International climate justice, conflict and gender: scoping study

Scottish Government funded research report with ClimateXChange which concluded in 2022. It identifies areas of opportunity for policy makers to develop a gender responsive approach to international climate justice.

3 Climate change, conflict and gender: understanding the intersections

Climate change, conflict and gender are mutually reinforcing dynamics that interact to destroy lives and livelihoods, especially for the most disadvantaged. Researchers, policy makers and practitioners have recently become interested in the connections between the three, producing a range of publications and initiatives. In 2014, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change began a programme of work on gender. In 2015, we started to see the first academic articles focused specifically on the triple nexus of climate, conflict and gender,[6] and academic work on the nexus has since proliferated. [7] The UN Joint Programme on Women, Natural Resources and Peace, published a flagship report on climate change, conflict and gender in 2020, and various international NGOs followed suit.[8]

It is well established that armed conflict has gendered impacts. More men die during conflicts, for example, whereas women die more often of indirect causes after the conflict is over.[9] Many of war's gendered impacts stem from women's responsibilities for caring and provisioning and from pre-existing gendered inequalities, which make, for example, women and girls more vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence or less likely to be able to flee armed violence.[10] The impacts of climate change, both the sudden onset (e.g. floods, hurricanes) and slow onset (e.g. drought, water level rise), also have gendered impacts, especially on indigenous, rural and other marginalised women, again related to pre-existing gender roles and inequalities.[11] For example, women's disadvantaged position in many societies can make them most at risk in the event of extreme weather events such as floods, tsunamis and hurricanes, which are becoming more frequent and intense. Women are less likely than men to have been taught to swim, more likely to wear restrictive clothing, and more likely to be responsible for those who need help to flee the disaster, such as the very young, old, or people with disabilities.[12] In terms of the slower onset impacts of climate change: as women are, in many societies, the ones with daily responsibilities for growing and gathering food, cooking and care, when climatic changes reduce access to clean water, food, or land for agriculture, women's burdens increase.[13]

Climate change, like conflict, is associated with increased prevalence and risk of gender-based violence. Women may have to travel longer distances in search of water and food, and pressure on agricultural resources leads to conflict within communities and households.[14] Child, early and forced marriages can occur as a harmful coping strategy among those who suffer from economic stress due to slow-onset adverse effects of climate change, as well as disasters.[15] While climate change can increase gender-based violence, gender-based violence is also used as a means to limit and control women's ownership of, access to, use of and benefits from natural resources. Evidence from Madagascar and Sierra Leone, for example, demonstrates that women are subjected to sexual extortion to gain access to agricultural land and land titles.[16] Women environmental defenders frequently face threats of sexual violence, particularly in contexts where they stand up to extractive industries on indigenous lands.[17]

Many fragile and conflict-affected states are those most vulnerable to climate change, as they have limited ability to adapt to and cope with climate change related-challenges.[18] In conflict and displacement situations, all of the risks that climate change poses to women and girls are heightened. Moreover, norms of masculinity and femininity can themselves contribute to climate-related violence and conflict. For example, in the conflict in Northern Nigeria, masculinities expressed through men's desire to protect family wealth tied up in cattle and the intense stress experienced by these young men related to climate impacts intensify conflict dynamics. Crisis points include conflict between young male pastoralists and women in farming communities. Attacks against women, including sexual violence, then heighten conflict as norms of protective masculinity impel men to retaliate when "their women" have been attacked.[19] Indeed, gender norms can be said to play an underlying role in driving armed conflict wherever it occurs, and climate change, in the sense that ideas about appropriate masculine behaviour – being tough, ruthless, dominating over others and nature – legitimise and naturalise foreign and economic policies which drive war[20] and climate change.[21]

Indeed, the roots of both armed conflict and the climate crisis lie in centuries of a colonial, extractivist model of economic growth, in which the persistent pursuit of wealth and power has entrenched the exploitation of natural resources, dispossessed Indigenous peoples from their lands, and exacerbated inequalities.[22] This model, extractivist capitalism, has contributed to armed conflict and insecurity through driving inequalities, fuelling corporate and state violence to secure land and protect investments, and providing opportunities for corruption, looting and the entrenchment of violent war economies.[23] Through the exploitation of natural resources and the pollution and degradation of land, water and air, extractivist capitalism has driven the planet to the point of almost ecological collapse.[24] Furthermore, it is at the root of gender inequalities, through its exploitation of women's unpaid care work, which is treated, as with natural resources – as if it were infinite and freely available.[25]

