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Feminist campaigns key to reversing climate change, data shows

What if I told you that one of the best ways to tackle climate change is to be a good feminist? Well, that’s what the data shows us.

I recently attended an ANU Climate Change Institute event where Paul Hawken, the author of Drawdown: The most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming, presented his book and its findings. The book examines 100 different ways to reverse climate change and ranks them according to their effectiveness. Many of the results from the research are surprising, like the one I opened this article with – educating young women (ranked #6) and providing them with access to family planning (#7) represent two paths to lower global emissions that are individually more effective than solar farms (#8), afforestation (#15) or mass transit (#37).

Who saw that one coming? I’ve been studying the intersection of feminist causes and sustainable development for years – across a range of subjects at ANU – and even I was floored by this.

Those of you doing Gender Studies: ask yourselves just how much of that field dedicates itself to promoting its cause as a core part of sustainable development? I’m guessing, as in my own studies, that sustainability doesn’t quite have the prominence it deserves. For those of you who identify with or work to advocate for feminist causes, ask yourself the same question: how often do we talk about female empowerment in terms of emissions reductions? I’m guessing it’s not a common discourse, yet the data shows it clearly should be.

That’s the beauty of a book like this and the research it’s based on – it’s pure number-crunching. As Hawken stressed at multiple points in his presentation: “We do the math: We map, we measure, we model. We are not advocates. We don’t engage in advocacy”.

When you have that approach; when you dive into the numbers without an agenda, the results are often surprising. The #1 ranked solution to reverse global warming is refrigeration management – making our fridges and air conditioners emit less hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). HFCs warm the atmosphere some 1,000-9,000 times more than CO2 – and this simple fact makes them a huge problem.

“Refrigeration is number one?!” Hawken recalled, feigning the disappointment he must have felt when his team discovered it was the leading candidate for climate change reversal: “That’s so unsexy. Nobody cares.”

And that’s sustainability in a nutshell, basically – trying to make people care about utterly mundane, everyday things; the clothes we wear, the products we purchase, and the refrigerant chemicals we use to keep us cool in the harsh Australian summers. This is part of the problem when it comes to sustainability challenges like climate change, and certainly part of the explanation for our profoundly dangerous lack of progress so far. It’s not sexy enough, so nobody cares.

And yet with this new list of 100 solutions, we have something very topical and potentially very engaging. Solutions #6 and #7 in the list – educating young girls, and empowering them to choose their own family planning outcomes, both clearly fall under the broader feminist agenda. Feminism is a topic students and countless others are already engaging with right now, in a big way. It’s sexy in a way that HFCs are not.

The #metoo movement represents another part of the broader feminist movement – this time against sexual assault and harassment. At face value, it may have little to do with educating girls, giving them access to contraception, or focusing on emissions reductions, but it remains a powerful example of modern feminism’s reach and profile.

What might the future of feminism look like when the incredible sustainability gains it offers become more commonly known – and are eventually integrated into campaigns of comparable size and scope to the #metoo movement? From a sustainability student’s perspective, that future looks very bright for all of us –  for feminism especially.

I have spent over a year working for the ANU Men’s Network – trying to create a community where issues like feminism could be discussed. And I can tell you that for some men, including those we share a campus with, feminism is a hard sell. Listing the myriad reasons for this goes beyond the scope of this article, but one prominent challenge lies in helping men recognise the value of feminism to them – that it’s a liberating, and not oppressing, force. Hawken’s findings suggest a way out of this seemingly intractable debate.

Making feminism unassailable

With this data now present to bolster decades-long arguments about the benefits of empowering women, it seems to me that feminism has a golden opportunity to further increase the strength of its position, and to demonstrate its relevance and benefit to all. It can do this by embracing the truly enormous role feminist causes can play in the realm of sustainability. If we can unite under that banner and create a movement like #metoo, we could make a genuinely massive impact in reversing global warming. Indeed, Hawken noted that the combined effects of achieving solutions #6 and #7 would outweigh that of #1. Who could argue against such a thing?

Of course, in many ways these campaigns and arguments already existed. Topics like sustainable development and international development have long argued for the sustainability gains of feminism. What’s needed is more action and amplification of that message. If we can continue to reframe feminism as a movement that will save our planet and our species, it becomes much harder for reticent men and other critics to dismiss its relevance, or to argue that only some of us benefit. When that framing is grounded on number-crunching and cold, numerical calculations, it becomes even harder to disregard.

As Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote way back in 1912: ‘You cannot lift the world at all. While half of it is kept so small.’ This is a long-running argument, and now we have access to some incredible new data to show just how relevant and important it is. So why not capitalise on that opportunity?

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