War, Autocrats and Fossil Fuels – Women on the Front Line
By Farhana Haque Rahman
Delegates Michelle Cook, LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, Tara Houska and Jackie Fielder in Germany in 2017, calling for banks to withdraw funding from fossil fuels. Image source: Link
For decades women’s demands for political and economic inclusion have placed them centre-stage in mass struggles against dictatorships across the world. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its indiscriminate attacks on civilians now put women’s movements firmly on the front line of war, autocrats and fossil fuels.
War is an extreme example but authoritarian and patriarchal regimes – not just in Russia, but also China, Turkey, Egypt and most recently Afghanistan among others – are rolling back hard won progress on women’s rights and democracy.
As Erica Chenoweth and Zoe Marks powerfully illustrate in their essay, Revenge of the Patriarchs – Why Autocrats Fear Women, this patriarchal backlash is also playing out in “illiberal democracies headed by aspiring strongmen”, such as Brazil, Hungary, Poland, India, the Philippines and even the United States under former president Donald Trump and still in some Republican-controlled states.
“Aspiring autocrats and patriarchal authoritarians have good reason to fear women’s political participation: when women participate in mass movements, those movements are both more likely to succeed and more likely to lead to more egalitarian democracy.”
Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who has basked in a hyper-masculine strongman image perhaps only outdone by Trump’s casual misogyny, has raged against Russia’s falling population and seen the answer in eroding women’s reproductive rights. Dealing women’s rights a further blow, domestic violence was decriminalised in Russia in 2017. Russian propaganda in Ukraine for years has also sought to erode the position of women in society, relegating them to “traditional” roles.
Just as women are resisting this patriarchal backlash, and literally taking up arms in Ukraine, so too they are on the frontline of the climate crisis, as recognised by the theme this year for International Women’s Day on March 8: “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow.”
In the words of UN Women, a UN entity dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women which is also active in the Ukraine crisis: “Advancing gender equality in the context of the climate crisis and disaster risk reduction is one of the greatest global challenges of the 21st century…Those who are amongst the most vulnerable and marginalized experience the deepest impacts. Women are increasingly being recognized as more vulnerable to climate change impacts than men, as they constitute the majority of the world’s poor and are more dependent on the natural resources which climate change threatens the most.”
But women and girls are also protagonists, active as effective and powerful leaders and change-makers for climate adaptation and mitigation. “Without gender equality today, a sustainable future, and an equal future, remains beyond our reach.”
Which brings us back to tyranny and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
This is not a war for resources but it is about oil and gas, which Putin has weaponised to advance his expansionist goals. Europe is dependent on Russia for 40 percent of its natural gas supplies. Global gas prices, already rising because of the post-pandemic economic rebound, were driven further by Russia tightening supplies to Europe ahead of the invasion. Russia can also soften the blow of western economic sanctions with sales of gas to China.
Put simply, the more demand there is for oil and gas, the more money there is for Putin, which explains why countries like Russia and Saudi Arabia – waging war in Yemen with western support – are far from enthusiastic about combatting climate change. Russia’s gas industry is also a major emitter of methane, a highly dangerous global warming gas.
“As current events make all too clear, our continued reliance on fossil fuels makes the global economy and energy security vulnerable to geopolitical shocks and crises,” UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres declared on February 28.
Guterres was responding to the release of the devastating climate crisis report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which he described as “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership”.
“This abdication of leadership is criminal. The world’s biggest polluters are guilty of arson of our only home,” he added. “Fossil fuels are a dead end – for our planet, for humanity, and yes, for economies.”
All these elements were illustrated in dramatic fashion last week in a virtual meeting of IPCC scientists and government representatives to approve the report.
Oleg Anisimov, a Russian scientist, was reported as apologising “on behalf of all Russians who were not able to prevent this conflict”. The attack on Ukraine had no justification, he said.
Ukrainian scientist Svitlana Krakovska, speaking from Kyiv, had to cut short her participation in discussions because of the invasion but was reported as telling her colleagues:
“Someone could question us that IPCC is not a political body, and should only assess science related to climate change. Let me assure you that this human-induced climate change and war against Ukraine have direct connections and the same roots. They are fossil fuels and humanity’s dependence on them.”
Krakovska, who later expressed her concern for the safety of her Russian colleague, said while greenhouse gas emissions were impacting the planet, the easy use of coal, oil and gas had changed the balance of power in the human world. “We cannot change laws of the physical world but it is our responsibility to change laws of human civilization towards a climate resilient future.”
Osprey Orielle Lake, leader of the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN), has echoed those words in her response to the IPCC report:
“From countries around the world, we must listen to frontline and Indigenous women leaders and their communities, who are not only experiencing the worst impacts of climate change right now, but who also carry knowledge and expertise necessary for real climate action, solutions and adaptation grounded in justice, human and Indigenous rights, and the protection of vital biodiverse regions.”
Indigenous, Black and Brown women and women from the Global South bear a heavier burden from the impacts of climate change. We stand in solidarity with all women who, like Krakovska in Ukraine, stand on these frontlines.
Farhana Haque Rahman is Senior Vice President of IPS Inter Press Service and Executive Director IPS Noram; she served as the elected Director General of IPS from 2015-2019. A journalist and communications expert, she is a former senior official of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the International Fund for Agricultural Development.
This post first appeared on IPS News.