Climate Justice as a Feminist Ethos: Why Gender Dimensions of Climate Change Matter

In its growing prominence as a threat to the world as we know it, climate change has inevitably proven to be one of the most complex challenges of our time. Left unchecked, this accelerated rate of ecological degradation will leave devastating impacts on our environment, society and economy. Yet, these adverse effects are already being felt by many across the globe, particularly by the marginalized and disadvantaged communities in developing regions. However, many environmental issues that have occurred have been due to the unsustainable lifestyles of the most affluent populations within developed countries (Kaijser & Kronsell, 2014). Moreover, it is the voices of the marginalized and the disenfranchised that continue to lack representation on all levels of discussion and decision making about climate issues. From this position, the climate crisis entails more than just an understanding of the inherent relationship between consumption patterns and carbon emissions, but necessitates a deeper look at the interplay between power, privilege and prejudice and its impact.

According to Zoloth (2017), women encompass the “seventy per cent of the 1.3 billion people living below the threshold of poverty” (p. 140).  This is because women, particularly women of colour within marginalized and developing communities, depend on natural resources for their livelihoods, which are now threatened by the effects of climate change. This includes drought, famine, deforestation and so many other environmental patterns that are detrimental to the lives of women with regards to their physical, psychological, sexual and reproductive health and rights. Not only do they struggle obtaining scarce resources such as water, food and energy, but also face the same social, political and economic barriers that women across the world endure, reducing their capacity to cope with limited resources and opportunities to partake in the climate discussions and decision-making processes that affect them. These gendered inequalities within climate issues are pervasive and continue to limit the voices of women in matters that primarily affect them.

Because women in developing countries face gender inequality and poverty, along with illness, violence and a lack of access to sexual and reproductive health services, climate change puts them at a further disadvantage (Lim, 2017). This includes contracting water-borne diseases from regions where water is scarce and unhygienic, which affects their reproductive health (e.g. spontaneous abortions, stillbirth, etc.), or difficulty in accessing food in times of famine or droughts, leading to malnutrition, higher pregnancy risks and the inability to menstruate in young girls. Climate change also increases the burdens of women, as they are allocated traditional feminine roles of taking care of the young, sick and elderly, cooking and cleaning, as well as fetching energy and water (Lim, 2017). This leaves most women susceptible to abuse, sexual harassment, rape, and other forms of gender-based violence. Some of the more prominent forms of violence in these regions also include child marriage as a means of selling off the girl child to escape poverty and rid a 'financial burden’.

A lack of gender perspectives within climate discourse not only erases the struggles of women, but assumes that climate change is gender-neutral, when ample evidence proves otherwise. This idea of climate change as purely ecological is dangerous, particularly without the inclusion of gendered, racial and other intersectional dimensions, when considering adaptation and mitigation strategies. A common strategy that has often been brought up within conferences such as the ICPD (International Conference on Population and Development in 1994, forming the UNPF (United Nations Populations Fund)), is population control. This is due to growing emissions in greenhouse gasses as a result of the rise in global populations. Though an inclusion of sexual and reproductive health and rights within climate policies would benefit women and population control goals, women’s bodies are not vehicles for climate change solutions (Silliman, 2009), as they are and must continue to be the sole deciders of whether or not they want to have children, and how many. As Lim (2017) argues, the rights of women are “non-negotiable, and States cannot pick and choose which human rights they would grant to women” (p. 19).

One of many women-led organisations trying to combat climate change

As the article by McKibbin (2017) accurately states, “there’s an almost perfect inverse relationship between how much of the problem you caused and how much of the pain you’re feeling”. This encapsulates the climate change dilemma: capitalism and modernity thrive on the marginalized populations that continue to struggle for survival and endure the harsh effects of climate change, as we continue our unsustainable and non-ecofriendly ways. This is apparent in observing how the autonomy and agency of women in developing regions are often unacknowledged or compromised as a result. But women are not just ‘victims’ of climate issues; they are active agents of change in terms of mitigation and adaptation due to the knowledge they have of the resources they use, their skillsets in domestic work, navigating for food, water and energy and the roles and responsibilities they have within their communities that are central to sustaining their livelihoods.

A debt is owed to the communities that still struggle as the rest of the world strives and modernizes, and the only way we can ever overcome climate change is to start repaying that debt with action, and with justice. Climate change must become as central to feminist ethics as women’s bodily autonomy, reproductive rights and equality of opportunity.  Zoloft (2017) hauntingly warns us if we continue on this perilous road of climate injustice, “there will be a time when the last well is dry, and then it will be too late” (p. 141).

By: Mya Gopal

Kaijser, A., & Kronsell, A. (2014). Climate change through the lens of intersectionality. Environmental Politics, 23(3), 417-433. Retrieved from
Lim, H. M. (2017). Why prioritise SRHR in climate change programming and policy
making. SRHR in the Era of the SDGs,23(2), 18-21. Retrieved from
McKibben, B. (2017, August 25). Climate Justice Is Racial Justice Is Gender Justice. Retrieved from
Silliman, J. (2009). In search of Climate Justice: Refuting dubious linkages, affirming
rights. ARROW For Change,15(1), 1-3. Retrieved from
Zoloth, L. (2017). At the Last Well on Earth: Climate Change Is a Feminist Issue. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion,33(2), 139-151. doi:10.2979/jfemistudreli.33.2.14

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