International Women’s Day 2019: What could a zero-carbon economy mean for women?

A truly just transition must incorporate gender justice.

Climate change is sometimes talked about as if it were a great leveller, where the wealthy and poor, powerful and oppressed alike will suffer together. But climate chaos does not and will not impact all of us equally: the structural inequalities that we experience will affect how climate change impacts upon us.

The US Green New Deal text contains an explicit intention to tackle gender inequality, including the gender pay gap. The Women’s Environment Development Project argues that a transition away from fossil fuels must also be a transition away from prevailing power structures and a sexually disaggregated labour force.” It’s welcome that just this week the government announced its sector deal for offshore wind, which includes the intention to double the number of women employed in the offshore wind sector.

The appeal of the US Green New Deal — and, increasingly, the direction of climate politics — is its incorporation of environmental, social, and economic justice. The US text acknowledges that the original New Deal of the 1930s excluded many communities from receiving the fruits of economic mobilisation, a fact that should make us all consider the nuances of any future climate action.

So what does this brave new era of climate action mean for women?

On a global scale, women contribute fewer emissions to climate change than men, have less decision-making power, and are more likely to engage in pro-environmental behaviours. But despite this, women — particularly in the Global South — are far more likely to be adversely impacted by climate breakdown. In the 1991 cyclone disasters in Bangladesh, 90% of the 140,000 people who died were women. In the 2003 European heatwave, elderly women accounted for the majority of deaths. And in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the US in 2005, most of those trapped in New Orleans were Black women with children.

Here in the UK, the Department of Health expects climate change to exacerbate existing health inequalities. There is a disproportionate number of women living in poverty in this country, and as women still do the bulk of caring responsibilities, the impact of climate change on family members will also impact them.

Focusing on gender justice and the wider reforms needed to deliver it helps underline that the creation of new green jobs alone isn’t enough; they should be work that is secure, well-paid and enable people of all genders to balance work and caring responsibilities. The nature of work will not only change for those working in carbon-intensive industries. Climate change will also impact workers in the public sector — disproportionately women — from healthcare to education. Restructuring the economy to tackle climate chaos is a massive opportunity we’re not likely to be offered otherwise — to rethink employment to work for everyone.

It’s heartening that the fact that the push for massive ambitious climate action is being led by women. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) says that globally, Women’s participation at the political level has resulted in greater responsiveness to citizen’s needs, often increasing cooperation across party and ethnic lines and delivering more sustainable peace. At the local level, women’s inclusion at the leadership level has lead to improved outcomes of climate related projects and policies.”

With Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez championing the Green New Deal, the Global North’s climate movement seems to be reconstituting to find a new strength explicitly because its spokespeople are not overwhelmingly white, middle class men — and because its thinking draws from the labour movement, feminism and racial justice, rather than the environmental movement. The UNFCCC says that if policies or projects are implemented without women’s meaningful participation it can increase existing inequalities and decrease effectiveness.” We can say the same for any group, marginalised by race, class, disability or, given the School Strike for Climate, age.

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