In this sense, climate change and conflict are gendered not just in their impacts but in their drivers, and also interact with each other, undermining human security. Human security is conceptualised by the UN as encompassing not just "freedom from fear" but "freedom from want."[26] The idea is that security is not just the absence of the threat of physical violence, but also the absence of the threat of hunger, homelessness and lack of access to healthcare. It is a more expansive, positive conceptualisation of security, linked to human rights. Each of the challenges considered in this report – climate change, conflict and gender inequalities – can be seen as independently undermining human security. Together, they act in mutually reinforcing ways to exacerbate threats to human security, especially for the most disadvantaged. Although this understanding of the connections can suggest intractable challenges, well-designed policies and programmes, as will be evidenced in section 4, do have the potential to pursue climate justice, peace and security, and gender equality simultaneously.

3.1 Potential pitfalls for policies and programming

In research, advocacy, policy and programming on the climate change, conflict and gender nexus, several conceptual framings have over recent years become prominent. Although each has some value, as explained below, each comes with risks and limitations. It is thus suggested that care is taken not to uncritically adopt these framings within policy, nor use them to define programming objectives.

3.1.1 Conceptualising climate change as primarily a threat to state security

Several states, policy institutes and researchers position climate change as a threat to national or state security, traditionally conceived.[27] In this positioning, the focus is on the potential for armed confrontation and conflict when resources become scarce (or indeed, in the case of the Arctic, more accessible) and when people are forced to flee their homes. As a framing, it can be useful because it puts appropriate stress on the urgency of the climate crisis, and the oft-used language of "threat multiplier" can highlight the interconnectedness of the issues. However, it is a positioning that comes with several limitations or risks.

The first limitation is that it simplifies complex situations. Many studies have cast doubt on the claim that climate change impacts, such as drought or food insecurity, are the chief causes of conflict.[28] The impacts of climate change cannot be seen as disentangled from the economic, political and social systems that drive the inequalities and exclusions that contribute to war.[29] When climate change is positioned as the cause of conflict, it exonerates powerful actors and directs our attention away from these economic and political systems.[30] Likewise, positioning climate change in isolation as causing migration oversimplifies the complex reality of economic and political push and pull factors.[31]

The second risk of framing climate change as a threat to national or state security, is that it can position the threat as emanating from the global south. It imagines violent conflict and climate migrants spilling over borders and threatening the global north. This is a deeply unjust framing that privileges the security of the states and people, those who have done the most to drive the climate crisis, over the security of people in the global south.[32]

The third risk is that conceptualising climate change as a threat to state security may lead states to resort to traditional security responses that are defensive and isolationist rather than collaborative and solidaristic.[33] States may choose to adopt closed border policies that violate human rights. They may continue to overspend on militaries – fossil-fuel dependent, heavily polluting and problematically excluded from commitments by states to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.[34] They may continue to maintain nuclear weapons systems and develop space capabilities without acknowledging the catastrophic risks that warfare in these domains poses to the environment.

Given these risks, climate change might be better understood not as a threat to state or global security, but as we set it out above, as a threat to human security, a "form of slow violence"[35] that destroys lives and ways of living around the world, especially for the most disadvantaged.

3.1.2 Prioritising the gendered impacts of climate change and conflict, and neglecting the root causes

Many states, policy institutes and researchers on the climate change, conflict and gender nexus focus on how both climate change and armed conflict – especially in contexts when the impacts of both are acute – have disproportionate impacts on women. As we highlighted earlier in this section, gender norms and women and girls' disadvantaged position in many societies can make them most at risk in the event of extreme weather events, slower onset impacts of climate change, and in the event of armed conflict. These gendered impacts are important to highlight. However, when considering the nexus of climate change, conflict and gender, we need to be careful not to focus attention solely on impacts.

