Feminist Climate Justice
This study guide explores climate change from a gender and sexual rights lens.
This study guide was made collaboratively with the contribution of many younger and older feminists active in movements and the Beijing+25 process. Read about our contributors on the About page. Explore all 7 sections at your own pace!
Welcome to the Feminist Climate Justice study guide.
Feminism and climate justice are sometimes perceived as two distinct movements, but both focus on systemic inequalities and root causes. The climate crisis disproportionately impacts communities of color, especially rural and indigenous women and girls. While ‘women and the environment’ was one of ‘12 Critical Areas of Concern’ in the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action, grassroots women have been at the frontline of climate justice since much earlier.
This study guide starts with video dialogues featuring younger and older feminists followed by key concepts, examples of movements & advocacy, a toolbox and quiz. An e-certificate is available if you ace the quiz!
Note: The Feminist Action Lab is meant to be a starting point, not a comprehensive guide. Content updated June 2021.
What is climate justice and why is a feminist and intergenerational approach important? Dipti Batnagar from Friends of the Earth (FOIE) and Kehkashan Basu, young feminist co-founder of the Green Hope Foundation discuss the history of Beijing+25 and climate justice movements. Learn more about Dipti and Kehkashan on the About page.
We Also sat down with gender equality activist Julieta Martinez, founder of Latinas for Climate to talk about youth power and voice in Climate Justice advocacy.
1. Feminist Climate Justice
The climate justice organization WEDO co-leads the Generation Equality Forum’s Action Coalition on Climate Change. They, along with many other feminist organizations, understand climate justice as an intersectional movement linked to gender justice, racial justice, health equity, economic justice and many other movements against systemic inequality. Watch WEDO’s video to get a quick snapshot of an intersectional, feminist and systemic analysis of climate:
2. Adaptation and Gender
In most of the world, women and girls have to navigate patriarchal systems that limit their access to things like income, education, health care, political power, and decision-making while also facing higher burdens of labor, care work and forms of exploitation. When you have less resources and power, this decreases your ability to adapt to big shocks in life – whether it is losing a job, falling ill, or in the case of climate change – an extreme weather event.
Those who are already vulnerable experience climate disasters much worse than those with the means, resources and support to recover from them. This ability to recover is often referred to as “adaptive capacity”. In this way, climate vulnerability is also connected to systems of oppression including gender, caste, class, ethnicity, race and others.
The following is a non-exhaustive list of how gender and climate intersect to increase inequality for some:
- School dropout rates. In the Global South and especially in patriarchal communities, girl’s education is still viewed as superfluous and often the first thing that families stop during a climate crisis when diverting their savings to adaptation or recovery needs.
- Incidences of child marriage increase. The economic hardships caused by climate change can force girls from affected families into child marriage.
- Rise in violence and other forms of abuse. ‘Climate refugees’ are more susceptible to exploitation and abuse when they are forced to migrate and live in refugee shelters. They are also at greater risk when girls have to walk longer distances to collect water and firewood, due to climate change induced droughts.
- Health, nutrition and sanitation challenges. Climate change disrupts food chains and food sources. This has a direct impact on nutrition and health, exacerbating the situation for girls and women. In many communities, it is the men and boys who eat first and when food is limited, it is women and girls who suffer most. During floods, drought and other climate disasters, new sanitation challenges and the shortage of clean water impacts women and girls more.
- Decline in work and employment opportunities. For millions of girls and women, livelihoods and income sources are deeply intertwined with natural resources – which are most at risk from climate change.
3. A Closer Look at SRHR & Climate Change
In a recent 2021 report by Women Deliver, the links between SRHR and climate have helped highlight the need for more cross-movement approaches. The report highlights how climate impacts can exacerbate access to SRHR in some of the following ways:
- Climate change issues have negative impacts on maternal health and create conditions that result in increases in gender-based violence, including harmful practices such as child marriage.
- Climate-related disasters may strain the capacity of health systems and hinder access to SRHR services.
