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Climate Change, Environmental Justice and Feminism

Yesterday, the amazing Maya Sequeira (who will resume her blogging activities in just a few weeks) and I went for a mid-day walk here in DC.  We didn’t wear coats.  Why not?  Because it was over 70 degrees on a day when the historical average temperature is in the 40’s.  One could view this as a well-deserved respite from everything coming at us this January.  Or one could view this as Climate Change flirting seductively to distract us from the knife she’s pulling, readying to slit our throat.

Because, along with the bizarre sensation of summer in January, there was the recent news that things are looking particularly dire up in Antarctica now that a section of the ice shelf is about to break off into an iceberg the size of Delaware.  This will mean an eventual rise in the ocean levels of 4 inches, along with increasingly warm temperatures. But, more worrying is this:

“Antarctic sea ice really went down the rabbit hole this time,” said Ted Scambos, the lead scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center. The West Antarctic Ice Sheet could collapse entirely within the next 100 years. “The collapse would lead to a sea-level rise of nearly 10 feet, which would engulf major U.S. cities such as New York and Miami and displace 150 million people living on coasts worldwide,” stated the Ohio State researchers.

If you want to really see what adding feet to the sea level will do for your hometown, check out this handy (read: horrifying) interactive tool published by the New York Times.  Climate Change is coming (really — it’s here), and we don’t have Jon Snow and his Valyrian Steel to save us.  Know what can save us?  Women and some serious feminism.

Climate Change and the Ladies

In 2009, the United Nations Population Fund released a report that details the ways in which women, population, and climate change are inextricably linked.

As an initial matter, climate change disproportionately burdens women.  Women are more likely to die from natural disasters related to extreme weather.  And a 2016 UNFPA report notes “if extreme weather related to climate change destroys a crop, …girls will be the first to be short-changed.”  But it isn’t just extreme weather that is the culprit.

It is also small scale practices at hearth and home that harm the environment and women.  For example, according to an organization hosted by the United Nations Foundation

The use of open fires and traditional cookstoves and fuels is one of the world’s most pressing health and environmental problems. . . According to the World Health Organization, household air pollution from cooking kills over 4 million every year and sickens millions more.

At the same time, as their initial report details, to get traditional fuels like wood, massive deforestation takes place, which in turns can cause mud-slides, changes in the watershed, and overall negative transformations of local environments.  And emissions from those cookstoves are responsible for almost half of the poor air quality in India.

Globally, women make up the majority of those living in poverty and often bear the burden of agriculture, food and water gathering, and the cooking and heating of homes.  These things all directly intersect with climate change in the ways noted above.  But this isn’t just an international problem.  As the National Resources Defense Council here in the U.S. notes, communities of color are commonly those who must “live, work and play in America’s most polluted environments.”

Intersectional Feminism, Climate Change and Environmental Justice

The good news is that climate change also can be disproportionately solved by policies that better the lives of women and by women’s involvement in the fight.  While the UN was prepared to describe, in 2009, women are “central to efforts to deal with climate change,” by 2016, the UN Population Fund’s central premise was that “our future depends” on girls at the age of 10.

Screen Shot 2017-01-13 at 1.32.38 PM2016 UNFPA Report

Some of the work feminists can do falls in the intersectional sphere, where fights for justice more broadly are a part of a broader justice platform.  The environmental justice movement — a social justice movement started by people of color — focusses on the ways in which climate change and environmental pollution and degradation create and feed injustice.  Think, for example, of the the NODAPL protests and the women who led the charge.  And some of the feminist policy overlaps with climate change has to do with family planning and reproductive rights.

Luckily, there is a whole generation of women taking on these challenges.  But as the cracking of the Antarctic Shelf and the 70-degree Januaries remind us, time runs short.

Katherine Kimpel

Katherine Kimpel

Kate Kimpel is the Senior Editor of Shattering the Ceiling and is also an accomplished civil rights lawyer. She represents women and people of color in discrimination cases (and other kinds of employment and civil rights matters).  When not lawyering, she likely is bragging about her hound dog Ulysses, inventing cocktails to serve at her next dinner party, or convincing her husband to watch reruns of a Joss Whedon television show (any of them will do). 

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