Is climate justice a feminist issue?

Dr Sherilyn MacGregor, an academic in the University’s School of Social Sciences, focuses on the relationship between feminist and environmental politics. In an interview with the UK Women’s Environmental Network, she explores what a just and sustainable future could look like in the face of climate emergency.

The following is an extract from ‘Is climate justice a feminist issue? Part I: An interview with Sherilyn MacGregor’, originally produced by Louise Turner, MSc Environmental Governance and volunteer writer at the Women’s Environmental Network (Wen).

L: Sherilyn, how would you explain the connection between the environmental crisis and feminism?

S: Fundamental to feminism is pointing out the inequalities that are structurally created and reinforced, not just along the lines of gender but along many other intersecting lines of difference and inequality. The climate emergency is having the most severe effects on the most marginalised and exploited people – those whose lives are shaped by structural inequalities.

Women, particularly women of colour in the global south living in colonised parts of the world, are some of those who are worst affected by climate emergencies and disasters.

Feminism is about advocating for women’s lives and improving women’s lives, so anything that’s going to hurt women’s lives is part of a feminist project. The need to address and tackle climate change is presented in the mainstream media as something that affects ‘us’, all humans, equally, as if we’re all in the same boat, the same peril, the same danger.

Clearly that’s not true. If we’re going to talk about imagining what a just future looks like in the face of climate emergency, then we have to recognise that inequality is at the heart of it and all solutions to address it have to take into account and address those inequalities.

L: How can we strengthen a feminist critique and at the same time move away from understandings of climate change and gender that emphasise the vulnerabilities of women and marginalised groups?

S: I think that’s the reason why we’re moving to justice as the main focus of feminist intervention into climate politics. A lot of important work is being done at the global level, for example by the Women’s and Gender Constituency at UNFCCC, which is the top level of negotiation. They’ve tended to make arguments based on women’s vulnerability and that’s important. It can have the unintended consequence of reinforcing the idea that women are passive victims.

So, I think advocates and activists who are trying to engage from a feminist position have to be really strategic. You need to get to the table and make the case because of the fact that it is and will be women who are hurt most – but then there are other questions like what are the political, ethical and other principles that should be part of the discussion?

If we’re going to talk about what a just future looks like in the face of climate emergency, then we have to recognise that inequality is at the heart of it and all solutions... have to take into account and address those inequalities.

Dr Sherilyn MacGregor / Reader in Environmental Politics, School of Social Sciences, The University of Manchester

L: How can women be better included in the environmentalism debate and climate politics?

S: If you look at the research that’s been done on this question – it’s a bit mixed on whether it matters whether more women are at the table or not. I’m wary of it being a strict counting exercise. I think it has to be more about what sort of people are at the table – do they have a vision, a set of ethics and a way of operating that are consistent with an intersectional ecofeminist perspective? Changing the table itself is a more transformative move than giving more chairs to women at the existing table. 

We need people of all genders who identify with social and ecological justice, particularly thinking about fighting intersectional injustices, and who can basically recognize that it is the 99% who have been excluded and it’s the 1% who are defining the terms of debate – hence the idea of feminism for the 99%.

L: Would you say it’s important to consider local issues because I know you’ve mentioned that sometimes local issues have been side-lined because of the urgency of the climate crisis?

S: Yes. The research that I’ve done in Manchester’s Moss Side, for example, which looks at how a small community group is trying to bring people together, build networks of neighbours, to clean up their alleys and make them green, put plants and vegetables in their alleys to make them nice places to be, for children to play- this research all convinces me that we need to start from improving people’s quality of life.

It’s tricky to start with ‘climate change’ because that often turns people off. More needs to be done to sow the seeds of a kind of local, ‘interstitial’ politics that makes tackling the bigger issues more possible. In Moss Side the feeling is if you can’t keep your own alleyways free of litter and fly-tipping and broken bottles, then how on earth do you think you’re going to tackle climate emergency?

We have to do more in very affluent countries like the UK to redress the fact that marginalised people don’t tend to think environmentalism is about them, because mainstream environmentalism hasn’t always tackled these kinds of material injustices that blight everyday lives. So that’s why I look more to the environmental justice movement, to local grassroots types of political initiatives, than to the big-name environmental protest and performance movements. It’s all necessary, don’t get me wrong, but if you’re going to make a choice of where to put your efforts, personally, I’m interested – as a researcher and as a citizen – to think more locally right now.

L: How would you encourage women to become actively involved in feminism and environmentalism and citizenship practically?

S: What I think is valuable is anything that takes you away from thinking it’s your own individual responsibility as a consumer or a mother, anything that gets you into the public sphere with other people where you can join forces and debate and figure out what you think about structures and power relations.

So, going to demonstrations yes but also having local discussions, in residents’ groups, school coffee mornings, anything that makes it possible and safe to discuss matters of common concern. Citizens Assemblies sound very grand but it only takes a kitchen table and a nice cake to get people to discuss how we’re going to get out of this mess.

I think it’s really important that environmentalism is not seen as an elite white middle-class endeavour. There’s a lot of work to do to rebrand environmentalism and there needs to be a way of making it more popular, which again may mean not putting the decarbonisation agenda first, it could instead be about wellbeing, health and a better and less exhausting life –  and that’s already going in the direction of being green.

I think we have to start to acknowledge as environmentalists that we have a bit of a brand problem and there needs to be some work done to put justice and inclusivity at the heart of it. It will take putting the most marginalised or vulnerable people first, putting migrants first, or disabled people first or LGBTQI people first, and saying we’re actually going to talk about how the climate emergency intersects with these concerns. Let’s try to put those issues first for a change and put the worries of the white elite middle class second or third or fourth.

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Meet the researcher:

  • Dr Sherilyn MacGregor, Reader in Environmental Politics, School of Social Sciences, The University of Manchester