Intersectional Approaches to the Climate Crisis
With the endless news of climate devastation this year, from wildfires in Greece to terrible droughts in Paraguay, there should be a real urgency to addressing the climate crisis. Now more than ever, it is blindingly obvious that climate change does, in fact, constitute a crisis. Yet business continues as usual. In the US, the oil pipeline, Line 3, which is in the process of being built, would destroy indigenous land and constitute a major new piece of fossil fuel infrastructure at a time when fossil fuels need to be eliminated entirely. From Line 3 and other new oil exploration in the arctic, it is clear that major corporations and governments are completely unwilling to preform the systemic change needed to address climate change. Because as these new fossil fuel projects make clear, governments and corporations around the world are committed and determined to maintain the status quo. For all the rhetoric around climate from the Biden administration and the EU, very little concrete action has been taken.
Later this year, the Conference of Parties or COP is set to meet for their 26th conference in Glasgow. This conference has been touted as the most important since the 2015 conference that resulted in the Paris climate agreement. But realistically what have these governments accomplished since the agreement was reached? Not only are they not on track to reach the goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, but they are building new fossil fuel projects. It is a disgrace. Despite the campaigns that have proliferated in recent years like Fridays for Future (inspired by Greta Thunberg’s school climate strike) and Extinction Rebellion, these organizations have made remarkably little progress at undermining the power of those who destroy the environment or convinced governments of the urgency required.
One could go down the route of climate fatalism. But such a route serves no purpose. We cannot simply give up and die. Yes, the odds are stacked against those fighting for climate justice. But there is certainly passion and enthusiasm and grassroots power behind climate action. It is clearly visible in the thousands of people around the world going on climate strikes. There is power in this kind of grassroots mass mobilization at the very least in drawing attention to climate change.
In the leadup to COP 26, the organization Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN) is currently hosting the Global Women’s Assembly for Climate Justice. WECAN is an organization that focuses on the disproportionate effects of the climate crisis on women and advocates for indigenous rights. They seek to “build women’s leadership, climate justice, resilient communities, and a just transition to a decentralized, democratized clean energy future” around the world. In this sense, WECAN is hosting the assembly to highlight the role that women play as actors and leaders in addressing the climate crisis. In the description of the assembly, WECAN proposes a call to action with seven steps for governments. These are 1) End fossil fuel expansion and transition to 100% renewable energy; 2) Promote Women’s Leadership and Gender Equity; 3) Protect the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; 4) Protect Forests and Biodiversity; 5) Preserve Oceans and Freshwater and Address Water Security; 6) Promote Food Security and Food Sovereignty; 7) Protect the Rights of Nature (returning to indigenous practices and recognizing lakes, rivers mountains etc as right-bearing entities)
Thus, the Global Women’s Assembly for Climate Justice presents a framework for transformational change. It fundamentally acknowledges that climate change is not a distinct issue from other forms of degradation and that racism, gender violence, classism, and violence against the LGBTQ+ community goes hand in hand with addressing the climate crisis. After listening to the speakers on the 27 of September, I would now like to talk a bit about what they’ve said and how important it is to place historically marginalized people at the center of efforts to address climate change.
The wonderful panelists during the conference called for addressing historic and systemic discrimination and pointed to how doing so is necessary for fighting climate change. In one of the series of talks on the 27 of September, activists spoke about funding grassroots, intersectional, feminist and anti-racist groups. Funding these groups will be critical to achieving a vision of climate justice. But what exactly does climate justice mean? For those at the assembly, climate justice meant a focus on queer, racial, gender, class and indigenous justice. It meant a redistribution of power and a major effort at power-building among these groups.
Thus, for those at the Global Women’s Assembly for Climate Justice, the status quo could not be allowed to continue. Moreover, as Melanie Allen said in her talk, white supremacy, patriarchy and exploitative capitalism are intricately linked with the climate crisis. Clearly, as the activist Alejandra Helbein said, there needs to be an intersectional and critical response to the current socio-economic reality. There was also some talk of false solutions, and this is where these intersectional, radical, feminist proposals come into play. Corporations promise that they will build carbon capture technology or otherwise address the climate crisis through a technical way. Even if this is good-natured and in the spirit of trying to help, such action cannot address the history of genocide and displacement of indigenous peoples in the US that continues today with the building of fossil fuel infrastructure on indigenous land. It cannot address the gendered inequalities and gender violence that women face as a result of the climate crisis. As the speakers made clear, such action cannot and will not address historical and lasting inequalities between the Global North and Global South and between the wealthy white elite and people of colour, working class people, trans people, indigenous people, women.
I just recently started my masters in Environment and Development, and a lot of the topics that came up during the assembly were related to the field of political ecology, which we just talked about in the first week. Political ecology seeks to historicize (provide historical context and debate) and denaturalize (introduce politics into discussions about nature and the environment) the field of ecology. Thus, political ecology is concerned with how the history of colonization in the Global South has resulted in environmental degradation there. Political ecologists might ask the question: How have global capital networks and consumption patterns in the Global North resulted in environmental destruction in the Global South? The field of political ecology also seems quite important in the context of the assembly because by politicizing ecology, it questions the ability of experts and technocrats to address the climate crisis. While experts might tout certain solutions like carbon capture as the magical solution, these in fact do little, if anything, to challenge the status quo that has created the climate crisis in the first place.
Political ecology is also fundamentally concerned with power relations. In this sense, the speakers and activists at the assembly were spot on in pointing to challenging existing power structures and building up power among grassroots feminist organizations as key to addressing the climate crisis and bringing about transformational change. The issue then seems to be how to build up enough power among these organizations to successfully demand change. I hope that these inspiring leaders and activists at the assembly can challenge those in power to do more and demand radical change at COP 26. International actors like governments, NGOs and corporations must not address climate change through business as usual. Instead, they must challenge the status quo in a democratic and intersectional (by addressing ideas around race, class, gender, LGBTQ+, disability) way that centers climate justice.