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Intersectionality: Aspects of justice

This article explains intersectionality and the importance of it when considering climate justice and sustainability.
SOLUTIONS FOR IMPLEMENTING GENDER-RESPONSIVE CLIMATE ACTION DURING CLIMATE ACTION SUMMIT 2019, WOMEN ATTENDING A CONFERENCE, SPEAKING AND LISTENING.
© University of Glasgow. Ben Murphy

Intersectionality

To advance inclusive and equitable solutions to the climate crisis, an intersectional approach should be used. Intersectionality is a way of examining issues which recognises that aspects of people’s lives such as race, place, gender and age interact on a daily basis. 

People’s lives are in constant interaction with power structures that can create and reinforce discrimination, disadvantage, power and privilege. By taking this approach we can recognise that people’s experiences are shaped, on a daily basis, by a variety of systems of power. 

The first step in applying intersectional understandings in the workplace is to engage with communities to gather their place and context specific knowledge around what, and who, is perpetuating injustices in their lives, and then to listen to their ideas for solving the problems. Justice issues are not black and white, and instead should be treated with nuance through prioritising the voices and experiences of people. A further step is to engage with the work and writing of those voices who are most at risk from these intersecting forms. Challenging your own assumptions about the world is important in beginning to recognise the interplay of systemic issues. Often we are all living at community intersections – whereby multiple forms of identity and oppression (e.g. race, class, gender, disability) overlap. 

When it comes to climate change, we must also recognise that communities have relevant knowledge around solutions and impacts. Therefore, it is important that marginalised groups are given a seat at the table, given resources, and meaningfully involved in decision making. As such, intersectionality recognises the importance of community-based approaches and invokes our three dimensions of environmental justice.

We know that climate change impacts marginalised people and communities more than others, on both an international and local level. And we know that globally, the countries least responsible for emissions are being hit the hardest by climate change. 

Aspects of intersectionality

Class

Despite being born out of grassroots struggles, the climate movement has been criticised for being too middle class, the climate crisis being an issue only for middle-class ‘elites’. The global climate protests that swept the globe in 2019 excluded many people – too often activist spaces are occupied by people far removed from the realities of climate change, such as those living in poverty. 

Additionally, the causes and solutions of the climate crisis are directly related to socio-economic justice. The poorest generate a fraction of the emissions of wealthy individuals and corporations, but face dire health outcomes from air and noise pollution, pay more for energy, are exposed more frequently to fuel poverty, and are often excluded from activism because of un-stable work, inadequate public transport and fewer education opportunities. 

Disability 

In the first comprehensive review of the issue of disabled people and climate change, research has found that few countries make provisions for the needs of people with disabilities when adapting to climate change. Even fewer countries incorporate disabled people in their policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Yet people with disabilities are some of the most vulnerable people to the impacts of climate breakdown. This is because of the nature of their disabilities and also because of their social disadvantage that often comes with being disabled (e.g. of intersection of disability and class). 

The 2015 Paris agreement saw countries make detailed climate pledges and policies, known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs) which contained a requirement for people with disabilities to be considered. However only 35 of the 192 countries’ (parties) referred to people with disabilities in their NDCs and only 45 countries refer to people with disabilities in any national policies or adaptation programmes. Major global economies like the US, the UK, China and Japan all failed to include any recognition of the inequitable and unjust impacts the climate crisis will have on disabled people. 

Gender 

Climate change amplifies existing gender inequalities whilst creating unique threats to women’s livelihoods, health and safety. Throughout the world, women depend more on, yet have less access to, natural resources. In many places women have a disproportionate responsibility for obtaining water, fuel and food for themselves and their families. 

Since climate change entrenches social, political and economic tensions in fragile places, women and girls face increasing vulnerability to all forms of gender-based violence such as conflict-related sexual violence, human trafficking, child marriage and other violent acts.

Disparities in information, mobility, access to resources and decision-making mean women are less likely to survive ‘natural’ disasters. The warming climate means increases in illnesses such as malaria, dengue fever, zika and coronavirus, which are all linked to worse maternal and neonatal outcomes.

The disproportionate rate of poverty amongst LGBTQ+ communities means that food insecurity, housing instability and health and wellbeing issues are being increased by climate change. Due to rising sea levels and air pollution, many low-income areas are now becoming unliveable as families and individuals become more vulnerable to forced migration and adverse health effects.

Race

Climate change is a racial justice issue. Long-standing racist policies  – such as unequal educational opportunities, residential segregation and limited prospects – have led to an increased vulnerability of black and people of colour to climate change. Climate change intensifies the health impacts of pollution in these communities and research has highlighted how Black communities are disproportionately situated in areas that are more vulnerable to climate hazards, such as hurricanes and flooding. 

The intersection of class, disability, gender and race with each other and the climate crisis are complex issues with few simple fixes. As such there is an urgent need for radical systemic change that doesn’t reinforce existing inequalities. Any change must recognise the different aspects of intersecting injustices. It’s vital that these intersections are considered as we moved through this course. 

References: 

© University of Glasgow. Ben Murphy
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Introduction to Climate Justice and Equity

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