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The Limitations of Gendered Knowledge

Updated: Sep 14, 2021

UN climate policy and the Gender Action Plan


COP23 was heralded by many as a significant step towards climate justice in part due to the publication of the Gender Action Plan. This document signalled recognition of the need for further gender mainstreaming within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and for policy action on the gendered impacts of climate change. While the Gender Action Plan built on over a decade of work, it is the first document to formalise the relationship between gender and climate change. It is this relationship between gender and climate change as reflected in UNFCCC policies that I aim to unpack over the course of this article.

Much of the current discourse, including that of the UN, emphasises two key characteristics of the relationship between gender and climate change. There is a widespread acceptance that “the global feminization of poverty” combined with the existence of gender roles that give women responsibility for childcare and food provision render them relatively defenceless in the face of climate change and natural. Two statistics often provide the backbone for these arguments: that 70% of those experiencing poverty globally are women and secondly that women and children are 14 times more likely to die during natural disasters than men. At the same time, remnants of beliefs that women are closer to nature and possess a greater capacity for care posit them as virtuous saviours who have access to special “feminine” forms of knowledge and so must be incorporated into successful forms of climate governance.

Women and children are 14 times more likely to die during natural disasters than men.

While it is clear that gender impacts how one experiences climate change, the relationship between the two continues to be framed in terms of fundamentally masculinised conceptions of climate change along with a binary understanding of women as either vulnerable or virtuous. This framing is the product of particular sets of gendered knowledges and gendered institutions. When climate change is understood in masculine terms as a global problem with high-tech solutions and gender is understood in feminine terms as a local problem there is little discursive space for interaction. While there are risks associated with questioning the primacy of climate science and gender sensitive policy (namely being seen to support conservative agendas), a continued critique of systems of knowledge is needed in order to develop policy that adequately responds to the urgent threat of climate change.

Constructing the Problem: Climate Change

Sherilyn MacGregor has argued that 2005, the year of the Asian Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, marked the emergence of climate change into the public conscience as a thoroughly “scientized” phenomenon. By this she means that from the outset climate change was understood to be a scientific problem and thus one to be managed by scientists, experts and government organisations. In UN discourse the scientific framing of climate change was established much earlier than 2005. The IPCC – “the most important source of scientific, technical and socioeconomic information on climate change” – was established in 1988, four years before the UNFCCC. From the outset the UN understood climate change not as a product of, for example, capitalist society, but rather as a scientific phenomenon that demanded scientific and technological solutions.

Taking a feminist science studies approach to climate change reveals the gendered knowledges that lie beneath the “objectivity, detachment, and abstraction” that often characterise the scientific framing of climate change. Without wanting to reinforce harmful gender binaries, the recognition of masculinist/feminist knowledges provides a productive way of understanding the power of particular discourses. In the context of climate change, techno-scientific framings of the problem have been relied upon for representing the “objective” “rational” approach to the issue and thus have achieved dominance. This framing is the product of a patriarchal system which privileges knowledge that is singular, un-emotional/rational, fact based and rigid. It is this knowledge that can be understood as masculinist. By understanding that these forms of knowledge are not impartial but rather the products of a systemic imbalance of power frees us to understand and tackle climate change in a multitude of new ways.

Understanding that techno-scientific forms of knowledge are not impartial frees us to understand and tackle climate change in a multitude of new ways.

Not only has the UNFCCC relied upon scientific knowledge, it has also favoured global over local knowledges. This allows for the creation of a hegemonic discourse that can claim to see, understand, and thus manage the world from above. These managerial tendencies are, in turn, connected to masculinist traits of dominance and control. The most obvious example of this global approach is the fixation on the 2°C cap on global temperature increase, enshrined by the 2016 Paris agreement. An increase of 2°C globally means incredibly different things for different localities- while 2°C may be acceptable in the Global North, in the Global South for Small Island Nations like the Marshall Islands a 2°C increase represents the potential for sea level rise that could submerge the islands. Understanding climate change in terms of aggregate global causes and effects means that geographical and social differences can be erased. When “difference” in society often means any variation away from the Western masculinist norm one can see that global scientific knowledges exclude a multiplicity of alternative knowledges. In order to combat this homogenization of climate change knowledge a feminist approach must emphasise the locally differentiated causes and effects of climate change. While climate change is undoubtedly a planetary process, it has diverse and situated effects. In order for the UNFCCC to create policy that adequately reflects this multiplicity, the knowledge used to understand climate change itself must be diversified.

Producing the Subjects: Gender

In UNFCCC discourse, gender needs to be understood in the context of masculinist framings of climate change and the patriarchal nature of the institutions in which it is discussed. It is important to note that even policies and debates with feminist origins are subject to limitations imposed by dominant masculine systems of knowledge. This conflict between systems of knowledge has become increasingly apparent as the UNFCCC attempts to write gender into its discourse on climate change.

