The hope of intersectional climate action
We are here to “share the joys, the struggles, the challenges, the future and hope of feminist climate justice” (Feminist Action for Climate Justice).
-- gender cc
As the dust settles from COP26, we’re thinking about the intersectionality of climate justice, and the importance of hearing those seldom heard voices. We wrote two weeks ago about leading with empathy, and the danger of this “most exclusive COP” ever. Throughout the conference, feminist climate activists like Kavita Naidu spoke up to acknowledge the injustices of the Global North/South inequalities that have led us to where our climate is today. They spoke up to acknowledge the voices who couldn’t be in the space with them in Glasgow, in conversation with everyone, as feminists fought for justice at COP26. The missing voices are too often women and indigenous people: those who are at the forefront of climate justice, disproportionately impacted by climate change because they are more likely to be poor, vulnerable, and marginalised from society. It is their frontline experience that goes unheard in the corridors of power. As Naidu put it, we must insist on “looking at ourselves and how we put forward our proposals for climate justice, because we can’t do our work without thinking about the differentiated impacts of climate change on folks around the planet”. But Patricia Wattimena was quite clear: “intersectionality is missing from the Paris Agreement”.
So we’re wondering: how can an intersectional approach help in the fight for climate justice?
An intersectional approach might look at strengthening climate democracy. Currently, climate impacts of industry and production are labelled as “externalities” for which corporations are still too rarely held accountable. In major governments, at COP summits, at the UN, we still do not see biodiversity as an active source of income, since it does not fit neatly into our economic models. As part of this democracy, everyone would be able to seek equal access to climate and health adaptation solutions, regardless of their gender identity, instead of being excluded from mainstream services as happens all too often today. For example, we could more meaningfully lobby against the discrimination and exclusion of trans people from much-needed healthcare in the States. We know this can lead to adverse mental health outcomes. We also know that trans people are often marginalised and poorer than many others, and so their exclusion from services will only become more acute as the financial and environmental effects of climate change become stronger.
An intersectional approach might look at how we can learn from other systems of work and living, perhaps by looking at how people on the ground live and work to survive. Representatives from Indigenous communities across the Amazon and Indonesia shared their insights on extractive industries with BlackRock in a 2020 series of workshops, giving voice to different approaches to energy generation and relationships with land. Philippines-based organisation Kalikasan (“nature”) advocates for “addressing environmental issues from the perspective of advancing the welfare of the grassroots-level populace foremost”. We heard about this approach at a CFFP event within the People’s Summit for Climate Justice alongside COP26, entitled “Questioning the Paris Agreement in Feminist Pathways towards a Just and Equitable Transition”. Ayesha Constable argued that market mechanisms and capitalism put decision-making power in the hands of the beneficiaries of this crisis, but our economists find it nigh on impossible to conceive of another way of structuring our economy and our lives. Taking a different perspective and listening to those voices on the ground might help us learn from an adaptation and mitigation lens, which is important “because it focuses on the people on the ground. They are the ones working to survive”. If we truly want to build a sustainable future, we need to change our perspective to look from the bottom up, both to learn what the problems are and to seek the solutions. We know from our work with Telescope that the people living with and experiencing social and environmental challenges have incredibly important insights to share and ideas about how to tackle them, but all too often have the least opportunity to contribute to decision-making.
An intersectional approach might ensure that documents and commitments like the Paris Climate Agreement are not gender-blind, an approach which risks perpetuating inequalities between men and women, especially in African countries and others in the Global South (Melania Chiponda, CFFP event). Access to resources and finance for women-led and -focused organisations would be one way to ensure that gender justice is mainstreamed into climate agreements. Another way might be to ensure the voices of women and people of colour make it to the decision-making positions, an area in which the UK COP26 team failed spectacularly - only 2 out of the 12 top COP directors were women. And yet the systems we currently operate in do not lend themselves to this kind of consideration very easily. Despite their best efforts to pretend otherwise, meaningful acknowledgement of patriarchy, coloniality and the constrictions of capitalism is far from the minds of leaders in the Global North who have so much power to make change. As Osprey Orielle Lake explained, “we are trying to use a system that is not transformative to do something transformative”. For real justice and change, “we need to change the system”. As we wrote a few months ago, part of changing the system will involve rebalancing the structures of power, and building new rooms for decision-making rather than channelling new traffic through the old rooms and doing little to dismantle the power hierarchies that persist.
Of course, an ideal intersectional approach to climate change would do all of these and more. It would respond to the needs of people in different communities and situations effectively. And it would put power in the hands of those who are most in touch with the land, the seas, and then people living on them, since they are the ones with the frontline expertise we so desperately need.