Hypatia Symposium – Climate Change—Editors’ Introduction by NANCY TUANA and CHRIS J. CUOMO

Climate Change—Editors’ Introduction








Professor, Department of Philosophy, Pennsylvania State University


Professor, Department of Philosophy and Institute for Women’s Studies, The University of Georgia


Browse the entire special issue here


In the midst of our putting the final touches on this special issue of Hypatia on climate change, the level of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere passed the critical threshold of 400 parts per million, as measured by the monitoring station atop Mauna Loa, Hawai’i on May 9, 2013. This is the highest concentration of CO2 the Earth has sustained in three million years and is a clear signal of the negative impact of human actions on our climate systems. Our dependence on fossil fuels and other pollutants has resulted in a 41% increase in heat-trapping gases and the current state of climate chaos and uncertainty. Given the weak political response to climate change, many worry that the percentage increase could more than double within this century, risking even more damaging changes in the climate, significant sea level rise, and ensuing, unpredictable environmental and social harms for many.

The United Nations Environmental Program released a report in 2012 warning that greenhouse gas emission levels were approximately fourteen percent higher than would be required by the end of the decade in order to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the limit agreed upon by signatories to the Kyoto Protocol as necessary to avoid dangerous anthropogenic climate change. Following quickly on the heels of this report, the World Bank issued Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided. This report documented that even under the unlikely scenario that countries fulfilled the emission reductions currently pledged, “the world is likely to warm by more than 3°C above the preindustrial climate” and there is a “20 percent likelihood of exceeding 4°C by 2100” (World Bank 2012, xii).

Although the extent and intensity of impacts from climate change will most likely increase dramatically with higher levels of global warming, it is important to underscore that even with a 2°C increase in average global temperatures, more regions will experience life-threatening effects from sea level rise, dramatic changes in precipitation levels, and more and more intense extreme weather events such as heat waves and tropical cyclones (Seager 2009). Clearly, if the current trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions is not successfully curtailed, over time the harms of climate change are likely to affect almost everyone, almost everywhere. In addition, the negative impacts of a changing climate are already having disproportionate effects on the poor and disenfranchised, particularly those living in vulnerable geographical locations or who are citizens of poorer countries with fewer resources for adaptation and for cultivating resilience in the face of uncertain change.

A global climate justice movement has emerged that is focused on the intersections of existing structural inequalities and climate-related pressures. This movement is committed to returning greenhouse gas levels to safer levels as soon as possible. In academic and policy spheres, ethicists and political theorists are examining how best to respond to inequalities in impacts both in terms of regions (spatial inequalities) and in terms of the impacts on future generations (temporal inequalities). There is a growing literature concerning historical responsibility for pollution and the fact that those least responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions causing global warming are most likely to experience the highest negative impacts of climate change (cf. Kasperson and Kasperson 2001; Adger 2005; Page 1999; Stern2007; Vanderheiden 2008; Gardiner et al. 2010; Harris 2010; Posner and Weisbach 2010; Arnold 2011; Gardiner 2011).

Despite the fact that the past decade has witnessed a similarly dramatic increase in research examining the ways in which gender roles and gendered divisions of labor, as well as various cultural, economic, and political factors, can result in gender differences in climate change impacts and responses, a gender-justice perspective remains marginalized in mainstream climate justice theory and policy (Masika 2002; Brody et al. 2008; WEDO 2008; Aguilar 2009; Gender and Development 2009; Hunter and David 2009; Salleh 2009; Terry2009; UNDP 2009; Dankelman 2010; Alston and Whittenbury 2013). Given the particular experiences, capacities, and vulnerabilities of women in their diversity in relation to climate change, it is perhaps not surprising that there are growing efforts to bring serious attention to gender to grassroots-level adaptation projects, and to international negotiations and policy-making at the highest levels. For example, at the recent (2012) meetings of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the final decision included a provision agreed upon by all parties (194 UN member states plus the European Union), establishing the issue of gender and climate change as a standing item on the agenda of future meetings, and committing to “promoting gender balance and improving the participation of women in UNFCCC negotiations and in the representation of Parties in bodies established pursuant to the Convention or the Kyoto Protocol” (United Nations Framework Convention 2013).

