By Shrinwanti Mistri
This essay was selected for publication as part of the War Prevention Initiative’s Feminist Foreign Policy Essay “Un-Contest”.
We are at the eleventh hour! 2022 bore witness to apocalyptic climate catastrophes—the destructive floods in Pakistan, unparalleled heat waves in India and Europe, wildfires engulfing large areas of North America, Europe, and North Africa. The last few years have also seen a worldwide upheaval in global climate protests, with thousands of climate activists taking to the streets. Couched under the slogan #PeopleNotProfit, in September 2022, one of the largest global climate strikes across Europe, Asia, and Africa was organized by Fridays for Future, a youth-led global climate strike movement. Voicing their demands for climate justice, protestors urged the rich and developed countries from the Global North to pay for the damages of environmental destruction, which, for years, have been having an unfair impact on those from the Global South who are impoverished and historically marginalized by the global economy. This essay argues that to challenge deep-rooted discriminatory power structures and to find ethical solutions to climate change, climate justice ought to be a core feature of a feminist foreign policy approach to tackling the global climate crisis. This novel feminist perspective on climate justice will not only draw attention to gender but also shed light on all other intertwined social markers of difference (like age, sex, race, class, ethnicity, and so on) that are shaped by oppressive power relations.
Climate justice can be interpreted in various ways. However, according to the interpretation most relevant to this essay’s argument, “climate justice recognizes the disproportionate impacts of climate change on low-income communities and communities of color around the world, the people and places least responsible for the problem.” It is about “ensuring collectively and individually we have the ability to prepare for, respond to and recover from climate change impacts—and the policies to mitigate or adapt to them—by considering existing vulnerabilities, resources and capabilities.” Feminist foreign policy provides the justice-driven principles and intersectional thinking necessary to see and address these intersecting socio-environmental inequalities. Moving away from technocratic and exclusionary forms of climate change policy planning, an intersectional feminist approach will allow for “more socially transformative approaches that redress the drivers of diverse, underlying, and systemic inequalities.” The most important aspect of adopting a feminist foreign policy approach to climate change is to recognize the inclusive and intersectional ethics of feminism, which is not only about fighting for equal rights and opportunities for all genders but also about acknowledging the nexus between gender and other social markers of discrimination like age, class, race, religion, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and so on. True climate justice is, therefore, about ensuring no one is left behind.
Intersectionality, which has its roots in Black feminist thought, clarifies how various forms of social categorization can overlap with each other to create distinct forms of oppression and disadvantage. The intersectional lens will allow policymakers to look beyond the effects of one particular social driver of injustice at a time (for instance, racism or gender oppression) and consider multiple overlapping power inequalities that keep (re)generating the vicious cycle of deep climate vulnerabilities. Therefore, the key to achieving climate justice lies in recognizing that intersectionality can heighten the impacts of gender inequality. Climate justice is about acknowledging the disproportionate effects of climate change and working to address them through adequate long-term adaptation and mitigation strategies that capitalize on the experiences and knowledge of underprivileged populations and ensure their representation in policymaking bodies. The power of an intersectional feminist approach to climate change with a focus on climate justice, therefore, is that it would not only seek solutions to address the primary causes of environmental degradation but also simultaneously address a broad range of racial, social, and environmental injustices. Climate justice can be achieved not only by ensuring just representation of the populations who are worst impacted by the climate crisis in policy discussions but also by implementing other accountability measures like reparations and “land back” (especially for indigenous communities), alongside a careful assessment and deconstruction of the power dynamics embedded in international policy dialogues like the Conference of the Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
Demanding a feminist approach does not simply mean giving more seats to women at the decision-making table, as feminism is not only about women’s rights; it also includes the voices of the marginalized, exploited, vulnerable, and underrepresented people who are the victims of “structural inequalities rooted in anachronistic and (white) supremacist norms of domination” and who therefore do not enjoy equal opportunities to contribute to policy decisions in various global platforms. Hence, to implement a feminist foreign policy, policymakers must first re-define the standard narratives by “expanding ideas of who constitutes a citizen and has rights and prioritizing people and planet above growth and profit,” ensuring no one is left behind, especially the groups who have always been sidelined. It means thoroughly acknowledging the Global North’s dominant role in causing the climate crisis, ensuring veracious representation and participation of those who are non-elites or traditionally excluded groups, and listening to the narratives of those who actually suffer to enable the emergence of a more inclusive, equal, and peaceful world. A feminist shift would mean reassessing who will be in power to make decisions and how the climate crisis will be approached, while addressing the unequal power relations of the standard colonial perspectives. It is essential to have indigenous people at climate policy decision-making tables not only because they have faced the unequal brunt of the climate crisis for years but also because of their “in-depth knowledge of the territories that have been the source of their livelihoods for generations, … [which] includes understandings of how to cope with and adapt to environmental variability and trends.” A truly feminist approach to climate policy would incorporate the knowledge and experiences of the direct victims of climate-induced disasters and scarcities, which is essential to true climate justice. Instead of considering them as mere beneficiaries with no voice and agency, they must be considered as partners in resilience-building.
