Is Australia’s Climate Policy Gender Literate?

When 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?

Sociological 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.

Gendered consumption, transport, and leisure

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 responsibility?

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!’

These 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 sector.

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.