The point here is not only the well-established one that to focus on the impacts of climate change on women risks implying that women and girls are essentially vulnerable, which can undermine both the women concerned and, through reinforcing gender stereotypes, women in general. The point is that the impacts of climate change should not be the extent of our focus.[36] If we focus only on gendered impacts, attention is diverted from the root causes of climate change and conflict.[37] That is: effective policy should not just address gendered impacts of climate change and conflict but also address their shared roots and drivers, which are to be found in our current economic model which, as explained above, relies on the over-exploitation of natural resources, the pollution of atmosphere, land and oceans, and the appropriation of women's unpaid labour.

In a context where extractive industries are responsible for half of the world's carbon emissions and more than 80% of biodiversity loss,[38] and for a range of social and environmental harms which impact disproportionately on women, from land dispossession, sexual violence, pollution and the destruction of local livelihoods,[39]any feminist approach to international climate justice must focus here, and not restrict itself to impacts. The problem is deeper than the extractive industries themselves; our entire economic system is based on the belief that large corporations must be given free rein to accumulate profits, so as to generate economic growth. In this system, corporate power has grown at the expense of states, citizens and the rest of the living world. Despite the fact that 100 giant global companies are responsible for 71% of all carbon emissions, [40] national and international finance and trade frameworks foster the mobility of capital while rendering local economic and environmental control impossible: corporations have the power to sue states, for example, if they introduce environmental or human rights protections.[41]

As demonstrated in Action Aid's research: "all too often, poorly designed trade policies and a system of rules that privilege the interests of wealthy countries and corporates over women's rights, human rights and the environment have been deeply harmful to women – especially those from the poorest and most marginalised communities."[42] Countries experiencing or emerging from conflict often find it particularly hard to negotiate fair terms of trade and investment with foreign owned corporations and investments, undermining their ability to rebuild, provide for their citizens and foster human security.[43] Many pay more in debt service than they do on essential services. In turn, their indebtedness means they are compelled to stick with the extractivist model driving climate change, insecurity and inequalities.[44]

Achieving climate justice requires recognition of the origins of the problem in the logic of extractivist capitalism and tackling the power of corporations and trade rules that enable it to continue to drive climate change, conflict and insecurity and gender and other inequalities.

3.1.3 Assuming that women's inclusion, empowerment and leadership alone will be enough

In recent years, in a wide range of policy areas – including climate change and peace and security – there has been a shift from emphasising women's unique vulnerabilities to emphasising women's agency, capabilities and strengths.[45] Increasingly in gender-responsive climate policy, women are promoted as effective environmental managers and conservers of resources, and in peace and security, women are promoted as effective peacebuilders. Reports addressing the climate/conflict/gender nexus tend to follow this trend, and place considerable emphasis on promoting women's empowerment, inclusion and leadership as the key to addressing the interconnected crises of climate breakdown, conflict and gender inequalities.

Given climate changes' disproportionate impact on women, especially indigenous, rural and other marginalised women, ensuring the participation and development of leadership capacities of diverse groups of women and girls, in particular from communities acutely affected by climate change, is essential.[46] The Women's Environment and Development Organisation (WEDO) Gender and Climate Tracker reports that women remain widely underrepresented on the delegations of many countries, particularly in high-level positions, as well as on the delegations of countries most vulnerable to climate impacts.[47]

The focus on women's empowerment, participation and leadership reflects good evidence that women have much to offer by way of solutions, and it is an important element of gender justice (and therefore climate justice), but focussing solely on women's empowerment and participation comes with risks. The first risk is that a focus on women's participation can, counterintuitively, reinforce gendered inequalities. Decades of work on gender, development and the environment cautions that projects that emanate from an "empowering women" approach to mobilise women's labour, skills and knowledge often add to women's unpaid care roles, and fail to address whether women have the rights, voice and power to control the benefits of the project.[48] Embedding narratives that women should be harnessed as "sustainability saviours"[49] or as "natural peacemakers"[50] in policies and programmes without an accompanying transfer of decision-making power and resources to women risks placing an unfair and unrealistic burden on women's shoulders.

Even if an effort is made to ensure women are supported, resourced and empowered, there are risks to an approach that focuses solely on women's participation. This second risk is that the focus on participation can "crowd out" the need to address root causes. Women's participation in climate policy- or decision-making is not necessarily the only or best route to tackle the systemic drivers of climate change, armed conflict and gender inequality. If the structures within which one aims to participate are not themselves focused on the structural transformation of corporate power required for climate justice, then inclusion within them will only get you so far.[51] Participation is necessary, but not sufficient.