During COP27 in November 2022, I saw a photo featuring world leaders at the meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt—a photo massively circulated across various social media platforms. As soon as it caught my attention, I realized something was wrong with the photo. Close observation made me realize that there were only a few female leaders in a room full of men, contrary to COP27’s Presidency Action Agenda that promised to have the voices of “youth, women, civil society and indigenous people” at the center of the discussions. Why is this a problem? After years of protests, campaigns, and demonstrations on climate justice, even in 2022, there was a massive bias and underrepresentation in global decision-making platforms, bringing it down to the same vicious question of power dynamics: Who has the power to speak and decide on climate justice? Who has the power to be seen and heard? Whose agendas are being served by whom? It is evident that climate policymaking is gendered through the exclusion of women and women’s lived experiences with climate change but also that policy circles rarely adhere to feminist ethical and intersectional frameworks while designing climate change policies.
It is no secret that conserving nature and controlling environmental degradation became urgent only when the colonizers (the Global North) “recognized the rapid environmental decay caused by their own activities, as it acted to their detriment.”Although framed as a universal good, deep-rooted biases of the Global North have informed how climate change policies on the global level have been drafted for decades. As such, a narrow approach to climate policy has perpetuated the deep North-South divide on climate negotiations. For example, the UNFCCC’s policies were shaped by the material interests and normative perspectives of the Global North’s developed countries. This forced developing countries from the Global South to seek institutional change, thereby ensuring the de-facto solidification of the North-South contestation in the UNFCCC policy processes, absolutely sidelining the Global South’s interests and priorities. Women and certain social groups—like religious and ethnic minorities, children, persons with disabilities, older people, indigenous people, migrant workers, displaced persons, people of color, sexual and gender minorities, economically disadvantaged people—are the ones who bear the worst impacts of the climate crisis despite having the lowest carbon footprint. Such global inequality “grows out of a patriarchal system that is also entangled with racism and white supremacy and extractive capitalism.”
This is why we need a feminist approach to climate change to ensure a people-centered attitude, focusing not only on protecting the victims of the climate crisis but also on ensuring their representation in decision-making. Instead of systematically neglecting the insights and voices of the most affected populations, a feminist approach would promise their inclusion as opposed to traditional approaches that seek solutions only from those of dominant identities or from the Global North—“the very demographic that is most complicit with causing and benefiting from exploitation and environmental degradation.” It would also ensure holding the developed countries responsible for the damages they caused, instituting just reparations, and providing platforms where the visions and strategies of the historically “silenced” would be acknowledged in policymaking processes.
This vision might seem far-fetched and even utopic, but that is how changes happen—by being ambitious and by dreaming to achieve the impossible. To achieve climate justice in practice, we need to keep pushing, often beyond our limits, to try and be more ethical and to keep raising our voices about why it is essential to change the status quo. It is high time we need a decolonized, intersectional feminist approach to climate change, involving “critical and intentional listening to communities experiencing injustices firsthand.” If not, if governments continue to pursue domestic and foreign climate policies as they currently are, environmentalism might become the imperialism of the 21st century, and the designed solutions will never be equitable or just. To create a climate-just world, the voices of those most marginalized and impacted by climate change need to be centered in policymaking and in decisions about how to dismantle intersecting power imbalances.
Shrinwanti Mistri is an International Relations researcher and advocate for gender equality, intersectional social justice, and youth activism in politics and civil society. She is currently associated with Politics4Her as the Global Policy Officer, leading the policy research and advocacy committee. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 Cam Humphrey and Skyler Jackson, “Yale Experts Explain Intersectionality and Climate Change,” Yale Sustainability, July 28, 2022, https://sustainability.yale.edu/explainers/yale-experts-explain-intersectionality-and-climate-change.
Photo credit: Forest Starr and Kim Starr