Women and the Climate Crisis

On March 8, 2013, International Women’s Day, KFAI in Minneapolis presented a program, “Women and Global Climate Change.” The speakers were Christine Frank, Climate Crisis Coalition Twin Cities (3CTC), and a frequent contributor to Socialist Action newspaper; Patricia Shepard, Idle No More Minnesota Activist, Ojibwe and Prairie Band Potawatami; and Karen Redleaf (now Schraufnagel), 3CTC activist and Socialist Action Twin Cities member. Christine Frank’s commentary follows:

Christine Frank: Greetings, Sisters, on this historically important day for all women around the world. We’ll be speaking about women and global climate change.

Because of fossil fuel combustion, human beings are injecting more and more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, causing Earth’s temperature to rise. As a result, the planet’s ice masses are melting at an alarming rate and sea levels are rising.

At times, warmer temperatures mean more moisture in the atmosphere, which causes heavier rains and snowfalls and more violent storms. These come in the form of paralyzing blizzards, hurricanes and typhoons that flood cropland and communities, and killer tornado outbreaks that blow away peoples’ homes and wreck lives. When conditions are just right, you can have a “perfect storm” like Hurricane Sandy.

At other times, warmer temperatures lead to blistering heat waves, droughts that wither crops and threaten food supplies, and wildfires that ravage forests, grasslands, and dwellings. These weather extremes are two sides of an ever-warming world. All you have to do is look out the window and see it. Over the past two decades, the number of weather-related disasters has doubled, and it’s women who suffer the most because of our status in society, especially in the Global South, where for masses of people, the daily struggle to survive is tougher and the infrastructure is more vulnerable.

The London School of Economics conducted a study of 141 disasters and found that there was a higher death rate for women than for men. Nearly three times as many female as male lives are lost. This was directly linked to a lack of equality—economic, educational, political, and social. There is a definite gender imbalance with climate change. For example, if a woman isn’t allowed to leave the house without a male escort, it’s harder for her to flee and seek safety from an approaching tropical storm.

Of course, it’s not just a problem in the “emerging” countries. In “advanced” nations too, women tend to bear the brunt of the hardships caused by natural disasters. During the European heat wave of 2003, which killed up to 35,000 people, significantly more elderly women than men died.

Poverty plays a big role. Women make up a shocking 70% of people living in poverty around the world. And 78% of the indigent in the U. S. are women and children under the age of 18. It’s understandable that it was they who suffered disproportionately in New Orleans and on the Gulf Coast from Hurricane Katrina—especially those in single-parent households.

When you’re poor, it’s more difficult to pick up the pieces and reassemble a shattered life afterward, especially when your own government ignores you. We all know what a sham Katrina “disaster relief” was under the callous Bush administration. Even the corporate media recognized that to a certain extent. Each of us can remember watching in horror as the disaster unfolded and the people of New Orleans languished due to FEMA’s gross neglect and incompetence. But Hurricane Sandy “relief” hasn’t been much better under Obama.

When it comes to “disaster capitalism”, the priority is to rebuild the “economically important” sectors like those Atlantic City waterfront casinos and hotels, while the needs of ordinary folks with families to care for are shunted off to the side. We can see that the marginalization of women all over the world makes it more difficult for us to cope with the impact of climate change.

Other forms of environmental devastation exacerbate the effects of climate change. There’s deforestation due to rampant logging and the “replacement” of natural forests with commercial tree plantations, soy production, and cattle grazing. As a result, our watersheds are destroyed and the climate-regulating aspects of tropical rainforests are lost.

Desertification is a growing problem due to over-grazing. Soil erosion is another, because of poor land use. Over-irrigation and ground water depletion cause shortages of fresh water so basic to human survival. Over-fishing by commercial trawlers makes it hard for fisher-folk to pursue their traditional livelihood. The pollution of our biosphere from mining and fossil fuel extraction undermines the health of all life.

All forms of environmental degradation combined with climate change make survival, particularly in the Global South, that much more challenging. As Mother Nature is raped by capitalist commodity production, the survival of all life is undermined. The roles imposed upon women, or the ones we choose to assume, can make it more difficult for us to cope with natural disasters.

