Gender Dimensions in Climate Change

By Professor Wendy Harcourt 

This is a revised version of Wendy Harcourt’s talk during the International Women’s Day 2021 at Radboud University. Read Harcourt’s speech here and be inspired. *

Let me start with a confession. I was very surprised when I saw the poster for the talk. An image of a giant half-naked woman upside down – so we only see her legs and her curvaceous behind – diving (it appears) into a telescoped colonial landscape of what seems to be the frontiers of imperial Europe, with ships docking in a parched landscape with neat military and church buildings on the fringes of the shore. 

Poster International Women’s Day 2021 – Radboud Gender & Diversity Studies

Curious, I went to the artist Marina Sulma’s website and found fascinating audiovisuals of Moldavian migrant women in Italy suffering from medically depicted deprivations at home. Why, I wondered, was this the image chosen? What did it have to do with gender and climate change? I pondered on how differently the artistic imagination works from the social scientist one. Let me leave you with those questions, to which I will return at the end of the talk. 

When I was asked to speak about gender dimensions in climate change, I said yes knowing I could share with you the insights of recent work and discussions in my network of feminist political ecologists. Feminist political ecology analyses gender as a central social category that shapes cultural/social/nature relations. Feminist political ecology looks at gender in interrelated power relations with a focus on how agency, knowledge and politics shape the environment. It is from feminist political ecology that I have learnt how gender dimensions of climate change are about more than women’s specific vulnerability to floods, or loss of resources, or rising seas. Though, of course, such gendered vulnerability is there. 

I recall the 1990s and 2000s popularized images of women as the victims of climate change. Indonesian women being swept away due to their inability to swim, or because, it was stated, their clothing entangles them in trees. Images of widows struggling to find ways to earn their livelihoods, and they are stigmatised further, as desertification creeps and spreads in sub- Saharan Africa. The turmoil of Pacific women and their families and communities being displaced by rising oceans, forced to migrate, losing their natural and cultural landscapes. More recently the horrific images of climate caused wildfires in Australia and California. All these tragedies are real. But they do not make up the full picture when we speak about gender and climate change. They do not help us to understand the historical, social and economic power relations that have led to the vulnerability experienced by racialised, poor and marginalised women. Such descriptions do not help us to understand why these women, why these places, why this form of vulnerability? And for me, most importantly, such flat descriptions of suffering do not help us to understand how to bring about change. 

The green economy has been proposed by today’s politicians and economic development experts as the way to confront or ‘mitigate’ climate change. The promise of the green economy is that we can rely on market and technological efficiency to overcome climate disaster. Christa Wichterich (2015) critiques the green economy’s strategy of ‘smart, sustainable and inclusive growth’ through the greening of investments and industries. She points out how climate change negotiations are based on the financialization of nature through green commodification, through carbon trading and the UN Clean Development Mechanisms. These are twinned with techno-science, with investments in technologies for resource extractivism from fracking to deep-sea mining and for substitution of natural processes such as synthetic biology and nanotechnology. As Wichterich points out, the increased demand for agrofuels to reduce CO2 emissions and climate protection leads to commercialization and privatization of land and other commons. Efforts to deal with climate change through decarbonization in the North through agrofuel value chains in the global South happens at the cost of food security in the South with adverse impact on women peasants and caretakers. 

The Global North corporates and global consumer classes get access to the resources, bio- and genetic diversity of the global South, and its potential as a carbon sink. Local actors receive, in return for the financialization of their forest or land, neither rights nor decision- making power that would secure in the long term their sustainable livelihoods. Economically marginalised women are targeted as part of the green growth as flexible labour providing ecotourism, as customers of micro-finance for green innovations and green technology, as well as in micro-insurance for drought and other ‘natural’ calamities. Their work is framed as entrepreneurial, as resource managers and caretakers of the environment. 

Economically marginalised women are depicted as players in the greening of the global economy. But, as Giovanna Di Chiro (2019) has underlined, such responses to climate change ignore power relations and inequalities based not only on gender but also on race, ethnicity, class and physical ability. While the green economy narrative speaks of including women from the Global South, it does so blind to gender power relations in the context of global inequalities. 

