Gender Means Women…and Men

An Internet search on “gender and climate change” generates almost exclusively links to research and analyses of “women and climate change.” The men are missing. What accounts for the conflation of “gender” and “women” in climate change research? One answer flows from feminist scholarship. Twentieth-century gender research made important inroads into understanding the unequal place and treatment of women in societies around the world (de Beauvoir, 1949; Friedan, 1963; Ortner, 1974). During the post-World War Two period of “second wave” feminism, scholars, many associated with “women’s studies” academic programs, embarked on the analysis and discovery of women’s history, literature, art, politics, sexuality, and oppression (Ginsberg, 2008). In this research “women” were the explicit focus and, while men were implicit in gender analyses, they were only of secondary interest. It was not until the 1990s that “men’s studies” scholars began to examine the social, cultural, political, sexual, and historical dimensions of “men” and “masculinities” (Connell, 1995; Kimmel, 1995; Mosse, 1996). The separation between women’s studies and men’s studies has narrowed somewhat, and many academic programs have been renamed “women, gender, and sexuality studies.” For political and historical reasons, however, women remain a primary concern of much gender studies. The emphasis on women in gender research is not only a legacy of twentieth-century feminist studies, it continues to shape the thinking and research agendas of many researchers outside traditional gender studies. As a result, not surprisingly, research on women dominates research on gender and climate science.

Bringing Women In

The conflation of women and gender notwithstanding, the discovery of women by climate change researchers is relatively recent. Equally recent is the prioritization of climate change on the agendas of feminist intellectuals and activists. The United Nations has played a prominent role in both climate change and women’s rights. The UN established its Commission on the Status of Women in 1946, less than a year after its founding. Half a century later, at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 and at the Beijing +5 UN Millennium Summit in 2000, activists protested women’s continued inequality, but climate change was not prominent on their agenda. While feminists largely were ignoring climate change, the UN’s two main climate change organizations, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), largely were ignoring women. Since the first annual UNFCCC Conference of Parties (COP) meeting in 1995, women consistently comprised only around one-quarter of delegates; they have chaired, co-chaired, or vice-chaired an even lower percentage of IPCC committees. As climate change moved more front and center in international feminist concerns, gender “mainstreaming” (i.e., the inclusion of women’s issues) increased as a topic of debate and demand, but remained an unfulfilled UN promise even at the 2021 COP26 in Glasgow (Buckingham, 2010; O’Neill et al., 2010; Gay-Antaki and Liverman, 2018; Chiu, 2021; United Nations, 2021).

Gender mainstreaming efforts by climate researchers have followed the longstanding script focusing only on women and cataloging women’s injuries and disadvantages from the impacts of a changing climate. These include women’s greater rates of injury and mortality from climate and environmental disasters, higher rates of domestic abuse and increased stress from the demands of care work during and after climate-related catastrophes, larger loss of income and slower economic recovery from climatic hardships, and higher likelihood of interrupted schooling and earlier forced marriage resulting from climate-related disruptions of social life (see Dankelman, 2010; Fothergill and Peek, 2015; Karpf, 2021). Once again the men are missing.

Bringing Men In

How is research on gender changed when “men” are introduced into considerations of gender and climate change? Women’s grievances related to climate change impacts and policies are many and important enough to warrant researchers’ documentation. It is a mistake, however, to think that our gender and climate change work is done by even the most exhaustive exposition of women’s hardships. “Gender and climate change” also must be understood to include “men and climate change.” For instance, men’s work can make them particularly vulnerable to the impacts and consequences of climate change. The vast majority of firefighters are male, and the dramatic increase in wildfires related to rising temperatures has a disproportionate impact on men (Ericksen, 2014; Potter, 2020; U.S. Fire Administration, 2021), as does the predominantly male rescue and reconstruction work associated with disasters such as flooding from rising sea levels (Learn, 2016; Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2021; Soravia et al., 2021).

Our goal here is not to compare the injuries from climate change that are suffered by women with those experienced by men. Rather we are interested in moving beyond injury to responsibility. When we broaden our analysis of gender and climate change from women to include men, we are prompted to ask different questions about how gender matters in understanding climate change. These differences stem from the inequalities associated with gender and climate change: Who is responsible for defining climate change? Who is responsible for setting the research agenda about climate change? Who is responsible for deciding how serious is climate change? Who is responsible for causing climate change? Who is responsible for deciding priorities and strategies for responding to climate change? Who is responsible for solving the problem of climate change? There are gendered answers to these questions, and the answers are uniformly the same: men.

With power comes responsibility. Historically and at present, men have held power in commerce, science, and politics—three realms of climate change cause, comprehension, and control. Because of their overwhelming influence, men bear major responsibilities for causing climate change, specifying the nature and impacts of climate change, and solving the problems resulting from climate change. Placing responsibility does not, however, fix the problems generated by men and their power. Exposing the man behind the gender and climate change screen is an important first step to a broader understanding.

