no easy answers. But, strengthening democratic institutions and spaces, in which the diverse demands of women and other historically marginalized groups are taken seriously, is an area that we cannot afford to ignore. According to V-Dem, the global state of democracy has reverted to levels not seen since 1986. This crisis of democracy is hampering action on climate change, fuelled by the rise of counter-movements that propagate xenophobic, regressive nationalism and climate denialism, often alongside anti-gender rights rhetoric.
In the face of these formidable challenges, there are some glimmers of hope for greater accountability that need to be carefully nurtured. These include strengthening existing human rights mechanisms, and pushing through new ones, notably the proposal for a binding convention on business and human rights; demanding greater transparency and answerability from the International Financial Institutions (even more important now that the Loss and Damage Fund is to be hosted by the World Bank); and supporting progressive coalition building – not only in civil society, but among Member States willing to push for faster and bolder change.
This paper is the first instalment and conceptual framework of the next edition of UN Women’s flagship report, Progress of the World’s Women, on gender equality in the age of climate crisis. By releasing it now, we hope to open up discussion as we develop the global report (to be launched in 2025). So, please get in touch if you have feedback, ideas on avenues for research and data analysis, or proposals for collaboration.
See also ‘What would a feminist loss and damage fund look like‘, introducing a new Oxfam paper.