As mentioned in the opening lines, the relationship between gender and climate change has been understood in terms of poverty, gendered responsibilities within the home, and a feminised tendency towards care and closeness to nature. These discourses reflect what Seema Arora-Jonsson sees as the pernicious tendency within development discourse to frame women in terms of a binary of vulnerability and virtue. This is not only a static and reductive framing of women but also one with a particular geopolitical perspective. As Tuana rightly argues, this discourse is the product of traditional Western epistemology that associates the Global North with agency and the Global South with vulnerability. While it is important to recognise the tangible difference in the experiences of some women in the Global North and some in the Global South these differences should not be essentialized. Within both societies there are various intersections of power and oppression that determine the relationship between the individual and climate change.

The UNFCC has simultaneously fixed the differences between North and South while universalising the experience of those within each hemisphere.

Although mainstream discourse on gender and climate change focuses on the overlap of gender and poverty it overlooks various other intersections. Gaard raises the valid point that the binary between vulnerability and virtue, often based on the role of women in a heterosexual family, entrenches a hetero-normative viewpoint that allows LGBTQ identities to be ignored (2015). During a case study at the Centre for International Forestry Research Arora-Jonsson found that “[t]here was an apprehension that ‘intersectionality’ would make it difficult to rally support from donors and within the organisation for ‘gender’”. When dealing with gender and climate change, the UNFCCC has simultaneously fixed the differences between North and South while universalising the experience of those within each hemisphere. The women in UN discourse are produced in ways that limit their capacity to experience and act on climate change.

Framing the Solution: Gender mainstreaming

UNFCCC discourse transforms both women and climate change into objects of governance. Masculinist framings of women and climate change privilege masculinist forms of policy even when that policy is concerned with gender and climate change. In the following section I will explore the gender responsive climate policy found in the Gender Action Plan. By doing so, I will highlight how knowledge assumptions in the framing of the subjects lead to limited policy solutions.

The Gender Action Plan contains 5 priority areas for achieving gender responsive climate policy: capacity building, gender balance, coherence, gender-responsive implementation and monitoring/reporting. Each of these reflect assumptions made in the masculinist constructions of gender and climate change. Under “Priority area D: Implementation”, the policy options are dominated by technology and finance. Calls for “gender-responsive access to finance in the implementation of climate action” reflect the longstanding “women-poverty-vulnerability linkages” present in the discursive production of women. The implementation section of the Gender Action Plan also makes reference to “the incorporation of gender into technology needs assessments” revealing the continued framing of climate change as a matter of science and technology. What becomes clear when looking at methods of implementation is that the masculine techno-scientific construction of climate change dominates policy even in the context of climate change and gender.

The failure to successfully draw women and climate change together in policy is not the result of fundamental disparity but rather oppositions between rigid masculinist constructions of gender and climate change. Tuana argues that continuing to rely on masculinist knowledges when developing climate change policy, particularly surrounding gender encourages a sense of complacency that we are doing all we can to understand the impacts of climate change. It is this kind of epistemological arrogance that also encourages policies that are based on the management and dominance of the planet and where women are the subjects of climate change rather than sources of alternative knowledge.

The aim of this article however, is not to condemn the UNFCCC’s attempts to incorporate gender but rather to problematize the foundations upon which policy rests. Even within existing UNFCCC policy, and the Gender Action Plan in particular, there is the potential for success and a diversification of knowledges. This is based on the potential for powerful links to be made between global and local actors. The matter of scale is mentioned in four of the five priority areas and there is particular interest in knowledge sharing between “national, regional, and local levels” The implementation of a travel fund to bring “those from grass-roots, local and indigenous peoples” to UNFCCC sessions reveals an attempt to counteract the global nature of current climate change knowledge. This analysis is based on the firm belief that discourse has powerful material effects – even the use of the term gender can open up new spaces, conversations and resources for thinking about and dealing with climate change.

Proposing Alternatives

Gendered knowledges have dictated the possibilities and limitation of UNFCCC policy on gender and climate change. Accepting this fact gives us the power to push for change and radically reconfigure the forms of knowledge that are used to develop UN policy. While acknowledging the risks of questioning climate science and gender expertise, particularly in the context of the global rise of the Right, it is a necessary step towards creating policy that recognises the nuanced effects of climate change. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, researchers and institutions must resist the urge to view both gender and climate change in the aggregate. Instead, an approach that is firmly intersectional and geographically specific will provide the impetus for more effective action, not only in the corridors of the UN but also at the level of the community.

By lending legitimacy to alternative knowledges on climate change we can lend groups the potential to be galvanized into taking action. Partial knowledges enable action on climate change to take place rapidly, no longer weighed down by “controversies” in climate science or the pressure of individual responsibility for a global problem. The UNFCCC is already showing signs of beginning this process by building links between the local and the global, demonstrating an increasing awareness of the origins of knowledge and expertise. A continued reliance on western masculinist knowledges is problematic particularly in the context of gender and climate change. Given the urgency with which action on climate change must occur it is time to interrogate received wisdoms on how policy is constructed.


Matilda Cook holds an MSc in Nature, Society and Environmental Governance from the University of Oxford.

This article originally appeared in Issue I (Spring 2018).


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