Integrate gender when designing climate policy
By Mara Dolan and Jessica Olson
The team of people tasked with coordinating the global climate change negotiations for the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in 2021, we recently learned, consists entirely of men. While not surprising to many feminists in this space, this blatant disregard of gender diversity and women’s perspectives in climate policy is all too common. And it reflects broader ignorance of how gender and climate change intersect.
As the climate crisis accelerates, so does the need to understand its effects and how best to address them through climate policy, whether globally, nationally, or locally. We know that climate change is already exacerbating inequalities across the world around race, gender and class. Yet these differentiated experiences with climate change are rarely addressed in policy.
A recent report, Gender and Climate Change in the United States: A Reading of Existing Literature, published by the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) and the Sierra Club, underscores how a gender analysis, including a focus on women’s rights, must be central to climate policies in the United States. Among our findings, despite being more likely to see climate change as a threat, women are underrepresented in both climate leadership and news coverage. Gender is also a salient indicator when we assess which workers and industries climate change most affects. As such, gender must be factored into constructing economic policies for a just transition to a green economy.
What the Findings Tell Us About Policy
From energy sector employment statistics to climate’s impact on health and disaster preparedness, this report outlines a number of provocative and frequently worrisome statistics and stories about how gender is a crucial dynamic to must be considered when crafting climate-related policy.
Gender must be factored into constructing economic policies for a just transition to a green economy.
For instance, the findings illustrate how women are disproportionately impacted by extreme weather events and least represented in climate communications and leadership. While women are more likely than men to need to visit an emergency room for asthma- and respiratory-related conditions during wildfires, according to the report, they make up only 1 in 5 people interviewed, featured, or quoted in climate-related news coverage. Where the climate crisis affects people, it’s likely that gender inequity does, too. Both crises should be addressed in connection to each other.
These disparities can go unaddressed if this information is not made available to shape policy interventions. These inequalities are even starker for women who face multiple forms of oppression based on their race, class, sexual and additional identities. As result of these disproportionate impacts, Latinx and Black women seem to understand best the dynamics at play in the current climate crisis in the United States. Around half of Americans believe the climate crisis is currently harming the country, we found, including 53 percent of women and 45 percent of men. Latinx (67 percent) and Black (63 percent) women are the most likely to agree with this statement.
What’s also instructive is what’s missing. Much of the research reviewed does not account for the disparities women of different racial identities and people across the gender spectrum experience, both in terms of negative effects, but also opportunities for leadership. The limited findings from post-Katrina impacts and recovery of communities of color and queer communities illustrate the need for further research. White residents, especially white women, who tended to have access to more financial resources than Black residents, were significantly more likely to return to New Orleans in the years following the storm. What’s more, among Black single mothers, homeowners prior to the storm were significantly more likely to return to their pre-Katrina homes than renters or those in subsidized housing. Also notable is that within the LGBTQI communities of New Orleans, lesbians, bi-sexual women, and queers of color faced greater flooding in their neighborhoods than white middle-class gay men owing to the former groups’ lower incomes and the less expensive, less flood-resistant neighborhoods they lived in pre-Katrina.
Much of the research reviewed does not account for the disparities women of different racial identities and people across the gender spectrum experience.
These kinds of findings—rare among the broad lexicon of climate-related research—demonstrate the significant shortcomings of research that fails to be intersectional. All too often, for example, research on “women” tends to explore gender through only a binary lens and fails to account for the many other identities that shaped women’s experiences, including race, class, ability, among others.
We also noted a striking lack of research on the experiences of Black and Indigenous women, women of color, and non-binary people. Though the review makes clear that these gaps in the literature are stark and must be addressed, we are also acutely aware that academic research is only one tool to influence policymaking. We firmly believe that lived testimony and experience, and the wisdom held by frontline feminists and communities must also be positioned to influence policy. Despite the gaps in the academic literature on gender and climate, many held and hold this knowledge.
Exploring the Gaps
So what does this mean for policymakers? For starters, when policy is being developed, key questions must be asked. Who is not present in the data informing our actions? And what communities should be consulted to ensure the most positive outcomes? How do women of color within frontline communities fare differently? And what can policymakers do to address disparate impacts before they occur?
The report offers concrete recommendations for how gender analysis must inform climate policy.
- We know that if energy industries are currently overwhelmingly employing men, as we transition towards renewable energy and invest in low-carbon alternatives, policies must make a concerted effort to incentivize and reach out to women and non-binary people to ensure these jobs are accessible to all.
- We know that extreme weather events have negative effects on reproductive health, particularly for people who can become pregnant. Policies must better integrate environmental health concerns into reproductive services, ensuring that disaster response includes gender-sensitive and accessible reproductive health care.
- We know that women and non-binary people are vastly underrepresented in environmental organizations’ decision-making roles, as well as in the media. When building policies, these groups must actively incentivize and pursue more equitable consultation and participation beyond the typical “power players,” given the gender imbalance inherent in them.
To address these omissions, WEDO and Sierra Club are embarking on a series to “Fill in the Gaps,” so to speak. Over the next half year, this series will consist of a series of conversations, communications and briefs that explore the topics where the current research falls short. Knowing the gaps in research is just the beginning. By pairing research with policy proposals, we can begin to ensure that gender is not only part of the conversation but integral to climate solutions, too.
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