Paris +5: COVID-19 is a wake-up call on the need for gender-responsive climate action

by Anya Knechtel | Oxfam Canada | December 10, 2020
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Background media: In an open field at dusk, burned trees are surrounded by wildfire on the ground and smoke-filled skies.

This week marks the 5th anniversary of the Paris Agreement on climate change, a landmark agreement by 196 countries to take action on climate change.  As with so many events, COVID-19 has forced the delay of this year’s international climate conference. Yet climate change hasn’t paused while the world confronts the pandemic.

COVID-19 has made it so starkly clear why there’s a need to ambitiously scale up climate action. In times of crisis, it is women who are disproportionately impacted, especially Black, Indigenous and racialized women, young women and members of the 2SLGBTQ+ community due to existing deep-seated gender and racial inequalities.

There is no doubt that the climate crisis will further heighten these disparities unless we take a feminist approach to COVID-19 recovery and climate actions both in Canada and internationally.

 Inequalities Heighten Vulnerability to Crisis

The gender disparities that have been exposed by COVID-19 mirror many of the challenges women face in responding to climate change. Women have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic due to underlying conditions of economic inequality, precarious employment, and the increased responsibility for caring for others – both within their own families and as healthcare workers on the frontlines. This is particularly true for Black, Indigenous and racialized women, including recent (im)migrants, exposing the inherent racism within Canada’s social and economic systems and structures.

The virus has disproportionately spread to these communities because racialized women fill the ranks of essential, but low-paid, frontline jobs that often lack sick leave such as caregiving, catering, cleaning, cashiering  and clerical functions that increase exposure. Women from Indigenous and northern communities in Canada have also experienced heightened vulnerabilities as it is challenging to follow health precautions related to social distancing and hand washing when many communities don’t have access to  adequate housing, affordable food and clean drinking water.

COVID-19 has made clear that underlying inequalities heighten people’s vulnerabilities in crisis as it limits their ability to prepare for, and recover from, disasters. Yet in their roles as health care providers, community leaders, frontline workers, caregivers and other critical roles, women have also been a source of strength, knowledge and leadership throughout the crisis.

By working to end prejudices, barriers and inequalities that limit women’s participation, our communities will be more resilient and better able to successfully respond to future challenges, including those posed by the increasing risk of climate-related events in Canada.

Canadians Confronting Climate-Risks

While COVID-19 may serve as a metaphor for dealing with the looming climate crisis, we also know too well that climate-related risks are not just a future threat for Canadians. In 2019, flooding in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick resulted in extensive damage to properties and infrastructure, forcing the evacuation of over 10,000 people from their homes. In 2016, wildfires in northern Alberta forced the evacuation of 90,000 people from Fort McMurray and surrounding area, including the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. The fires caused $4 billion in damages, making it the most expensive natural disaster in Canada’s history. In addition, researchers found increased levels of depression and post-traumatic stress among affected teenagers and adults following the fires.

In 2018, wildfires in BC burned over 1.35 million hectares of land and exposed over 10 million Canadians to the health impacts of smoke-polluted air. Extreme events such as these upend people’s lives, place high demands on emergency response systems, carry a high cost for recovery, and have lasting impacts that affect people’s ability to cope and recover from crisis.

People are gathered in front of the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa and holding signs during climate march. One sign is in the foreground and says Respect Your Mother.

People gather in front of Canada's parliament buildings during the Climate March in October 2019. Photo: Caroline Leal | Oxfam Canada

While Canada was largely spared this year from extreme events, it is important to note that 2020 marked a convergence of COVID-19 and climate-fuelled crisis in many parts of the world. This year’s Atlantic hurricane season, for example, was the most active on record.

Hurricanes Eta and Iota successively battered Central America, causing massive damage to crops, homes and infrastructure, as well as loss of life in communities already hard hit by COVID-19. The storms forced more than 300,000 people into temporary shelters, where COVID-19 precautions such as social distancing and hygiene were difficult to practice.

The disaster disproportionately impacted women and girls, who were already struggling under an immense workload resulting from the food crisis caused by a prolonged drought and the effects of COVID-19. As communities struggle with multiple crises, the importance of building the capacity of communities to respond to disaster – climate-related or otherwise – is clear.

A Feminist Approach to Climate Action

When Canada releases its updated climate plan later this year, we will be looking to how it responds to the urgent need to ambitiously scale-up climate action and applies a feminist approach that recognizes the unique challenges faced by women, specifically those from racialized communities. How well Canada integrates a feminist approach will largely depend on how effectively it will engage women from policy development to project implementation.

Canada has already made a significant commitment to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, with specific emissions reduction targets set for every five years beginning in 2030. As part of this commitment, the federal government plans to establish an advisory panel that will help guide the development of a path to 2050. The panel must include strong representation and diversity of women, as well as a commitment to applying intersectional gender-based analysis in its decision-making.

As with the path to COVID-19 recovery, Canada’s climate actions must take a feminist approach aimed at building a greener, more inclusive and resilient world. In both arenas, we need to address the underlying issues that perpetuate gender inequalities and intensify vulnerabilities to climate change and other disasters. Whether Canada employs a feminist approach when designing and implementing mitigation initiatives, and to what extent it targets initiatives at building women’s resiliency and agency to contribute to climate actions, will dictate how effective Canada’s climate action will be for women and vulnerable communities.

Anya Knechtel is a policy analyst in gender and climate at Oxfam Canada

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