Environmental Intersectionality –Race, Gender, and the Climate Crisis (Part 1)

The Climate Crisis exacerbates existing inequalities. Intersectional environmentalism advocates for underrepresented communities, particularly those who are BIPOC and low- income. We need to examine the systematic oppression within the environmental movement. By embracing intersectionality within environmentalism, we are amplifying the voices of those who are most impacted by these issues. The climate change movement is heavily whitewashed despite the fact that BIPOC communities are most prone to environmental risks.


Impact on Women


Women are disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis. Gender plays a vital role when it comes to job opportunities, gender rights and violence. Based on the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), it is evident that the most vulnerable and marginalised people are most affected by climate-related hardships; 80% of those displaced by climate change are women.


Women’s vulnerability to climate change is based on social, economic and cultural factors. Women within rural areas, particularly in developing countries, are heavily dependent on local natural resources for their livelihood. Climate change, through drought or uncertain rainfall, reduces accessibility to these resources. Moreover, they face higher barriers than men in the recovering from climate related disasters. Environmental degradation also increases gender-based violence during and following disasters. Within many political, social and economic arenas, women have been excluded from climate-related decisions. As such, their experiences and needs are not being accounted for. There is a large intersection between climate justice and gender justice.


The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination of Women (CEDAW)ᶦ addressed many gender-based issues including gender parity in leadership for climate action, economic empowerment through renewable energy employment and the disproportionate impacts of climate change on rural women. Their general recommendation focuses on three key principles: equality and non-discrimination, participation and empowerment, and lastly, accountability. The CEDAW General Recommendation echoes the Gender Action Plan under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.


Another element that we must consider is EcoFeminism, which is where environmentalism and feminism collide. It explores the connection between the oppression of women and destruction of nature, which are both consequences of the patriarchy, capitalism and white supremacy. We must apply intersectionality to ecofeminism in order to promote inclusivity. A woman living in rural Malawi is likely to bear additional burdens of climate change and environmental degradation in having to travel further to access basic resources.ᶦᶦ We must go further than simply recognising that women are more vulnerable to the climate crisis. We need to empower and facilitate the participation and leadership of women. By constantly referring to women as ‘vulnerable’, we continue to reinforce the negative gender stereotype and fail to recognise their contributions to climate change mitigation and strategies.


All prevention, relief, recovery and reconstruction efforts should include gendered analysis to ensure that the rights of women and girls, and others who face gender-based or intersectional discrimination, are protected and receive appropriate support. This involves States implementing gender mainstreaming into all areas and elements of climate action.


BAME


One of the most palpable ways racism has manifested itself in the climate crisis is through the effects of air pollution. Although air pollution harms us all, it disproportionately affects BAME communities. A recent ONS report noted a strong correlation between ethnicity and pollution exposure.ᶦᶦᶦ Areas with unsafe levels of nitrogen dioxide are more likely to have a large BAME population. Throughout the course of the pandemic, we have seen how ethnic minorities are overrepresented in COVID-19 related hospitalisations. A recent report found that 9.7% of critically ill COVID-19 patients were black while 15.2% were from Asian ethnic groups.ᶦᵛ Experts have named air pollution as one of the many factors contributing to these figures as poor air quality can cause cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses.


In 2013, the death of a young black girl from Lewisham showed us the bleak reality behind these statistics. At the age of 9, Ella Kissi-Debrah suffered a severe asthma attack which tragically took her life. When the Coroner’s Court reported air pollution as the cause of Ella’s death late last year, UK legal history was made.ᵛ Since the death of her daughter, Rosamund Kissi-Debrah has been campaigning to raise awareness about the harm caused by local government’s failure to address air pollution.


In late November last year, poor air quality and BAME communities became the subject of parliamentary debate. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (George Eustice) was questioned about his department’s assessment of the issue and the specific actions that will be taken to tackle the problem. Eustice made reference to his department’s commissioning of research into the inequalities of air pollution exposure. In response, the department plans to “take action through the Environment Bill by setting new targets on air quality.”ᵛᶦ Once again, we are left with vague commitments to marginal change. As we embark on a path of radical change, it is vital that we take this opportunity to dismantle and rectify the institutions that allow systemic racism to operate in society.


We need to ensure that our climate justice is inclusive and reframe the narrative to highlight the deep systematic root causes of climate change such as colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy, the patriarchy and capitalism. We cannot achieve climate justice without social justice. We must recognise racial justice, disability rights, women and girls, refugees and the LGBTQIA+ community intersections with the climate crisis.


ᶦ O Bonner, Tackling Gender Disparity at the Intersection of Human Rights and Climate Change (Center for International Environmental Law, 13 March 2018) <https://www.ciel.org/gender-disparity-intersection-human-rights-climate-change/>25 March 2021

ᶦᶦ Segundo (2020) Fashion Revolution

ᶦᶦᶦ Office for National Statistics, Does exposure to air pollution increase the risk of dying from the coronavirus (COVID-19)? (Office for National Statistics, 13 August 2020) <https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/environmentalaccounts/articles/doesexposuretoairpollutionincreasetheriskofdyingfromthecoronaviruscovid19/2020-08-13> 24 March 2021

ᶦᵛ Public Health England, Disparities in the risk and outcomes of COVID-19 (Public Health England Publications, August 2020) <https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/908434/Disparities_in_the_risk_and_outcomes_of_COVID_August_2020_update.pdf > 24 March 2021

ᵛ S Laville, Ella Kissi-Debrah: how a mother’s fight for justice may help prevent other air pollution deaths (The Guardian, 16 December 2020) <https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/16/ella-kissi-debrah-mother-fight-justice-air-pollution-death> 24 March 2021

ᵛᶦ HC Deb 26 November 2020, vol 684, col 968W

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