Here we go beyond the green economy logic and look at gender and climate in relation to the care economy, local livelihoods, sufficiency and subsistence, non-expert knowledge, commons and the rights of nature. What is key here is that the neoliberal green economy ignores the fact that care work is required to maintain everyday life in all societies. Care work, while always there, is too often taken for granted. Relations of care constitute the material and physical processes that sustain ecosystems and human and non-human living worlds. As Maria Puig de la Bella Casa (2017) shows, a refocus on care asks us to change our views on virtually everything: on ontology, epistemology, ethics and politics. On one level, care is a deeply gendered and time-consuming activity performed to support the bodily, emotional, and relational integrity of human (and non-human) beings. But in a more profound sense, care is an ethical and political concept that recognises that care is everything we do to maintain, continue, and repair our world. In this deeper vision of care, to value care is to recognise our mutual interdependence and our need for sustainable and flourishing relations, not merely survivalist or instrumentalist ones. 

In order to address the economic problems that have led to climate change, a caring economy is needed, one that is embedded in the principles of cooperation, sharing, reciprocity, and intersectional environmental justice. Instead of ‘greening’ the economy we need to be ‘sustaining livelihoods’ to ensure nutrition, ecological balance, clean water, secure housing, gender equality, meaningful approaches to all forms of labour. 

Learning from decolonial feminist scholars, Olivia Rutazibwa, Rosalba Icaza and Kalpana Wilson who I recently heard in a Cost Action Decolonising Development Roundtable, we need to recognise that climate change points to something radically wrong in our way of living. Climate change points to deep and fundamental problems with the way we organise our lives based on the destruction of natures and cultures. We need to understand how and why we continue to imagine technocratic economically driven processes, which have led to this catastrophic situation.

Going deep into these reasons why; we cannot ignore the past, and the impact of neoliberal capitalism, and modern development. Climate change has been driven by colonial extraction of labour and knowledge of the Global South. The Green revolution in the name of fighting climate is perpetuating the idea that the only knowledge that counts is Western techno- economic led development. ‘Other’ (non-Western) lands, labour and knowledge are perceived as empty, plunderable and scientifically ignorant. The people requiring aid and technical support and inclusion in western knowledge and economies. These are deeply colonial and racialised relations. This western centric, hegemonic, patriarchal and white imaginary of the world erases other knowledges and ways of living with nature. What is considered legitimate knowledge and ways of living are very narrow, Eurocentric and exclusionary. The dominant way of thinking, that undergirds the green economy responses to climate change, ignores the multiple or pluriversal ways of living, and the messy and complex relations of humanity and other beings. 

Climate change concerns all of us, but concerns us in unequal ways depending on how we are positioned. There is a deep fragmentation along race, class, gender and ableist lines. Climate change is an outcome of the modern colonial divide and the loss of cultures, natures and ways of being that is impacting us in different ways. Decolonial feminism invites us to push back against the dominant narrative and helps us to question: who are the consuming and who are the consumed? Those living with privilege need to rediscover how to learn to transcend the lies of economic development and listen to those who have learnt to live with loss, recentering away from the hegemonic narrative and seek to recover our capacity of relations with life. We need to amplify how gender, racism, caste and ableism are part of the climate disaster. And we need to support those who are resisting the hegemonic narrative. 

Resistance is rising everywhere, led by young women like Greta Thunberg in Sweden and Disha Ravi in India. We need to listen and act in solidarity with climate activism. In Europe we are living in the belly of the beast, it is the HQ of capital and of fossil fuels. We need to challenge the dispossession and the devaluing of life in all its forms and be explicitly anti-colonial and anti-extractivist. We need to work towards repair and amplify solidarity, not reproduce mastery. 