- The drivers of conflict and of vulnerability to climate change are multiple, complex, and, oftentimes, cyclical, making it difficult to analyze their differentiated impacts on SRHR in isolation. However, it is expected that the impacts of climate change on SRHR are exacerbated in humanitarian settings. (Women Deliver 2021)
4. A Closer Look at GBV & Climate Change
There is an emerging body of evidence that links GBV and climate change. A study conducted by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) demonstrates that an increase in GBV (such as domestic violence, sexual assault, rape, forced marriage and child marriage, trafficking and other forms of gender exploitation) corresponded to an increase in environmental scarity.
Most climate change policies and programs do not consider anti-GBV work as central to their environmental work – creating a treadmill of vulnerability rather than building targeted solutions with women, girls and gender diverse people at the center. LBGTQI people who are already systematically marginalized, face GBV in many countries experiencing climate crises and are pushed even further into precarity and climate vulnerability.
The IUCN study echos what most major feminist organizations working in climate advocate for: greater and more meaningful leadership by women, girls and gender diverse people from frontline communities so that critical issues like GBV (and SRHR etc.) are considered core components of climate and environmental justice.
5. “Climate Refugees” and Gender
Climate change will lead to increased wildfires, declining water supplies, reduced agricultural yields, health impacts from heat, insect outbreaks, droughts, flooding and erosion. These changes affect people first inside their own countries, and typically creates internal displacement before it reaches a level where it displaces people across borders. Recently, the term “climate refugee” has been popularized to draw attention to the human impact of climate change that triggers the migration of millions of people, primarily in the global south.
The UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction now recognizes climate change as one of the five major drivers of displacement. We also know that half of the global population of internally displaced people are women and girls. Not only are women and girls vulnerable to displacement, but displacement exposes them to higher rates of GBV and a loss of access to SRHR.
6. Colonial Roots of the Climate Crisis
There is an abundance of scientific, technocratic and policy work being done on gender and climate change. A key contribution that social movements and feminists have made is historically analysing the root causes of the climate crisis as linked to colonialism and current forms of economic and natural resource extraction.
Feminists ask a critical question: “Development for whom?”. This question explores how the legacies of colonialism, or a process by which wealthy nations extracted labor and resources (including natural resources) from poorer regions of the world to accumulate wealth for themselves, continues to be a fundamental force shaping global inequality today.
Economists describe the current economic system we live in as “neoliberalism”, or a political system that supports deregulation, free-markets and hugely reduced government spending on welfare (for example cutting funding for public housing, healthcare, universities, subsidies and protection for workers and many of the fundamental human rights enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights). Here is a helpful video created by the feminist organization APWLD that summarizes some of the gendered impacts of neoliberalims and climate justice as part of their “Development Justice” campaign.
7. Indigenous Rights and Climate Justice
Indigenous feminists have been fighting for climate justice, water, land and the rights to self-determination long before climate change was part of a global human rights agenda. The existence of alternate visions of “growth” and “development” have, in fact, existed in abundance in social movements, but little has been done to recognize these traditions, movements and practices in mainstream advocacy.
The world’s indigenous populations number over 300 million people spread across 70 countries. Despite mounting external pressures on their territories, resources, and way of life, such as climate change and globalisation, their rights in these and other areas remain largely unrecognised in international law. Their struggles and oppression remain unrepresented in formal advocacy spaces.
The most glaring example is the impact of global heating/warming on indigenous Arctic communities, which is warming far faster than the rest of the planet and will face enormous climate impacts. Many indigenous communities, especially those living in remote areas who maintain close ties to the ecosystem through hunting, herding, foraging, and fishing, face disproportionate risks as a result. There are pronounced inequalities, land dispossession, and a lasting legacy of colonization shaping indigenous communities in the climate crisis. Indigeous youth and women however have led the way in challenging extractive and fossil fuel industries such as pipelines, mining, hydroelectric power plants and many more.