3.2 Implications for policy and programming

What are the implications of this analysis of the interconnections to recognise, and the pitfalls to avoid, when addressing climate change, conflict and gender inequality?

First, when drawing connections between climate change and conflict, it seems important to avoid thinking of climate change as a threat to national or state security, but instead to frame climate change as undermining human security and human rights. Second, it is important that policy and programming not only aim to address the gendered impacts of climate change and conflict, and increase the participation and leadership of women, but also contribute to transforming the economic system that is driving climate change, conflict and gender inequality. To address climate change, conflict and gender inequalities at their root, the economic system must be transformed from an extractivist logic to a regenerative one. This requires structural transformation in the international financial and trade architectures that currently sustain corporate power, and the promotion of more just, sustainable and inclusive economic models, such as wellbeing economies.

Just, inclusive and sustainable economies, such as wellbeing economies place human and planetary wellbeing above measures such as profit or GDP growth.[52] They require divesting from harmful sectors, such as fossil fuel extraction or militaries, and investing in care and regeneration of nature. As such, these alternative economic models have the capacity to address all three of the intersecting dynamics – climate change, conflict and gender inequality - simultaneously.[53] There are powerful synergies to be found between environmental, peace and security and gender equality goals through the ways that these economic approaches prioritise the generation of high-quality green jobs. Job-creation in green sectors – conceptualised broadly as including care as well as renewable energy and conservation – would not only benefit the environment, but would contribute to peace and security through employing young men who might otherwise be tempted to fight and to gender equality through employing women and other marginalised groups, whose needs for livelihoods are often neglected in extractivist economies.

As such, it seems useful to think about three levels of action that are required to achieve a feminist approach to international climate justice at the triple nexus of climate change, conflict and gender equality: policies and programmes must identify and lessen the gendered impacts of climate change and conflict; they must increase women's participation, empowerment and leadership; and they must take steps towards transforming the economic system which drives climate change, insecurity and gendered inequalities. This provides us with a framework for assessing efforts to respond to the intersecting challenges of climate change, conflict and gender inequality:

Figure 1: Levels of action needed to achieve a feminist approach to international climate justice

Levels one and two are important, but on their own insufficient. Also, to be clear, activity at levels one and two can be of greater or lesser quality. The descriptors we set out here indicate what would count as best practice at each level. We use this three-level analytical framework to analyse Scottish Government policy and programming in section 4, and to identify global good practice in section 5, drawn from other nations and multilateral institutions.

For any actor engaged in work on climate change, conflict and gender inequality, the first level of action involves:

  • collecting data and conducting analysis to assess the gendered impacts of climate change and conflict, and implementing, monitoring and evaluating policies and programmes to lessen those gendered harms;
  • taking an intersectional approach to recognise that women are not one homogenous group and are impacted by climate change and conflict in different ways;[54] also, that men and boys also suffer from climate change and conflict in gendered ways; and
  • ensuring that all climate justice and peace and security policy and programming is both gender mainstreamed and conflict-sensitive. That is, that gendered impacts are understood, and actions adapted to ensure they further gender equality; and that the interactions between interventions and the conflict context are analysed to ensure the project furthers peacebuilding and conflict prevention.

The second level of action involves:

  • empowering women to not only participate but to lead in climate policy- and decision-making and natural resource management;
  • taking action to shift power and resources to women to enable their equal leadership; and
  • taking an intersectional approach to participation and leadership to ensure that those most marginalised and severely impacted by conflict and climate change are included and empowered.

The third level of action involves:

  • reorienting domestic economies to more just, inclusive and sustainable models, and minimising their contribution to climate change;
  • advocating for and offering technical support for a global transition away from extractivism to more just, inclusive and sustainable economic models, and supporting the many actors (civil society organisations (CSOs), trade unions, and others) in the global south working for this;
  • advocating in multilateral fora for economic justice via a structural transformation in the international financial and trade architectures, debt cancellation, and fairer climate finance;[55] and
  • holding corporations to account for their impacts on the climate, insecurity and gender inequalities.[56]



Back to top