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Climate Change, Bullying, and Gender

This marks the second week of a conference in Durban to discuss climate change, a topic that remains contentious on the global stage. There’s considerable tension between Western nations and the Global South on the subject, and this time, African leaders came prepared, pledging to ‘speak with one voice‘ at the meeting. Many people in positions of dominance didn’t like what they had to say, which is a telling sign that it needed to be said.

One issue highlighted in connection with the conference was the attachment of bullying clauses to international aid and development packages:

Murray Worthy, of the World Development Movement, said: “The US, UK and EU are using the same strong-arm tactics to bribe developing countries that we saw at Copenhagen. Abandoning their previous commitments to provide finance to help developing countries deal with climate change, they are now saying finance will only be available to countries that agree to a new deal that effectively abandons the Kyoto treaty.”

These tactics include sneaky measures like coming to backroom deals and then presenting countries with finished packages and a demand to sign on the dotted line or risk losing it all, creating an untenable situation for them; take the aid and the burden that comes with it, or reject it and endanger themselves.

Nations like the US want to turn away from the Kyoto Protocol to a new framework, and are willing to stop at nothing to get there. Flavia brought up similar tactics in her discussion on the IMF, and these tricks continue; the West agrees to provide ‘aid,’ but only at a very high price, and is perfectly willing to withhold assistance, even for problems it causes, if the ‘beneficiaries’ of that aid aren’t willing to accept the compromises that come with it. This is bullying, and the West doesn’t like to hear that.

Climate change disproportionately impacts the Global South, where droughts and floods have been devastating crops and communities, and numbers of climate refugees are growing. Speaking on the issue, leaders stress that this is a life or death issue for the communities they represent:

“This means the behavior of industrialized countries imperils the world. And this is a danger that will not spare the rich, and it will not spare the poor, although the poor are the most exposed to it,” he said.

Some hard truths from African leaders at the conference included a serious discussion about who is most responsible for climate change, and failings on the part of the West when it comes to confronting the issue and seriously committing to reducing emissions. A turning of the tables occurred, with African leaders demanding that industrialized nations start taking action on the issue. Issuing demands to save the world is, of course, viewed as upstart behaviour when it comes from people who are not occupying positions of global power, especially when those people are pointing out that the people responsible for the problem should be a big part of the solution.

High resource use in the West is a clear contributor to climate change, and people are rightfully angry about the fact that nations like the US and Britain don’t want to take responsibility for it. Many of our actions are having impacts on communities of people with relatively low resource use, small environmental footprints, and sustainable lives; indigenous people, for example, are disproportionately impacted by climate change, and lack the clout of organised Western nations when it comes to pressuring for action on the issue.

This is also a gender issue, because numerous studies indicate that women are especially adversely affected by climate change, an issue brought home by a protest at the Durban conference, where women farmers showed up to highlight drought conditions and ask why they weren’t represented at the conference. African leaders argued that women needed a voice at the conference because they are the ones on the front lines in many regions; women tend to be more responsible for gathering food, water, and fuel, which in turn means that as climate change necessitates adaptability, they are the ones who must adapt or die, along with their children.

Cultural shifts are also contributing, as an exodus of young people from some communities contributes to a situation where older women are doing the bulk of the work to keep the community thriving:

Jaime Nadal, the United Nations Population Fund’s (UNFPA) representative in Bolivia, said that Quispe’s situation was far from unusual. “Young people tend to leave these areas. Old women are typically left in the community having to perform harder and harder tasks to keep up the household. We already see mostly old women in many of these communities.”

Climate change discussions must integrate gender as a critical topic of conversation, because gender plays such a key role in how nations are responding, adapting, and dealing with climate change. As women are forced to range further afield to provide for their families, they’re also confronting historic disadvantages and prejudices, including less access to education and health care. When climate-related disasters strike, women are again at the front lines, whether it’s a drought destroying the crops, or a flood inundating a community.

After decades of acknowledging that the issue is not going to magically go away, getting a global commitment on climate change has been a challenge, and it’s telling that it is Western nations, again, at the forefront of the resistance to creating change. Even as they place onerous climate change-related restrictions on aid, they refuse to accept such restrictions for themselves. Their behaviour will eventually come back to bite them, but by the time it does, it may be too late.

Environmental justice is key to larger social justice issues, and there are clear ties with climate change, race, gender, and class. Growing awareness of climate change has made it increasingly mainstream, but many of the efforts of individuals in the West are focused on individual, rather than institutional change. Individual change is important to reduce resource usage, but so is structural change, to demand that our leaders be accountable, be willing to commit to actual policy changes, and to put an end to the bullying of the Global South in the name of ‘saving the environment.’


  1. diademy wrote:

    I’m a new reader and it’s my first time commenting here. Thanks for bringing this up. I’ve been pissed off about this “bullying” for a while. It goes far and as deep. I hate it from top to bottom–from the poverty pimp industry built on divvying out micro-loans to indigenous women in these areas to co-opt them and all the way up to the policies that create the climate problems and resulting famine, violence and death in the first place.

    Tuesday, December 6, 2011 at 3:03 pm | Permalink
  2. Jenny wrote:

    There’s also the debate regarding Population as a factor, I side with Hartman in the following debate by the way:

    Tuesday, December 6, 2011 at 9:37 pm | Permalink
  3. samanthab wrote:

    Thanks for linking to that, Jenny. I’m really tired of hearing that trope pulled out. I don’t doubt that Laurie Mazar means well, but when you have to resort to the converse of an ad hominem- I’m a really good person, therefore my arguments must be valid- those arguments might well have some major defects.
    I’m curious to see more of what Betsy Hartmann has written.

    And, I think a lot about global warming because I have three family members employed in environment-related fields, but I’d never thought of it much in terms of feminism. Thanks for making the case so richly, s.e.

    Wednesday, December 7, 2011 at 7:16 am | Permalink
  4. Hayley wrote:

    I consider myself a well-rounded feminist, able to speak on all sorts of political issues, and I honestly never made this connection. Climate change discussions must integrate gender–of course. How do we make this an issue in the US?

    Wednesday, December 7, 2011 at 10:46 am | Permalink
  5. IrishUp wrote:

    I seldom comment here, but I always learn so much when ou post, s.e..

    Agreed, Jenny. I’m trying to find the citation, but a while back I heard an interview on NPR reporting on just this very issue. It noted that the rate of increase in POVERTY far exceeds the rate of population increase, and correlates much more strongly with the depth and magnitude of economic disparity.

    The strong implication here is that the resource problem is not due to reproduction rates in the global south.

    The extreme concentration of wealth and resources to a very small percentage of people, OTOH, is directly responsible for many of the environmental ills we see. Particularly scary to me is how thoroughly disenfranchised the most affected people are from the political process. As a USian, the ease with which our democratic process has been undermined is also very disheartening.

    Wednesday, December 7, 2011 at 1:09 pm | Permalink