To read more about powerful feminist and indigenous-led movements for climate justice, check out some of the following networks, organizations and movements:
- MADRE https://www.madre.org/programs/advancing-climate-justice
- Global Green Grants https://www.greengrants.org/meettheactivists/indigenous-peoples/
- WECAN https://www.wecaninternational.org/
For an introduction to how colonialism re-drew the ecology and human labor based on extraction, deforestation, mining and other exploitative industries, take a look at some of the following articles.
- Earth Day: Colonialism’s role in the overexploitation of natural resources
- Overcoming the colonial development model of resource extraction for sustainable development in Africa
- Why climate justice is impossible without racial justice
- Watch the Feminist Action Lab’s Economic Justice Videos for more info on neoliberalism and gender!
Climate justice and feminist author Naomi Klein popularized the term “Sacrifice Zones” in her advocacy.
“Sacrifice zones”: A resource economy depends on certain areas being disproportionately ravaged by extraction and processing—these places and the people in them are seen as worth sacrificing for some nebulous concept of the greater good. (Attributed to Naomi Klien in the article “Naomi Klein’s Radical Guide to the Anthropocene”, New Republic 2015)
Women, girls, gender diverse people are disproportionately in ‘sacrifice zones’ because of the multiple systems of oppression and discrimination they face.
8. Privatization and The Commons
The “commons” is a term used to describe shared natural resources that are essential for life on earth such as healthy oceans, clean air, fertile soil, waterways, food systems, biodiversity. The commons can be shared systems, resources or spaces that are collectively managed, regenerated and used by communities in a sustainable and long-term way.
Neoliberal economists have popularized the idea that the commons are not feasible to manage because of the supposed essential nature of human beings “selfish” or self-interested. They theorize that if a forest or pasture that is commonly held (and therefore not privately owned and regulated), individuals would take more than what they need to maximize their personal profit over the benefit of the community.
Feminists and social movements have debunked this idea of inherent selfishness and cited many examples, historical and contemporary, of community governance of forests, rivers, oceans and other natural resources. Most famously, feminist sociologist and nobel prize winning economist Elinor Ostrom has helped explain that cooperation, trust and co-management has been practiced for centuries in sustainable ways directly challenging neoliberal thought. There is no inherent selfish gene, but rather aggressive economic and political systems driven by profit and displacement, that rely on privatization, that causes the destruction of commons. Economic and political systems can also evolve, be challenged, and changed – which is exactly what feminist climate justice activists advocate for.
To see some of the Commoning work of feminist movements around the world, check out:
- Feminist Frameworks for Climate Justice Town Hall (WEDO)
- Women Defend the Commons (Diva4Equality)
- Elinor Ostrom’s Trailblazing Commons Research can Influence Rio+20 (The Guardian)
9. Feminist Financing
Feminist movements advocate for bold and macroeconomic changes to address climate change. Under neoliberalism, the trend of privatizing natural resources, public services and goods often lead to wealthy countries and corporations exploiting resources in order to profit, and usually at the expense of the environment and the people who live in it. Feminist financing, part of feminist economic justice and climate, challenges these unsustainable and inequitable models of growth. Once again to quote the GEF Action Coalition leader WEDO, feminist financing is the following:
“Feminist economics would at its core reject unsustainable growth centered models: feminism remains incompatible with neoliberalism. Feminist investment would press for a paradigm shift, relying on adequate and equitable financing that understands that response measures to COVID-19 and the multiple intersecting climate, biodiversity and poverty crises must address economic and social structural injustices and inequalities.
The post-COVID world order must build stronger international cooperation based on human rights. Developed countries must fulfill their existing obligations under multiple international UN processes such as Financing for Development, the UNFCCC and the Sustainable Development Goals, to support developing countries financially and respect the polluter pays principle. Developed countries must urgently increase financial provision in the form of grants in a way that is predictable, adequate, transparent and accountable.” (WEDO 2020)
By now you will be more familiar with feminist analysis of root causes of climate change – ongoing exploitation of labor and natural resources under neoliberalism, privatization over public spending and the commons, patriarchy and other forms oppression that increase risk for marginalized people. Greenwashing is a tactic often used by governments, corporations and other stakeholders to publicly demonstrate a dedication to environmentalism and sustainability, without fundamentally changing business models, investments or practices that perpetuate exploitation of natural resources.
