Is Australia’s Climate Policy Gender Literate?

governments and think tanks deliberate on strategies for combatting climate
change, they’ll very likely bypass one highly salient variable. This variable is that global warming’s
causes, effects, and solutions, are gendered. Do those who frame Australia’s climate change policy take into account that women’s ecological footprint is negligible in comparison with men’s or that women and children will be the main victims of global warming?
Will Australian climate change policy rectify women’s under-representation at every
level of climate change negotiations?

factors are rarely considered in the climate change dialogue, although the United Nations
Framework Convention on Climate Change
does have potential in this respect.
The phrase ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ acknowledges
socio-economic differences and the historical role of the industrialised North
in causing unsustainable greenhouse emissions. However, this phrase ‘common but
differentiated responsibilities’ might also be given a gendered meaning. For it
is quite apparent that decisions about development models and energy
consumption are driven overwhelmingly by high resource-consuming males.

consumption, transport, and leisure

One way to
illustrate the systematic gender difference of the impact of climate change is to use the ecological footprint indicator.
This measure compares the food, shelter, mobility and waste disposal area
required to maintain the standard of living of an average individual in one
country against another. In the USA,
for example, the individual footprint is 12.5 hectares, while in India it is 1

High tech
economies likewise reveal gendered patterns of resource use. Swedish research finds
men’s ecological footprint in that nation to be remarkably larger than women’s.
On average, men (as a social category)
are found to be big consumers of energy expensive manufactures and durable
assets like houses, cars, and computers, while Swedish women are mainly
purchasing weekly domestic consumption items – nature’s perishables. Women’s
ecological footprint is smaller again, if adjusted for the fact that most shop
for other household members.

A European Parliament report, Women and
Transport in Europe
, shows that EU men make trips by car for a single
purpose, and over longer distances than women do. Conversely, it is mainly women who travel by
public transport or on foot. When women use private cars, it is for multiple
short journeys meeting several purposes on the one outing. The reason for this
complex activity pattern is that even among women in the waged workforce, most
undertake reproductive or domestic labour for husbands, children, or elderly
parents: the double shift. Women’s days are characterised by multi-tasking and
so their transport needs have ‘spatio-temporal scatter’ – from office to
kindergarten to supermarket, for example.

Of course, it is important to not
ignore class and generational differences between women. Around the world, the
number of childfree career women is increasing, with their transport footprint
becoming more like that of men in the waged productive sector. But these
emancipated women remain a statistical minority. Generally the pattern in
industrialised economies is that men have determinate job hours and simpler
schedules than working women, so could more easily use public transport
options, but they don’t – at least in Europe.

Again, this choice is a gendered one,
having to do with structural differences in earning capacity. Internationally,
women are concentrated in lower salaried jobs, and even when they enjoy the
same careers as men, their wages are lower. Thus, it is mainly men who have
money available for purchasing big status cars, as well as time available for
leisure pursuits. Here they favour high energy consuming recreations like
motorbikes, computerised entertainments, speed boats, and golf courses. Speed
and technology are associated with the psychology of masculine prowess. By
contrast, due to the time consuming double shift of work and home, women’s
leisure footprint is all but non-existent.

Internalised or externalised

Economic scarcity and ecological stress
extract more time from women’s lives. But women tend to meet fewer resources by
using good organisation and time management. This internalised response to
environmental conditions contrasts with the standard political practice of
externalising or displacing problems on to less powerful sections of the
community. The Kyoto
Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism
(CDM) is one such approach, in this
instance, costs of the North’s consumer lifestyle are displaced on to lives in
the global South.

Meike Spitzner, an author of the Women
and Transport in Europe
study, says that men interviewed about
solutions to social and environmental problems, prefer technological
end-of-pipe remedies. (2) This policy choice is another form of deferred or
displaced responsibility. Thus, whereas women readily adjust their own energy
consumption habits, far too many men opt for risky responses to climate change
like nuclear power, or ecologically untested solutions like ocean
sequestration. This high tech tunnel vision is encouraged by the fact that many
collateral impacts of industrial growth are not experienced by men. They are
remain uncounted as ‘economic externalities’ and left for women to pick up. A
greater awareness of social consequences therefore, leads women to resist risky
technologies. As feminists say: ‘the personal is political!’