In the Global South, economic division of labor has men producing the cash crops for expert, while women produce the subsistence food crops for domestic use. In fact, women grow 59% of the world’s food, and a third to one-half of the agricultural labor in the Third World is performed by women. Crop failures produced by the effects of global warming magnify food insecurity worldwide.

Females are more dependent upon primary natural resources than males. In “developing” countries, women and girls—girls who could be in school, since females make up 2/3 of the world’s illiterate—have to spend long, drudging hours everyday gathering cooking fuel and animal fodder. Deforestation and desertification further their difficulties.

Females also collect drinking water. Growing freshwater scarcities increase the travel distance for female water carriers, making them vulnerable to sexual violence, especially in war zones. Rising sea levels cause further freshwater shortages along coastlines as saltwater intrudes into freshwater bodies. Natural resource depletion means more work for women with less to show for our labor. We are treading water and getting nowhere.

Global warming causes more disease—such as malaria—from mosquito vectors. When there’s flooding, water-borne pathogens also increase. Because women are the primary caregivers of children, the elderly, and the sick, the rise of disease places a greater burden on us. Inadequate medical care and sanitation in the “post”-colonial world adds to that load.

Child mortality is on the rise. According to the WHO, 150,000 people are already dying annually due to climate change. Nearly 90% of these are children. Warmer temperatures, combined with industrial air pollution in “advanced” countries, triggers severe asthma attacks, which are on the rise among our children. Warmer weather increases pollen in the air and accompanying allergic reactions. These are just a few of the health problems women as caregivers must contend with under climate change.

As powerful transnational corporations further globalize the world economy, more natural resources, such as water, are being privatized—limiting their use to only those who can afford to pay. The commons formerly open to equal use by all members of the community in many societies are being closed off, preventing access to agro/eco-systems traditionally used by Indigenous Peoples.

In Northern India, during the mid-20th century—where women had traditionally been sylva-culturalists who tended the trees, gathered food, fuel, fodder, fiber medicine, and building materials from the woodlands—male-dominated commercial forestry began to encroach. Mono-cultural planting of eucalyptus trees, for the purposes of wood-pulp production, created landscapes devoid of dense understory and diversity. The watershed was being destroyed, causing terrible erosion on the hillsides.

Deprived of natural resources vital to the lives of themselves and their families, women created the famous Chipko Movement of the 1970s. They would threaten to wrap their arms around the endogenous trees to save them from being ripped out. “Chipko” is Hindi for “embrace” or “hug.” These women became the very first “tree huggers.” After a long struggle, with many protests, the women were successful at stopping the devastation. The Chipko Movement is a powerful example of what women can accomplish when we fight back to defend Mother Earth, who embodies our direct interests.

As climate-changed, induced and enhanced natural disasters increase, more and more climate refugees flee catastrophe after catastrophe. Women and girls in flight are more vulnerable to sexual predation, human trafficking in the sex trade. Children of both genders are more easily subjected to forced labor. Under capitalism, there’s always someone around to take advantage of the least advantaged—and it’s women and children last.

Armed conflicts over natural resources add to this problem. America’s addiction to fossil fuels is the direct cause of the wars in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Northern Africa. In the imperialists’ mad scramble for what’s left of the hydrocarbon reserves, forced migrations place females in jeopardy, inflicting rape and other violence, anxiety and depression.

Women bear the brunt of environmental racism around the world. Because most of America’s minerals and energy resources are on Native American lands, their communities have suffered heavily from the contamination caused by uranium mining and processing and fossil fuel extraction. Communities of color are frequently the unwilling hosts to hazardous waste dumps and toxic incinerators. The petro-chemical industry in the South is concentrated around Black communities, where there are cancer clusters in huge proportions. Hence the term “Cancer Alley.” It’s women of color who are often the leaders of grassroots movements that fight against this kind of injustice.

Working people in general are often the victims of industrial waste dumping. Love Canal in New York was built on a chemical waste site. When women like Lois Gibbs realized that their families were getting sick from the toxic exposures, they began to stand up and fight for remedial justice. Currently, the extraction of extreme energies, such as tar-sands bitumen in Alberta, the fracking of shale gas and oil, deep-water offshore oil drilling, and the use of dangerous nuclear power are all adding to the environmental injustices that people suffer.