To read more about Greenwashing and how to identify it when working in advocacy, check out Client Earth’s “Greenwashing Files” which focuses on greenwashing within the fossil fuel industry.
1. The Chipko Movement (India)
Climate Justice movements have existed much longer than formal advocacy efforts at the UN. The Chipko Movement of 1973 was a landmark eco-feminist movement that inspired many social movements after it. It was led by women from a rural, forest based community who organized collective action against the threat of deforestation.
Chipko, which means “embrace” in Hindi, originated in Uttarakhand, India where rural women collectively mobilized in non-violent protest by “embracing” or “hugging” trees to prevent logging. From their perspective, trees provided so much sustenance, killing the forest would be akin to killing the people of the village. It is important to note women defied patriarchal norms and instead collectively organized to lead protests and were ultimately successful in their efforts.
The context of Chipko arose during a time when government backed development supported foreign logging companies to clear cut vast tracts of forest. Coupled with this, new roads and infrastructure projects were also encroaching on forest land that was previously managed and maintained by rural communities for essential food and fuel, a responsibility that women often held. By the 1970s, flooding, erosion, soil degradation, water contamination and lower crop yields had become commonplace because of the increased deforestation from commercial logging. The profit from forests benefited the companies while disproportionately hurt both people and the ecosystem.
Some long term impacts of the Chipko movement:
- Chipko inspired national movements to protect the forests of India and encouraged peasant and women-led demonstrations across states in the country.
- The Union government amended the Indian Forest Act of 1927 and introduced the Forest Conservation Act in 1980 which stated that forest land cannot be used for non-forest purposes.
- The same year, commercial green felling was banned in forests above 1,000 metre altitude.
- Regional reforestation efforts were launched resulting in the planting of more than one million trees in the region.
The Chipko is now a globally recognised example of grassroots and feminist movement. It also shifted the gender narrative around who can lead and challenge profit-driven development.
2. The Green Belt Movement (Kenya)
The Green Belt Movement (GBM) was founded in 1977 by the late feminist and environmentalist Wangari Maathai in Kenya. Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her transformational work on sustainable development, democracy and peace.
The story of Wangari Maathai is a story of many “firsts”. She was a leader in a movement that looked at mitigation of climate impacts from feminist lens and remains one of the most well recognized examples of climate justice on the continent. Although the movement is more than four decades old, it continues to be extremely relevant not only in Kenya but globally. Additionally, Green Belt Movement now exerts substantial influence on Kenyan policy making with regard to environmental conservation policies.
Through the 1960s and the 1970s, rural Kenya started witnessing increased droughts, with streams drying up and forests being depleted because of encroachment and commercial interests. Rural women specifically faced many challenges such as longer distances to get water, firewood and essential resources for their families. It also impacted their food security as biodiversity and access to common lands became harder to access.This was a classic case of deforestation accelerating environmental degradation and communities suffering, amongst whom women and girls bore the brunt of. Previously, collectively managed forests that were treated like commons, were disappearing due to rapid development that spurred deforestation and increased scarcity.
In response to the needs of rural Kenyan women, Professor Wangari Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement (GBM) in 1977 under the auspices of the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK). In their own words:
“The Green Belt Movement instituted seminars in civic and environmental education, now called Community Empowerment and Education seminars (CEE), to encourage individuals to examine why they lacked agency to change their political, economic, and environmental circumstances. Participants began to understand that for years they had been placing their trust in leaders who had betrayed them and that they were sabotaging their lives by not working for the common good and failing to use their natural resources wisely.” (http://www.greenbeltmovement.org)
Greater political participation of women, democratic leadership, transparency and accountability of national and regional elected officials were all critical to this climate justice movement. GBM addressed issues like land grabbing and deforestation, not from a purely ‘environmental’ lense, but one that embraced the root causes of inequality at the nexus of corruption and privatization.