Discussion

Just as our goal in this Perspective is not to compare the relative injuries of women and men from climate change, our goal is not simply to blame men for causing or failing to respond effectively to the challenges of climate change. We want to illuminate in some detail the ways in which men’s power and actions are camouflaged by the emphasis on women in discussions of gender and climate change. By shifting our gaze to men, we believe we can move toward fuller gender equality in climate science and policy.

One important point: we wish to avoid erasing differences among men. Men dominate politics, including climate denialist politics. Men also dominate science, especially climate science. Politics and science often are at odds (e.g., climate change denialists, anti-science) which means that the men in these fields do not speak with one voice and frequently disagree among themselves and with one another. Male politicians and male scientists have something in common, however. Both groups tend to minimize or ignore climate justice.

Climate justice involves recognizing and addressing the uneven and unjust impacts of climate change on women, communities of color, the elderly, and the disabled. The study and redress of these injustices is not high on the agendas of either male scientists or male politicians. Politicians, denialist or not, tend to focus on the economic and election-cycle implications of addressing climate change. Since many disadvantaged sectors of the electorate tend not to vote or fund campaigns at the same rate as advantaged sectors, they are not at the top of political mind. Science mirrors politics in its disregard for climate justice, but for different reasons. The kinds of questions male-dominated climate science ask tend to focus on the physical science, not the social determinants or social and health outcomes of climate change. As a result, climate models grow ever more sophisticated and complex, but the scientific understanding of climate change on human physiology, psychology, and social welfare remains relatively uncharted. One explanation for the similar omissions of justice concerns by climate politics and science centers on masculine cultures and interests. Male-dominated politics around the world has long been recognized as masculinist—a misogynistic boys club (Manne, 2018, 2020; Taflaga and Beauregard, 2019). Feminist critiques of science point to its masculine preoccupation with controlling nature, summarized as “science is masculine, nature is feminine” (Keller, 1982; Kirk, 2009). Neither climate politics nor climate science prioritizes social justice or the human dimensions of climate change.

Another point of conversion between climate politicians and scientists is the military. Militaries are preeminently male institutions with an outsized influence on the psyches of many politicians and scientists. Politicians embrace military concerns and solutions because they generally provide solid political footing, and there is a well-trod path from the military into politics. The allure of the military to scientists is less well-recognized. Since most scientists, especially climate scientists are men, there is a resonance between civilian male microcultural elements such as bravery and adventure with military macrocultural themes of patriotism and strength. Scientists also are attracted by defense-related science funding which is many times that available from the National Science Foundation. The military-science nexus generates two related militarized arenas of climate science and policy: climate security and geoengineering.

Climate security concerns expressed by the U.S. military center on preparedness and threat. Like other aspects of social and economic life, military activities both contribute to climate change and must contend with its consequences (British Petroleum, 2018; Garcia, 2020). Officials already are dealing with the impacts of climate change on military installations and operations (e.g., effects of rising sea levels inundating bases and heat exhaustion by troops on missions). Military analyses identify climate change as a “threat multiplier” with the capacity not only to undermine routine military operations, but to challenge to military preeminence (e.g., by increasing conflicts over resources, mass migrations, or geopolitical competition, for instance, in the Arctic; La Shier and Stanish, 2018; U.S. Department of Defense, 2021). A potential militarization of climate change flows from the institution’s firm focus on national security, large research budgets, strong political and cultural influence, and the predominant presence of male researchers and politicians who often are drawn to the military’s ethos and resources.

Large-scale solar radiation management and carbon dioxide removal geoengineering solutions to the impacts of climate change comprise another militarized connection between men and climate change. Although most geoengineering initiatives are not specific military projects, most geoengineering proponents are men, and many are associated with U.S. national laboratories engaged in military research (Russell, 2001; Fialka, 2020). There is a long history of military scientific interest in controlling weather and the environment (e.g., DDT to control malaria during WWII, cloud seeding and defoliation chemicals during the Vietnam War) (Tollefson, 2008; Fleming, 2012). Most critics of geoengineering do not see it as a weapon of militarized climate science or policy, but rather express misgivings about its effectiveness, unintended consequences, or diversion from the real changes needed to reduce CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions (Chaturvedi and Doyle, 2015; Marzec, 2016; Thomas and Warner, 2019).

In conclusion, we have argued here that conflating “women” and “gender” defines climate change as a “women’s problem.” The result is to design solutions to help women (e.g., better shelters, healthcare, small loans), and deemphasize the causes of climate change as mainly men’s responsibilities and failures to effectively address. The focus on women diverts attention from what male-dominated institutions, such as the UN and governmental bodies are doing, or not, to address the most immediate and long-term challenge facing humanity. In her 2010 Nature paper, “Call in the Women,” Buckingham recognized the failures of mainly male climate policymakers and emphasized the importance of including women in climate change policymaking. Women’s skills at negotiation and insights into the human dimensions of climate change can strengthen the work of fellow policymakers and scientists to capitalize on the promise of rethinking gender and climate change.

Data Availability Statement

The original contributions presented in the study are included in the article/supplementary material, further inquiries can be directed to the corresponding author/s.

Author Contributions

All authors listed have made a substantial, direct, and intellectual contribution to the work and approved it for publication.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

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