Changing our ways of thinking, our desires, habits and ways of being with others requires new relations of care. It is our common responsibility to care, which is the political and substantive work we need to do as people concerned with overcoming intersectional oppressions that have arisen from disaster capitalism and has led to the destruction of our Earth. Bringing care to the table allows for the disruption of gender injustices and colonial continuities that shape patriarchal capitalist society-nature relationships. Valuing care exposes the deep gendered injustices, particularly for communities exposed and displaced by climate change and environmental destruction in the Global South. As Giovanna Di Chiro (2019) proposes, revaluing care means caring for climate, caring for earth, and caring for people. This should be at the centre of economic value, not at the margins. Centring the concept of care can help us to build societies based on commons of caring relations, away from growth and towards wellbeing and equity. 

We need to go beyond the mainstream discourse that climate change can be addressed through smart technology, the green economy, and universal agreements such as the SDGs. Not only because it perpetuates lies about development, and erases histories and cultures, but also because, as Donna Haraway (2016) states, it ‘saps our capacity for imagining and caring for other worlds’, and for ‘recuperating pasts, presents, and futures’.

Reflecting on the poster I would say it is crucial that science is in conversation with art in order to understand the deeper implications of the profound impact Eurocentric, racialised colonial capitalism has on our lives. Climate change points to how we are living the loss of histories and cultural meanings. The image by Marina Sulma invites us to see, graphically, how gender relations are embedded in colonial histories that continue to erase marginal women’s bodies, voices and knowledge. The image is not one of care but of violence. 

This can be linked to women’s art from Brazil and Chile.

These embroideries, or arperillas, are sewn collectively by peasant women and depict the impact of modern development and dams on their lives; modern economic development that flooded their homes, dislocating their families and cultures. I learnt about them from Brazilian scholar Tamara Rusansky, who works with these women in the peoples’ movement against dams. Her study focuses on what these embroideries tell about the everyday resistance of these women who have been invisible and marginal to the global and national discussions. Development which has rationalised the harnessing of nature for humanity’s needs, destroying peoples’ lives in the name of modern progress. These are small resistances that speak to our imagination and to the possibilities of transition as we learn to listen to the plurality of women’s experiences of climate from a position of radical hope. 

About the speaker: Wendy Harcourt is a professor of Gender, Diversity, and Sustainable Development at the International Institute of Social Studies of the Erasmus University in The Hague. She has published numerous works within the field of feminist political ecology, gender and development, and critical development studies. Professor Harcourt has also won the Feminist Studies and Women’s Association Prize in 2010 for her monograph ‘Body Politics in Development’. We are very excited that Harcourt has been so kind to let us publish her powerful talk.

About the images: The images were taken by Brazilian scholar Tamara Rusansky (2020) and, as Harcourt mentions in her talk, were created by peasant women and depict the impact of modern development and dams on the lives and cultures of the marginal communities and women affected by them. More information about these images can be found at


De Jong, Sara, Rosalba Icaza and Olivia U. Rutazibwa (2018) Decolonization and Feminisms in Global Teaching and Learning. London: Routledge. 

Di Chiro, Giovanna (2019) ‘Care not growth: Imagining a subsistence economy for all’ The British Journal of Politics and International Relations 2019, Vol. 21(2): 303–311. 

Haraway, Donna (2016) ‘Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene’ Chapter Two in Staying with the Trouble:Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press. 

Pueg de la Bella Casa, Maria (2017) Matters of Care. Speculative Ethics in More than human worlds. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press. 

Rusansky Tamara (2020) ‘Embroidering Resistance: Daily Struggles of Women Affected by the Baixo Iguaçu Hydropower Dam in Paraná, South Brazil’. International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) Working Paper No. 654 The Hague: ISS. 

Wichterich, C. (2015) ‘Contesting green growth, connecting care, commons and enough’.In: Harcourt, Wendy and Ingrid L. Nelson (Eds.). Practising feminist political ecologies: Moving beyond the “Green Economy”. London: Zed Books, London, 67-100. 

Wilson, Kalpana (2012) Race, Racism and Development: Interrogating History, Discourse and Practice. London: Zed Books. 

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