As the impacts of climate change become more clear—starkly outlined this August by the International Panel on Climate Change’s latest report—responses to them will require an agile and transformational approach, one that is based on innovative solutions and inclusive policies, including with respect to gender. Understanding of the gender dimensions of climate change is nascent, and while there has been research on its differential impacts on men and women, as well as the exclusion of women from decision-making on climate change, major gaps remain, including with respect to security. Namely, there has been minimal overlap to date on the nexus of the climate change agenda and the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda at the United Nations (UN).
Like the WPS agenda, the climate and security policy discussions have been criticized for securitizing its agenda in ways that could lead to distortions in foreign aid and fund allocations or for being a predominantly Northern-driven agenda that may favor the geopolitical interests of rich countries. Nonetheless, there is growing evidence of the links between climate, conflict, and violence, and exploring the overlap with the WPS agenda may generate lessons for more inclusive and effective approaches to related challenges.
This is an underdeveloped area of research and policy engagement that is particularly timely and important because the level of armed conflicts globally is at a 30-year high. There are more people displaced across the world than ever before, and climate change-related extreme weather events—which can also drive displacement—are increasing in frequency. In short, the time is ripe for innovative thinking and pragmatic solutions at the nexus of the international climate change and WPS agendas.
Gendered Dimensions of Climate Change and Conflict
The gendered impact of conflict is well-documented, and there is increasing evidence that the ways in which climate change is driving conflict also has a disproportionate effect on women. This is in part because climate change tends to affect conflict risks via its impacts on human security, such as loss of livelihoods, shocks to food production, human displacement, shifting agricultural patterns, natural disasters, and depleted natural resources. Across these areas, deep socio-political inequalities mean that women are more vulnerable to shocks, less able to rely on economic resources and technical assistance for adaptation and disaster resilience, and thus more deeply impacted by the climate-security nexus.
In addition, because women often lack access to land tenure, they are more vulnerable to climate-related forced displacement. In a report on climate and security in Colombia published by UNU-CPR’s Managing Exits from Armed Conflict initiative, Afro-Colombian and indigenous respondents reported the highest levels of climate-related displacement of any ethnic group. Within these populations, women reported much higher levels of displacement due to climate change than men: 43 percent of Afro-Colombian women respondents and 29 percent of indigenous women respondents, compared to 28 percent of Afro-Colombian men and 21 percent of indigenous men. The report also rendered preliminary data revealing the links between climate change and armed group recruitment in Colombia, but warrants further research to better understand these dynamics.
Other fragile contexts provide further examples of the impacts of climate events on women. For example, following the catastrophic 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, an Oxfam report on Indonesia, India, and Sri Lanka found that in some communities, women comprised over 75 percent of deaths—in the most extreme cases, there were four female deaths for every male one. This was attributed to the fact that socially constructed gender roles tangibly shaped not only the prospects of survival for men and women, but also quality of life in the aftermath of disaster for those who survived. In India, men fishing offshore were likelier to survive as the wave passed under their boats whereas women caring for children and elderly at home or waiting onshore to collect and sell the catch were much more likely to be killed when the tsunami struck. Another report on the 2010 earthquake in Haiti found that the lack of gender-mainstreaming in disaster risk and resilience programs significantly hampered recovery efforts.
Alongside acute rapid on-set disasters, it is also important to consider climate change-related risks that are slower-moving yet interact in complex ways with conflict drivers to worsen fragility. In the Sahel, climate-driven farmer-herder conflicts have produced a unique set of impacts on women, many of whom are far more vulnerable to shifts in agricultural patterns, and who bear the brunt of violence in their communities. The dynamics and impacts of predatory extractivism—both a driver of conflict and a contributor towards climate change, for instance through greenhouse gas emissions or illegal deforestation—are also deeply gendered.
Women are disproportionately affected by environmental catastrophes and crimes, even as they remain at the forefront of efforts to resist them. The contamination of water sources due to natural resource extraction as well as damage to housing and air pollution from mine blasting are correlated with rising alcoholism and domestic violence. Yet women are also on the frontlines of environmental activism such as the Kaqchikel movement in Guatemala. In Yemen, where flash floods have increased in recent years, women have taken leading roles in mediating water disputes and driving forward community adaptation efforts.