Feminist philosophy has long been attentive to the conceptual and material relationships and interdependencies among industrial “development,” male dominance, and the devaluation and destruction of nature. From Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex to Sherry B. Ortner’s essay on the gendered aspects of the dominant Western nature/culture divide (Gilman1915/1998; Beauvoir 1949/2011; Ortner 1974), critical examination of the connections between women’s subordination and their association with particular understandings of nature has provided a ground note for modern feminisms. Along with the influence of environmental studies and ecology, figures such as Rachel Carson, Helen Caldicott, Alice Walker, and Wangari Matthei also helped inspire the development of ecofeminism as a distinct branch of feminist theory and activism in particular and catalyzed feminist work on environmental issues in general (cf. Haraway 1990; Warren 1990; Gaard and Gruen 1993; Mies and Shiva 1993; Plumwood 1994). Critical of distorted representations of women as closer to nature than men, but also critical of distorted representations of humans as separate from and inherently superior to nonhuman nature, such approaches are particularly well-positioned to help us gain critical understanding of some salient aspects of climate change.

Similarly, as we believe the essays and reviews in this issue make quite clear, feminist philosophical approaches provide immensely valuable resources for anyone concerned about the ethical and epistemological issues at the nexus of issues of justice and global climate change. The essays brought together in this special issue acknowledge and incorporate the fact of climate change’s disproportionately negative impacts on women and others who are geographically or economically disadvantaged, but they also look beyond and behind that data, asking key questions about values, environmental politics, scientific practice, ontology, collective responsibility, and culture. As this work shows, gendered constructions permeate climate change knowledge (in science and beyond) and practices (from individual actions to global policies) in ways less transparent than the differential impacts of climate change on the lives of women and men, or gender differences in lived experiences of climate phenomena. Climate change discourses themselves, including scientific, economic, and activist discourses, have gendered dimensions. Understanding those dimensions, their repercussions, and their connections with social and environmental justice calls for feminist philosophical investigations across a range of topics.

Voicing clear concern about what appears to be humanity’s multidimensional inertia regarding the changes needed to fight climate change, the authors brought together here raise important questions about responsibility and meaningful action. Heidi Grasswick highlights an important dimension of responsible action in light of climate change by exploring the complexity of enacting appropriate trust when we must rely on relatively high-powered institutions for information about climate change, but “the trustworthiness of these institutions depends on their ability to fulfill these expectations within a highly politicized context of competing interests” (XX). Sherilyn MacGregor discusses the relevance for climate justice of the loss of effective political spheres that function as a space of contestation, engagement, and dissent, and argues in response for a revitalized feminist conception of environmental citizenship. Astrida Neimanis and Rachel Walker consider how an alternative ontology that conceives of the self as weathering body might invite less hubristic engagements with nature. Michael Doan seeks out a more helpful understanding of the phenomenon of complacency, offering a diagnosis that clarifies some of what appears to be the extraordinary failure of many of us to act effectively for our collective interests. But as Kyle Powys Whyte shows in “Indigenous Women, Climate Change Impacts, and Collective Action,” cultural values and identities shape other ethical responses and understandings of what it means to take responsibility for the common good, and hence the importance of carefully situating a critique like Doan’s. Collective efforts such as the Women’s Water Commission of the Anishinabek Nation maintain important traditions and vital relationships in light of present and future challenges, and should be acknowledged and supported accordingly.

Feminist philosophical analyses also aid in the understanding of influential movements and discourses that fail to adequately address social and gender justice. In “Climate Change, Buen Vivir, and the Dialectic of Enlightenment,” Regina Cochrane examines the gendered and romantic assumptions behind the popular Latin American environmentalist concept of “buen vivir,” and brings together the work of Val Plumwood, Max Horkheimer, and Theodor Adorno to develop a more effective conception of ecological rationality. Christopher Preston, Holly Buck, and Andrea Gammon draw attention to how a masculinist framing of global climate change as “fixable” through technological solutions provides a troubling foundation for the development of geoengineering projects that are likely to exacerbate rather than ameliorate environmental harms and human suffering.

In spite, or perhaps because, of the insights that feminist analyses and attention to gender and social power provide as we try to understand and address climate change, thus far there has been a lack of attention to gender differences in climate change impacts within the very literature that purports to be examining issues of justice in the context of climate change. Even with a virtual explosion of work on gender and climate change (for example, Cannon 2002; Denton 2002; Lambrou and Piana 2005; Brody, Demetriades, and Esplen 2008; Aguilar 2009; Ahmed and Fajber 2009; Alaimo 2009; Enarson and Chakrabarti 2009; Hemmati and Rohr 2009; Terry 2009; Dankelman 2010; Goldsworthy 2010) and a vocal and visible activist movement calling attention to the fact that climate justice requires gender justice (GenderCC; WEDO), gender has been virtually ignored in books published on the general topic of climate ethics or climate justice since 2010 (for example, Gardiner 2010; Arnold 2011; Broome 2012; Brown 2012; Thompson and Bendik-Keymer 2012). We see this as simply one dimension of a larger and more complex pattern of ignoring the significance of the gendered dimensions of what we do and do not know, and what actions we do and do not take in the context of anthropocentric climate change. This persistent omission of gender in studies of climate ethics and climate justice evinces a form of gender amnesia too profound to be attributed to benign neglect. The ignoring of gender in the context of climate change is kept in place by a persistent valuation of certain types of lives and certain types of experiences as those that count. In this way, the lives and experiences of women and other “others” can be ignored without those in privileged positions even realizing that they are doing so.