Women’s socially reproductive labour
results in their having expertise in the management of living resources –
ecological and human ones. These skills derive from subsistence agriculture in
many regions of the global South, and from domestic care giving work in
industrialised countries. Most women’s up front precautionary perspectives on
climate change support an eco-sufficiency model of economics, one that
internalises responsibility for economic provisioning in a cradle to cradle
way. By contrast, the dominant masculine public model is fast forward
production, externalisation of responsibility, then ad hoc bandaid repair.

observations on the asymmetry of learned gender norms, responsibilities, and
capacities, apply just as much in the global South as in the North, and so an
international cohort of women is now monitoring the IPCC, aiming to bring the
Kyoto Protocol into line with international agreements on women’s rights. To
help governments synchronise their international treaty commitments, Women for
Climate Justice enlists the Beijing 1995
Platform of Action
, inviting nations and international agencies to get
their heads around the multiple structural links between gender and
environments; to empower women in research and program design and at decision
making fora. But first, it is
critical to provide gender disaggregated national statistics for the energy

In Australia, it
is promising that the interim report of the Garnaut Climate Change Review seeks to distance itself from ‘business as usual’ approaches
and is receptive of alternatives. But at this stage, it does not look as though
the Garnaut Review will be able
to consider the crucial dimension of gender in its report. Professor Garnaut’s
open agenda is compromised by
his terms of reference. The first of these terms (1) ‘the maintenance of rising
living standards’ is snared by the contradiction which underpinned World Commission on Environment and
Development convened by the United Nations and chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland in 1983 – the thermodynamic nonsense of ‘growth plus
sustainability’. This undermines the feasibility of term (2) ‘contribution to a
global approach’, and (3) ‘fair distribution of burdens among individuals and
nations’. It is twenty years since Brundtland’s report, Our
Common Future
appeared, and the Garnaut team deserves an opportunity to
demonstrate how environmental understanding has evolved since then.

Women want public transit systems not subsidies
for hybrid vehicle design. Women want prior community impact assessments of
CDMs for our neighbours in Indonesia
or PNG. The methodology of ‘contraction and convergence’ supported by Garnaut
is an excellent guide, as long as it is read through the lens of ‘common but
differentiated responsibilities’. Thus, in a geopolitical sense, nations of the
global South should not be obliged to carry the externalised costs the North’s
growth. And, in a gendered sense, women should not be obliged to carry the
externalised costs of bad economic decisions made by powerful men.

Global warming causes, effects, and
solutions are gendered, and therefore, gender justice is a prerequisite of sound environmental
governance. – Will Environment Minister Penny Wong be in a position to
take on board findings about the ecological footprint? Can the Rudd Government
climb over the flawed logic of Brundtland? The absence of gender literacy among policy analysts,
academic researchers, and even many climate change activists in Australia
indicates that urgent ‘capacity building’ is wanted. For without a grasp of
basic sociological notions like gender difference, it will be impossible to
identify accurate long term global warming strategies or to implement workable
short term ones.



(1) See the research
housed at GENANET and Women for
Climate Justice

(2) Meike Spitzner,
‘How Climate Change is Gendered’ in Ariel Salleh (ed.), Eco-Sufficiency and Global Justice (London: Pluto Press, forthcoming).

More About the Author

Ariel Salleh is a Research Associate in the School of
Social and Political Sciences, University of Sydney. She has taught at
NYU; Institute for Women’s Studies, Manila; York University, Toronto;
and was Associate Professor in Social Ecology at UWS for a number of
years. Her ideas are widely debated in eco-politics and ecological
ethics. She recently served on the Australian Government’s Gene
Technology Ethics Committee and is a co-editor of the international
journal Capitalism Nature Socialism. Some of her work can be accessed here