Prevention measures that fail to account for broader violent institutions—such as extractive industries and the military as a driver of climate change—and their gender implications, risk falling short.
The Policy Toolbox: International Framework and National Plans
The WPS agenda has developed in a siloed fashion, both in terms of the ways its four pillars (protection, prevention, participation, and relief and recovery) are addressed, and with regard to how much—or indeed how little—its tenets have been integrated across the Security Council’s and the UN’s country-specific work. Emerging efforts by the Security Council to address the links between climate change and security have so far also been limited to climate-specific meetings and other deliberations.
A more holistic approach to addressing gender, climate change, and security is necessary, based on the recognition of the nexus between these areas of work. This offers an opportunity for synergy between the WPS agenda, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and Climate Change Gender Action Plans (CCGAPs). CEDAW, through its General Recommendation 37 (GR37) of 2018, became the first UN body to address the links between human rights and the gendered impacts of climate change. Since 2018, it has referred to climate change in its recommendations to 75 percent of the states it reviewed. As nationally recognized strategies for training and building the capacity of women and women’s organizations on the linkages between gender and climate change, CCGAPs also bear great potential for bringing these agendas together.
National Action Plans (NAPs), intended as roadmaps for states for the implementation of the WPS agenda, represent one of the most concrete policy approaches to linking a gender perspective with response to the climate crisis. According to a 2020 analysis by SIPRI, 17 out of the 80 states that have adopted NAPs on WPS included direct and unique mentions of climate change, mostly in the narrative section, but with a few also mentioning concrete activities to address the linkages between climate change, gender and security.
Looking Forward: A Policy and Research Agenda
Much more needs to be done by member states and UN agencies to concretely integrate climate change into existing instruments, but also to improve integration across CEDAW, NAPs, and CCGAPs. This will require political leadership at the national, regional, and global levels, as well as donor investments and gender-sensitive budgeting by governments. In addition, as plans are developed and programs are designed, far greater emphasis should be placed on women’s leadership and participation in responding to climate change, along with an intersectional lens that prioritizes indigenous knowledge and networks.
Indeed, women at the grassroots level have led the charge on adapting to and mitigating the impacts of climate change in fragile contexts for decades, including for example most prominently the Green Belt movement in Kenya, founded by the late Nobel Laureate Wangari Mathaai. However, women-led grassroots initiatives must be brought to scale, especially in communities emerging from or at risk of violent conflict, through sustainable financing and political support.
Researchers also have an important role to play by growing the qualitative and quantitative evidence base at the intersection of the WPS and climate change agendas as well as by working across disciplines to generate analysis that can sharpen the effectiveness and inclusivity of future policies and programs.
At the same time, women’s voice and leadership across the globe must be better represented at the highest levels of decision-making. With regard to the work of the Security Council—despite ongoing opposition from some members to the inclusion of climate as a security issue worthy of the Council’s attention—women civil society briefers have been invited to Council meetings on climate to discuss their efforts to overcome climate security risks. Such invitations could be extended for country-specific meetings to ensure that context-specific expertise informs the Council’s work on country situations.
Similarly, the Informal Experts Group (IEG) on Climate Change is modeled after the IEG on WPS, meaning that the structures are in place for more cross-pollination between these two areas of the Council’s work. This could be carried out by including climate and gender analysis in IEG briefings by UN officials, which would in turn ensure the inclusion of such intersectional analysis in country-specific IEG conclusions documents, which often serve as action points for parts of the UN system. In short, this is an agenda ripe for intentional innovation and engagement and the urgency to act on it is ever increasing.
This article is part of a series reflecting on the current state of the Women, Peace, and Security agenda.
Adriana Erthal Abdenur is the co-founder and Executive Director of Plataforma CIPÓ and a Non-resident Senior Fellow at the United Nations University Centre for Policy Research (UNU-CPR). Mayesha Alam is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at UNU-CPR. Adam Day is the Director of Programmes at UNU-CPR. Cristal Downing is the Colombia Case Study Manager on the Managing Exits from Armed Conflict project at UNU-CPR. Beatrice Mosello is Senior Advisor on climate diplomacy and security at adelphi, and a Non-resident Senior Fellow at UNU-CPR.