As Charles Mills has argued with respect to race in Europe and the United States (Mills 1997), there is an “inverted” epistemology, what he calls an “epistemology of ignorance,” in which ignorance is actively produced and linked to issues of cognitive authority, trust, credibility, and uncertainty. With such an epistemology of ignorance, there is a “pattern of localized and global cognitive dysfunctions (which are psychologically and socially functional), producing the ironic outcome that whites [those in positions of power] will in general be unable to understand the world they themselves have made” (Mills 1997, 18). In her Musings column in this issue, Lorraine Code discusses related questions about epistemological culpability in relation to knowledge about climate change, and the possibility of “refusing to participate in social ignorance, across a range of epistemically irresponsible practices” (X). Such ignorance is at work with the gender amnesia currently limiting work on climate ethics and climate justice. Although perhaps not a conscious denial of the importance of the experiences and lives of women and other others in the context of a changing climate, there is nonetheless a persistent and willful attention only to certain types of lives and a narrow set of experiences, which serves to ensure that only certain interests or concerns will be taken seriously even in the very literature that aims to identify and rectify climate injustices.

Clearly it is important to examine and understand the complex ways in which women and men are, or are not, differentially affected by climate change impacts such as droughts, extreme weather events, or precipitation changes, but such studies on their own are not sufficient to fully appreciate the role of gender in the context of climate change. We also have to understand all the domains in which gender is relevant to our responses to climate change, from the affective dimensions of how women and men respond to climate change (Alston 2006; Alston and Kent 2008; Tschakert and Tutu 2010) to gender differences in the perception of risks related to climate impacts (Flynn et al. 1994; Davidson and Freudenburg 1996; Slovic 1999). Such divergences in reactions and perceptions can lead to differences in attitudes concerning how best to respond to climate change and thus have an impact on climate justice. Even more complex are the ways in which values embedded in the climate sciences, including studies of mitigation, adaptation, and geoengineering, have gendered dimensions that can lead to very different impacts for certain groups of women and men. As we see in the essays collected here (and in light of the past three decades of feminist scholarship), any effort to address issues of justice in the context of climate change must also take into consideration not just gender, but other relevant factors such as class, race, age, disability, and indigeneity. Gender and sexual difference cannot be adequately examined in isolation from these other forms of power and identity, and this lesson is robustly underscored when examining the impacts of climate change. How exposures to both slow onset as well as extreme climate events will affect any individual or a group is highly dependent on their gender, class, education level, and race. Although the fact and impact of such identities and factors are often difficult to trace, an appreciation of their role is a key to understanding and moving toward global climate justice.

We have benefited greatly from discussing and thinking together about these questions, in the company of the authors of the excellent work on gender and climate change that was submitted for this special issue of Hypatia, and in the company of others with whom we have worked on questions and issues related to climate justice over the last decade or so. When Nancy turned to Chris at some point during the 2010 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico, and suggested the idea of a special issue of Hypatia on climate change and justice, it was in the hope that more feminist philosophical work on these questions could inform important decisions about practical and policy matters like mitigation and adaptation funding. In developing our own understandings of these issues, we have both benefited greatly from conversations and collaborations with Margaret Alston, Carolyn Sachs, Asuncion St. Clair, Petra Tschakert, and other members of the Worldwide Universities Network project on gender and climate change, and the workshop on transformative change sponsored by the Norwegian Center for International Climate and Energy Research. Abundant thanks also go to the special issue managing editor Christina Shaheen Moosa, and to Asia Ferrin, Hypatia‘s managing editor, for their dedicated work on this special issue, and to Hypatia‘s editors and editorial board, for their enthusiasm and support.

8 thoughts on “Hypatia Symposium – Climate Change—Editors’ Introduction by NANCY TUANA and CHRIS J. CUOMO”

  1. I have read the papers submitted for this symposium with great interest, zeroing in on “humanity’s multidimensional inertia” with respect to addressing and dealing appropriately with climate change. I plan to comment in this regard on Lorraine Code’s “Musings” on Culpable Ignorance, but I look forward to reading others’ comments, paper by paper. Let the discussion begin!

