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"You'll discover in countries where women have control over their own bodies, where they have education, where they have birth control, where they have facilities and where they are literate, when those things happen, the birth rate falls. Always. Always." — David Attenborough, January 2015, quoted in The Telegraph.
There is irony in the comparison of Mother Earth to a female being, as when climate change threatens to strip her of her autonomy, it is ignored that a breach of women’s rights is a causative factor. Gender equality and the climate crisis are both issues that are recognised with varying levels of awareness on an international scale.
However, what we are currently seeing is that the link between them has gone unacknowledged in a way that sabotages efforts made to prevent a climate catastrophe simply due to the response of the sociopolitical patriarchy to an issue that is seen as "too feminine" to entail meaningful action. The need for women to be pushing for equality, particularly in the form of reproductive and educational rights, has been made imperative as we near the ecological tipping point posed by climate change.
The IPAT equation — Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology — developed in the 1970s, is where the explanation for the relationship between gender equality and climate change lies.
This equation posits that these three factors are the determinants of human impact on the environment. Globally, the fight against the climate crisis has fixated on only two of these. Affluence has been addressed in the push back against harmful consumerism that has been seen sweeping across the Western world, responsible consumption being included as the twelfth of the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals in 2018. Alongside this, there are — and have been — countless efforts that are both successful and effective in negating the harm global technology causes to the environment as well as turning it into a far more sustainable and ecologically sound industry, such as the movement away from fossil fuels that was spearheaded by boycotts of oil giants.
However, the concept of population in this formula in relation to the environment is the aspect that seems to have slipped the mind of the climate movement at large. Population control is a subject that has always been highly controversial largely due to it being characterised by well known examples such as China’s infamous one-child policy.
This directive faced massive global backlash as a solution to the nation’s overpopulation due to the ethical discrepancies posed in restricting the reproductive choices of women and families, and rightly so. Circumscribing and policing bodily autonomy, particularly of the female sex, has never been the answer to tackling overpopulation and its effect on the environment, in fact, it lies at the opposite end of the spectrum. Ensuring that, worldwide, women and girls have access to education and family planning services is the greatest way in which we can ensure that the global population is kept at a sustainable level, as these two fundamental human rights have been proven to reduce the number of children women have by up to 50% through providing them with the knowledge and resources to control and limit unwanted pregnancies. This concept is key in tackling climate change as it is how we can manage the population aspect of the IPAT equation.
Through to the present, in poorer, developing nations the barriers that prevent girls from accessing education are much more significant, such as poverty, violence and child marriage.
According to a 2019 UNICEF programme "132million girls are out of school, including 34.3million of primary school age, 30million of lower-secondary school age, and 67.4million of upper-secondary school age".
The World Health Organisation estimates that in developing countries there are 214million women unable to access modern contraception. This is highly relevant to the IPAT equation as there have been countless links formed between women’s access to education and family planning and their independence later in life.
Women who have received a higher level of education and have pathways to manage their reproductive autonomy have been shown to have significantly fewer children and marry at a later age as well as operating as far more beneficial members of society. At a time in which the population level of the majority of First World countries is seen to be significantly decreasing, there is a clear disparity with poorer nations that do not provide these critical pathways to women — countries which are experiencing a population surge predicted to reach a 55% increase. It goes without saying that a larger population results in immense direct harms on the environment due to the increased draw on natural resources, exponentially so in lesser developed countries where there is little to no access to sustainable technology.
However, because the issues of family planning and girls’ education are coded ‘female’ they are also coded as subordinate within a global patriarchal hegemony, resulting in a stunning lack of attention and research paid to these central causal elements of the imminent climate catastrophe.
It would seem that in this sense, the system is regarding Mother Earth with the same autonomical importance as it does with the female population at large.
What if we change this? In an ideal future projection, the researchers of Project Drawdown estimate that with ‘universal education and family planning’ the world would circumvent a potential 1billion rise in population as well as emissions reductions of up to 85.4gigatonnes of carbon dioxide in the window before 2050. In order to achieve this we will have to see an international perspectival shift in which these ‘feminine issues’ are recognised as issues of humanity, and as such immediate solutions can be mobilised.
The good news is that the technology and expertise to achieve this change already exist.
Fixing these issues is quite literally not rocket science — perhaps if it was rocket science, a male-dominated approach to climate policy would be interested! Organisations such as UNICEF, Amnesty International, the UN Population Fund, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Health Organisation have already identified these issues and strive to advocate and support progress in womens’ educational and reproductive rights.
What is needed now is for the link between the ‘rocket science’ and grass-roots approaches to climate change to be recognised as critical to future progress, opening up pathways of support and success for the aforementioned organisations to be able to implement change on the scale the current climate situation warrants. This requires investment on every level from the personal to the governmental and ideological.
The success of this approach can only be ensured if it is spearheaded by a wave of female support.
A male-dominated political system has proven time and time again that issues coded as ‘feminine’ are not seen as headline-grabbers and do not garner substantive input or action without significant female mobilisation.
This has been seen time and time again with entirely male panels forging policy regarding women’s bodies and minds — followed by justifiable outcry, even in the most highly developed countries in the world such as America. Due to the gendered nature of women’s rights in connection to climate change, the issues we are facing will lack attention on an international scale unless the female voices backing them become louder, more numerous, and more unified. The idea of "women supporting women", although an overused cliche, is how we can and must "do something about climate change".
In a time where the latest reports continuously show that our window of time to take action to prevent the climate crisis is rapidly closing, complacency with global gender inequality can no longer be regarded as an option as it has been for so long. Gender equality has always been intrinsically linked with the injustices that Mother Earth has, does and will continue to face.
The evidence is undeniable and the path is clear. So what can women do about climate change? The answer, as always, lies in what we cannot.