There are definite parallels between how society treats women and peoples of color and workers and how it treats Mother Nature. Clearly, environmental justice and gender equity go together.

(Solutions Segment)

Christine Frank: It’s not all gloom and doom if we roll up our sleeves, get to work and take action. I think the first step in defending women from the impacts of climate change is to change our attitudes toward nature by simultaneously rejecting male domination of both the natural world and women.

We must stop viewing the planet as little more than a mine for raw materials for capitalist production and bring all aspects of human life into harmony with nature. We need to make an ecological revolution by creating healthy, egalitarian relationships between women and men, and between humans and nature. We must respect women’s traditional knowledge and listen to women’s voices—especially those of Indigenous women. There’s ancient wisdom there to learn from and draw upon in adapting to climate change. This is a basic tenet of eco-feminism.

We should also adopt the policies of deep ecology and recognize that everything on Earth, animate and inanimate, has intrinsic value—from the tiniest grain of sand to the largest redwood. This way of thinking is necessary because not only is all life interdependent, but also the biosphere is intricately connected to the planet’s geological forces. So, that tiny grain of sand is just as important as the living ecosystems we depend upon for survival.

Further, we need to unite all of the many groups in society that are victims of oppression and environmental injustice, while respecting the independence of each. Powerful alliances are necessary to build a strong movement to end America’s addiction to fossil fuels and demand fundamental change in how we relate to Mother Earth, the origin of all life, and how we power our society and live upon this planet as a human family. We need to stand in solidarity with groups such as Idle No More who are in the vanguard of the struggle to defend Mother Earth.

It’s obvious that “market-based solutions” are not going to stop global warming, since it’s been business as usual for the last 25 years, and things have gotten steadily worse. Time is running out for Mother Earth and humanity. That’s why we must act now to draw down carbon to a safe 300-325 parts per million carbon dioxide by reducing greenhouse gas emissions to zero from all sources as soon as possible. This will allow us to cool down the planet and prevent further catastrophic climate change. This has to be done immediately if our children and future generations are to live a relatively decent existence along with the other life forms with whom we humbly share this world.

To save Mother Earth for human habitation, we need a crash program in this country, funded by the “war budget,” to wean our society completely off both “traditional” fossil fuels and “extreme” energy sources, which include nuclear power, tar sands, shale gas and oil, and deepwater petroleum extraction. Renewable wind, solar, geothermal, and benign micro-hydro power, along with clean mass transit run by the same means, will enable us to do that.

So, let’s get these clean technologies up and running now! In addition, all of industry will have to be re-tooled and converted to green manufacturing to achieve a sustainable economy with a just transition for all workers and oppressed nationalities affected by the shift. This will require the equivalent of a wartime mobilization, as during World War II, when industry was completely re-tooled, and rationing, conservation, and recycling were widely instituted.

Twin Cities Climate Crisis Coalition calls for a public works program to reemploy the unemployed in environmental restoration and remediation projects to make our planet habitable again. Priority must be given to cleaning up tribal lands and lands in other communities of color that have been the victims of environmental racism.

To halt the poisonings of our ecosystems and our bodies, all food production must be changed to chemical-free, organic farming immediately. A vital part of our health-care system must be the detoxification and cleansing of our bodies—especially those of our children. We need to return to natural, plant-based medicines, while abandoning the dubious chemicals of big pharma.

Let’s put an end to waste by scaling and powering down, reducing, restoring, reusing, and recycling—the four Rs—at the point of production. All of these useful endeavors will provide millions of worthwhile green jobs, allowing people to contribute something meaningful to the environment and society.

As a revolutionary eco-socialist, I personally believe that it’s capitalism that’s destroying the planet, and it’s capitalism that’s got to go—not Mother Earth. To make peace and end the war on nature, we must establish a zero-waste, zero-growth, steady-state, democratically planned, green, eco-socialist economy that puts planetary and human needs before profits. Try to wrap your heart and mind around that vision, because we think it’s worth fighting for.