  2. Reblogged this on eco art lab and commented:
    Crucial knowledge for the future of life on earth!
    Symposium on Feminist Philosophy and Climate Change, online live now and through 8/22.

  3. For one thing there is great diversity within that multidimensionality, and so for me it does not make sense to talk about “humanity” as culpable, or as a group that is acting together in relation to climate change (or global environmental destruction and exploitation in general), or that can be theorized about in relation to climate change at the level of species.

    So I don’t think humanity is in inertia in relation to climate change. I’d say the part of humanity who wants to deal with climate change is structurally prevented and sabotaged by those who continue to profit from unchecked pollution, and other forms of oppression and disempowerment.

    1. Kari Marie Norgaard, in _Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life_, examines the way relatively oil-affluent Norwegians manage to avoid coming to terms with climate change (which they can observe in tangible ways) through (collective, and probably largely unconscious) adjustment of “social norms of attention”–“largely invisible social forces shaping what we actually do think about” (2011, 112). At the risk of breaking ranks and drawing down the scapegoating wrath of members of this particular group or “thought community” (Zerubavel, _Social Mindscapes_, 1997, 9), I have been thinking–in the name of urging greater reflexivity–of challenging several aspects of the “social norms of attention” that are reflected in a number of the papers in the current volume of Hypatia, not simply to be perverse but because I think they have become limiting to feminist and ecofeminist (and certain other philosophical schools’) analyses and discourse in a way that will negatively affect how problems are being theorized, now and in the future.

      Your comment illustrates well one of these normative limitations on what we may legitimately attend to: we may appreciate the diversity within “humanity,” but we are not “allowed” (socially) to think about the human species as an entity, neither to envision it as the larger circle encompassing a multiplicity of (sometimes intersecting, partially overlapping, entermeshing, and so on) human subgroupings (each subgrouping permeably demarcating various numbers of human individuals), nor to see it as one species among many others continually interacting within a biosphere that comprises Life on this planet. To do so would mean looking at ourselves “from outside,” clearly a no-no in the view of several of the authors in this symposium. But must we pretend that we have no “outside,” no “objective” (dare I breathe the word?) reality as a species? That there are not more than 7 billion of us now on the planet, _some_ of them “consuming” at an obscene rate, many others unable to do so now but quite possibly aspiring to do so someday, and the _collective trajectory_ of all of our combined human activities being what is hurtling the Earth’s climate system out of its relatively stable climatic state and into something far less hospitable?

      Yes, there are “parts” of “humanity” who want to change our situation and other “parts” who are stubbornly blocking the change. But I would maintain that, because of the current structuring of our multiple “levels of human organization” (Doan), there is a great deal of “inertia” _keeping all of us_ on a very dangerous path. Moreover, for certain terms, like “humanity,” and worse, for certain envisionings, like attempting to (imaginatively) “see” what our human species, collectively, is doing to all the other lifeforms on the planet (as well as to its own many less fortunate members), to be declared “off limits,” beyond the bounds of what our thinking and writing may legitimately attend to, amounts to the social structuring of yet another form of climate change denial, this one generated “in-house.”

      1. There is very little off limits in philosophical discussion, sorry just offering another opinion.

        You point out that regarding ethics it is important to sometimes refer to humanity as a species, and I do not disagree. Humanity has collective causal impacts and effects on the more-than-human world, and anyone on planet earth can or should “take responsibility” for climate change or other forms of ecological damage. However I do not think that humanity is a collective moral agent in relation to climate change, and I think it is obfuscating rather than illuminating to attribute unified culpability for climate change to humanity as a species. Rather, I would ask, what drives various particular “inertias,” and what maintains and assures their accompanying denials?

  4. I see 3 ways that feminist philosophy is relevant to analyzing climate ethics:
    1. Because gender is one dimension of the differential impacts of climate change and because there are gendered aspects to how societies will deal with the long- and short-term effects of adaptation.
    2. Because of the gendered aspects of our current political and economic system. By thinking about the political and social activities in which women take a more active part, we might focus on individual and collective responses to climate change outside of national and international policy-making.
    3. Because feminist philosophy has developed tools and approaches that reorient how we think about knowledge and values, whether the epistemic, ethical, social, and political problems addressed are specifically gendered or not.

  5. This is a fascinating set of discussions. Thank you for sharing with the world! Beyond philosophical debates, the intersectional, embodied and ground realities of climate change in the gendered lives of women and men, especially in the Global South, may be of interest to readers. Here’s an example:
    Sultana, Farhana, 2014, “Gendering Climate Change: Geographical Insights” The Professional Geographer Vol. 66, No. 3, Pp. 372-381.

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