Maathai’s mobilization of African women was not limited in its vision to work for sustainable development; she saw tree-planting in a broader perspective which included democracy, women’s rights, and international solidarity.
3. 1992 UN Earth Summit
The 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, or the “UN Earth Summit” was a groundbreaking advocacy gathering in the climate sector. The Earth Summit launched some of the most important advocacy bodies and declarations including:
- United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)
- Agenda 21
- Convention on Biological Diversity
- Rio Declaration
14,000 civil society organizations participated in the summit but only 5% represented women’s rights organizations. Despite the low numbers, a coalition of feminists formed as the Global Gender and Climate Alliance Women who advocated for the inclusion of gender throughout the summit and influenced Agenda 21 (Chapter 24), UN Convention to Combat Diversification, and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.
4. The Beijing Platform For Action & Generation Equality Forum
The Beijing Declaration is a defining document addressing gender equality. In 1995 the Declaration was a result of over 30,000 activists globally coming together and advocating for the rights of women and girls during the Fourth World Conference on Women, in Beijing China. It produced ‘12 critical areas of concern’ including ‘Women and the Environment’ and became a non-legally binding global policy platform for gender equality that continues to be active today. The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is an annual conference and the official monitoring and implementation body on the Beijing Declaration, governed by UN Women. Though ground breaking, marginalized groups such as LGBTIQ groups, women with disabilities and sex workers were not included in the original drafting and negotiation process and have since been advocating to be included fully as constituencies for the realization of the commitments.
Today, the 2021 Generation Equality Forum (GEF) hosted by the Governments of Mexico and France is a conference aiming to accelerate what was started in 1995. The GEF has 6 major “Action Coalitions” (AC) or a group of government, UN agency, private sector and civil society/feminist organizations leading a 5 year advocacy process on Feminist Action for Climate Justice. Some key tools and the AC on Climate Justice as provided so far include:
- A Blueprint for Action on Climate Justice
- A Global Acceleration Plan for Gender Equality that includes 4 “Game-Changing” Advocacy Targets on Climate Justice
- A Commitment Making Platform to track your government’s, private sector stakeholders and civil society commitments. This platform will also be a way for your organization to sign up as a commitment maker and engage in longer term advocacy with ACs.
Youth Power at the GEF
Power within UN spaces is an active and contested process. Young feminists and youth-led organizations have the right to be equal partners and decision-makers at advocacy spaces like the GEF.
Whether or not the GEF is able to engage youth in meaningful ways will be based on a number of factors including holding donors, states, UN agencies and civil society organizations accountable to intergeneration power sharing, restoring, and resourcing.
In an effort to create more meaningful and youth-led spaces for advocacy, several regional and global youth manifestos and platforms have already been created. We highly encourage Action Lab users to get involved with the following collaborative youth-led initiatives below:
While it can seem overwhelming, we can do so many things to demand feminist climate justice for all. Here are some things to keep in mind when planning your actions and activism!
- Do your research!
That means learning more about the feminist agenda in your country from seasoned activists and emerging ones!
- Question and be curious.
Now that you know some principles in feminism (the importance of power, systemic change, intersectionality) you can better identify feminism from ‘gender ideology’ and other conservative movements! Question people who exclude or reinforce binaries! Break your own binaries!
- Organize your community.
Instead of becoming an individual leader on your own, build your collective voice and organize your community! There are many movements to join and learn from – find your allies and get involved!
- Raise your voice & advocate!
You have the right to be at the table and participate meaningfully in local, national and global spaces. Raise your voice and become a feminist advocate!
Are you ready to get involved in global and national feminist movements? Head to our Action study guide to learn more about the GEF and other networks you can join.