A Feminist Green New Deal

Tessa Khan
Nov 15 · 5 min read
(credit: Bridget Burns)

If oncoming climate apartheid and untold human suffering are a description of the problem, then a Green New Deal (GND) has emerged in the UK and US as a compelling vision of the solution. Proponents of a GND on both sides of the Atlantic have their own takes on its exact contours. But in its most progressive iteration, the Green New Deal is a call for an unprecedented mobilisation of resources to rapidly eliminate greenhouse gas emissions and embrace social, environmental and economic justice. It is a recognition that decarbonisation at the necessary scale and speed will entail a profound reorganisation of our economies and institutions. The transition to zero carbon is therefore an opportunity to challenge deep social and economic inequalities — the same inequalities in wealth, power and resources that have driven the climate crisis. Moreover, if decarbonisation happens in a way that deepens those inequalities, we risk ripping apart the social contract upon which a transformation of this scale depends.

Several of the current versions of a GND recognise the importance of gender equality for climate policy. This is because the gendered impacts of climate change are beyond dispute. It’s also thanks to the long-standing call from international women’s movements, particularly in the global South, for climate justice. A coalition of groups advocating for climate justice in the US has also recently produced a groundbreaking set of feminist GND principles. But, in the UK at least, there has generally been less detailed discussion of the myriad ways in which women are likely to be affected by the economic, social and industrial shifts necessary for rapid decarbonisation.

In the UK, women are systematically disadvantaged. Compared to men, women are more likely to live in poverty: they earn less, own less, end up with less in savings for retirement, carry out significantly more unpaid care and domestic work, are disproportionately harmed by reductions in social services and safety nets, and are more likely to be negatively affected by automation. Women of colour and women living with disabilities are at an even greater disadvantage because of the intersecting forms of discrimination they experience. An intersectional feminist analysis of proposed GND policies is therefore critical for ensuring that gender inequalities and the current unequal distribution of power are not exacerbated by our transition to real sustainability.

Some of those decarbonisation policies may appear to be ‘gender-blind’, such as investment in and expansion of our public transport systems, which are non-negotiable steps for ending the fossil fuel era. On the contrary, women’s experience of public transport — including their relative safety, security, the extent to which women rely on public transport, and the impact that transport options have on their economic participation — is very different from that of men. In the UK, the use of public transport is highly gendered. Choices to invest in the development of certain modes of transport over others can therefore be expected to have correspondingly unequal consequences.

Other policies may be explicitly geared to enhance equality but, depending on their design, could increase the structural disadvantages faced by women. For example, there is discussion within GND circles of the need to move away from work that contributes to unsustainable forms of production, consumption and extraction and towards greater valuation of all forms of care work. But valuation of unpaid care work is insufficient on its own to redistribute that work, and unconditional payments including some versions of a universal basic income (UBI) can combine with gender norms to further entrench the disproportionate amount of domestic labour carried out by women. In its ‘universality’, a UBI also risks obscuring the specific forms of inequality experienced by women of colour and other marginalised groups. Jobs programmes to assist workers in declining carbon-intensive industries should also extend to everyone who depends on those industries for work, including in sectors dominated by women, such as clerical, cleaning and service roles, and proposals for a jobs guarantee should be designed to ensure that people who choose not to work are not penalised.

Particular attention should be given to the international impacts of domestic policies. Many GND proponents have rightly called for policies that reflect the historical responsibility of Northern countries for climate change and that ensure that decarbonisation does not further entrench the exploitation and devastation of communities in the global South. A feminist GND should also ensure that trade and international financial flows can withstand scrutiny of their local and global impacts on human rights and structural inequality, and that migration policies are centred on respect for human rights, climate justice and the protection of all. For example, trade and investment arrangements must protect the rights of women in all of their social, economic and cultural capacities, including as workers and producers, especially given the historical devaluation of women’s labour by export industries and the prioritisation of the interests of foreign capital over public interest in so much trade policy. Grants provided under the rubric of climate finance should unconditionally support the leadership of women’s movements and the critical role that women play in household and community resilience to climate change. Aid and financial investment should never instrumentalise women or women’s rights, including their reproductive rights, in service of environmental or political goals.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the ways in which GND policies have the potential to shape our lives differently depending on our gender. That’s why it’s crucial that the right people are at the table when those policies are developed and designed. Specifically, we need feminist economists, campaigners and activists with a deep understanding of the intersecting oppression and disadvantage experienced by women to be part of the discussion and decision-making around a GND. A failure to draw on and invest in the wealth of feminist analysis of economic, industrial and social policy would be a lost opportunity and a betrayal of those who have endured the worst impacts of our unequal, unsustainable status quo. To fully realise the promise of a Green New Deal, it has to be a feminist Green New Deal.

Big thanks to Bridget Burns, Lesley Rankin, Leanne Sajor, Shradha Shreejaya, Rimi Khan, Adrienne Buller and all of the women behind http://feministgreennewdeal.com for comments and inspiration.

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