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4 Climate Activists Explain Why the Climate-Justice Movement Needs Feminism

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The climate crisis often intensifies systems of oppression. Rieko Honma / Stone / Getty Images Plus

By Mara Dolan

We see the effects of the climate crisis all around us in hurricanes, droughts, wildfires, and rising sea levels, but our proximity to these things, and how deeply our lives are changed by them, are not the same for everyone. Frontline groups have been leading the fight for environmental and climate justice for centuries and understand the critical connections between the climate crisis and racial justice, economic justice, migrant justice, and gender justice. Our personal experiences with climate change are shaped by our experiences with race, gender, and class, as the climate crisis often intensifies these systems of oppression.


United Nations data indicates that 80% of the people displaced by climate change are women. Immediately after natural disasters, like Hurricanes Maria and Katrina, reporting shows that women face an uptick in gender-based violence and harassment. Meanwhile, transgender people globally often report discrimination in natural disaster responses; one high-profile example from after Katrina saw a trans woman locked in jail for days after she used the showers for women in a Texas shelter. In the aftermath, when cities and homes must be rebuilt, women, trans, and nonbinary people also face the steepest climb to recovery, as they are more likely to already be living in poverty.

Around the world, data indicates that women perform more work that is directly dependent on the environment, like gathering water and playing a huge role in the agricultural labor force of developing countries. As extreme weather intensifies, their ability to do this work could be threatened, likely hurting their income and livelihoods.

Around the world, women environmental defenders face intimidation, criminalization, and intensifying violence — even death. New research published in Nature shows that this violence, some of which is perpetuated by states and industry interests, is only growing.

Even as young women are making waves around the world leading mass protests and strikes, those who are making decisions about global climate policy are overwhelmingly men. Data collected by WEDO about United Nations climate negotiations — where leaders meet to draft international climate policy like the Paris Agreement — shows that, in 2018, women represented only 22% of the heads of national delegations. Though a slight increase from 15% in 2008, at this rate, gender parity in the negotiations would only be achieved in 2042.

If we recognize that gender matters in how climate change affects people, then what does all of this mean for climate activism? Teen Vogue asked four activists how feminism informs their climate work, and why climate activists need to incorporate a feminist perspective. Here's what they told us.

HANNA GUNNARSON

Jeanette Sequeira, Gender Program Coordinator at Global Forest Coalition

"Feminism helps me understand what underpins our climate crisis — systems like extractivism, patriarchy, and capitalism. Feminism helps us see the gender-differentiated impacts of climate breakdown and how women disproportionately bear the brunt of the harm.

In my work, I constantly see how women are prevented from owning their own land and resources, and are excluded from real and equal participation in local, national, and global natural resources governance. Groups on the front lines, especially Indigenous and rural women, face violations of their land and human rights and deforestation and biodiversity loss in their territories, without having access to positions of power to stop it.

This is why defending women's rights and community rights should be at the center of our climate activism. I advocate for the rights of forest communities and support local women's groups to strengthen their own community-based initiatives on forest restoration, sustainable livelihoods, food sovereignty, and women's land rights. We need to put a stop to influential extractive industries and instead provide legitimate political, legal, and financial support to the real solutions already being proposed, enacted and protected by women at the front lines."

LEX MORALES

P Brown, Organizer With Spring UP, SustainUS, and Our Voices

"As a black, queer, femme-identifying organizer, a core aspect of my being is honoring the wisdom and power of Black feminist leaders, like Marsha P. Johnson and Angela Davis, who have fought tirelessly to build movements wherein strategy roots itself in the needs of those directly impacted by systemic violence. As people living in a world where we simultaneously experience privilege and oppression, a key lesson we must acknowledge is that we all have capacity to erase, silence, and exploit the voices of marginalized peoples with which we don't share a common struggle and/or identity.

I've come to recognize that the mainstream climate movement's shift in strategy to "center" the narratives of Black, Brown, and Indigenous peoples on the front lines of crises has actually meant exploitation of our labor and resources. Beyond mobilizations, there's little genuine, long-term effort to build the deep relationships and trust needed to facilitate authentic collaborations that Black, Brown, and Indigenous feminist leadership demands. Instead, our traumas and struggles continue to be tokenized.

We need to shift these relationships to redistribute resources and funding to grassroots movements pioneering solutions that impact people's day-to-day livelihoods. If we're rooted in Black, Brown, and Indigenous queer feminisms, we must acknowledge those on the margins of society are already tackling the problems we face. We must invest the time and energy needed to build mutual aid and underground disaster relief networks to hold space for folks to feel safe, secure, and prepared for climate crises. The reality is we are already doing this work, we just need the resources to sustain our ability to exercise agency and autonomy. We don't need top-down solutions."

RACHEL ROOD-OJALVO

Logan Dreher, SolarCorps Clean Mobility Fellow at GRID Alternatives and Sacramento Sunrise Hub Coordinator

"Climate change, like other disasters, maps onto existing inequalities in our society. A trans woman afraid to sleep in a hurricane evacuation center is living at the intersection of the climate crisis and patriarchy. Indigenous women whose breast milk is poisoned by pollution also live in this place. No person lives a single-issue life. As environmental feminists have demonstrated again and again, climate justice and gender justice are the same struggle, and we must treat them as such.

This means we must craft climate policies with gender in mind. Proposals that don't consider gender will simply leave women and gender nonconforming people behind. Take transportation justice, where I work. We desperately need to reinvest in our public transit in order to rapidly decarbonize the transportation sector. But investments in public transit won't solve our transportation problems until women and queer folks can exist in public without fear of violence. Transportation justice, like climate justice, cannot truly be realized without an end to patriarchy.

Feminism is an essential part of climate justice because it illuminates how our extractive, dominating relationship with nature stems from patriarchy. Real climate justice demands radically transforming how we, as humans, treat the nonhuman world. It means recognizing how our current system is shaped by patriarchy."

BRET HARTMAN/COURTESY KATLEGO KAI KOLANYANE-KESUPILE

Katlego Kai Kolanyane-Kesupile, Trans ARTivist and U.N. Religion Fellow With OutRight Action International

"We can't deny that there are many feminist movements from which global climate-justice advocates can learn. These social justice movements have been running for decades and continue to modify their strategic approaches based on how their relative opposing forces change. The great challenge for climate-justice advocacy is that humankind is the antagonist. While opposing feminism might make sense to some people, it strikes me as nonsensical that anyone would attempt to excuse themselves from advocating for us to have a healthy planet to live on.b 5 Designs Their Own High School YearbookBY TEEN VOGUE

While the younger generation is now using scientific evidence collected over many years to build accountability measures for countries, we need to adopt intergenerational dialogue and other strategies from feminist movements. These can be employed in order to afford our movement some sustainability. One can't be a feminist and not care about the environment, and I always hope that climate-justice advocates lean on feminist teachings and practices to fortify their actions."

This story originally appeared in Teen Vogue. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

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Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Niq Steele / Getty Images

By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach

The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

When a neurologist examined him, Tom was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes abnormal sensation and weakness due to delays in sending signals through the nerves. Usually reversible, in severe cases it can cause prolonged paralysis involving breathing muscles, require ventilator support and sometimes leave permanent neurological deficits. Early recognition by expert neurologists is key to proper treatment.

We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.

What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.