The Climate Crisis Is Worse for Women. Here’s Why.

Although climate change is a collective problem, its burdens — displacement, homelessness, poverty, sexual violence, disease — weigh more heavily on women and girls.,

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“If you’re going to be a feminist on a hot planet, you have to be a climate feminist.”

— Katharine K. Wilkinson, a co-editor of the climate anthology “All We Can Save”

The world’s leading climate scientists issued a landmark report this month with their clearest clarion call to date: The climate crisis is here, it’s humanity’s fault, and it’s a catastrophic, planet-threatening problem that will only get worse before it gets better — if it gets better.

The United Nations report, approved by 195 governments and based on more than 14,000 studies, determined that more than a century of extractive energy use has heated the planet by roughly 1.1 degrees Celsius, or 2 degrees Fahrenheit. Because of existing emissions, additional warming over the next three decades is inevitable. But the report stressed that the coming years offered a narrow and urgent window of opportunity: the chance to fundamentally change our consumption habits and energy usage to avoid even more disastrous warming.

Katharine K. Wilkinson, a co-editor of the climate anthology “All We Can Save,” argues that while climate change is a collective problem, its impacts will be disproportionate — skewed in its effects on the world’s most vulnerable populations, specifically women and girls.

“The climate crisis is not gender-equal or gender-neutral,” she said. Men have a larger carbon footprint than women, by 16 percent, according to one study. And the top 1 percent of income earners globally, who are overwhelmingly male, are responsible for more carbon emissions than the bottom 50 percent of earners. According to the U.N., that’s roughly 70 million at the top compared with 3.5 billion at the bottom. Yet it is women and girls who bear the burdens in the wake of more frequent climate disasters. Those burdens include displacement — 80 percent of people displaced by climate change are women — as well as increased homelessness, poverty, sexual violence and disease.

In her book, Dr. Wilkinson, who has a doctorate in geography and environment from Oxford, and her co-editor, Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, shine a spotlight on the many women researching, leading, campaigning and writing on climate solutions.

In Her Words spoke with Dr. Wilkinson about why the answers are inextricable from gender equality and explained the idea of climate feminism. The conversation has been condensed and lightly edited.

You say the climate crisis is having a disproportionate impact on women. What does that mean?

The Pentagon coined this term of climate as a threat multiplier, which, of course, they’re thinking about national security. But I think it’s such a helpful framing that the climate is a multiplier of any cracks, imbalances or injustices that are present in current society. It amplifies them.

The climate crisis is not gender-neutral in its root causes, which grow out of patriarchy, among other things. It is not gender-neutral in its impacts because women and girls are on the back foot, in various ways. Extreme weather events are being tied to early marriage, to sex trafficking, to domestic violence, all of these things that are already present in society that get turned up a notch or five.

Say more about the connection between climate change and patriarchy.

The cause of climate change is greenhouse gas emissions. But to me, the question is, well, why do we have such an abundance of these emissions, and why have they been so hard to rein in? And when we start to ask those questions, we find ourselves confronting a system that has been very focused on hierarchy, control, exploitation and, frankly, decision making that has largely sat with a relatively narrow set of folks. And, certainly, women have not been at the table anywhere near equally in shaping the status quo that we find ourselves in. And the same is true for people of color. The same is true for Indigenous peoples.

How is gender connected to climate solutions?

We talk so much in climate about solutions at scale, which we need. We need regenerative agriculture around the world. We need a 100 percent clean electricity system, we need means of mobility that don’t rely on fossil fuels. We need all of that, of course. But I think sometimes we overlook the values. Because we’re not just trying to build a zero-emissions future, right? We’re trying to build a future also in which we can thrive together.

And to me, patriarchy is fundamentally predicated on some people thriving at the expense of other people. And of course, the same is true of white supremacy. Addressing both of those things is at the heart of climate work.

In your book, you describe the need for climate leadership that is more “characteristically feminine.” Tell me more about that.

Sherri Mitchell, an Indigenous attorney, activist and author from the Penobscot Nation, talks about the feminine as heart-centered wisdom and the masculine as action in the world.

When we think about the things it’s going to take to address the climate crisis and build a genuinely life-giving future, that’s going to take a fundamental reorientation to care. It’s going to take collaboration, connection, compassion, creativity, all of these things that fall within this realm of the feminine, regardless of gender identity.

Can you give an example of an area where you would like to see this reorientation manifested?

When we look at climate philanthropy, there are still really significant imbalances along the lines of race and gender. Most of the money that’s being invested in the climate movement is going to work that is led by white men. And we want them on the team. They just can’t be the whole team.

How would you respond to someone who says that bold climate action is inherently anticapitalist?

If capitalism is not anticlimate, the onus for proving that is on capitalists who so far have come up beyond short in showing how it can be workable within our planetary system. We have had this very bizarre, fundamental belief in infinity at the core of this economic system, and we’re living on a finite planet, so if you think that there is a way to solve for infinite growth on a finite planet, I would love to see that mapped out.

How do you hope the movement for climate feminism will evolve?

I think a lot about how we welcome in people who are committed feminists but have not seen themselves as climate feminists or have felt like the climate space is not super welcoming. Like, if you don’t have a Ph.D. in atmospheric science, then thanks, we don’t need you. And of course, that couldn’t be couldn’t be further from the truth. If you’re going to be a feminist on a hot planet, you have to be a climate feminist.

If someone came to you and asked what steps they could take now to address the climate emergency, what would you tell them?

I often ask people: What are your superpowers, and how can those be contributed in some way to the work that needs doing on climate? Because we are so much more than our consumer choices, we are so much more even than our voting practices and civic participation. Many of us can find ways to weave climate into our professional lives. And that, for me, is when things start to get powerful.

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