Barack Obama had his final conversation as U.S. president with German Chancellor Angela Merkel sometime after the U.S. election in November 2016. In the book he published two years later, Obama’s close adviser Ben Rhodes reveals something of the content of that conversation. Merkel related that she had considered resigning as chancellor already then, in 2016, when her third term ended, but after Donald Trump was elected, she was pressured not to leave the world bereft of her leadership.
So she agreed to run for another term, during which two of the central challenges she would face were the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis. Indeed, in this term, her last, she led the European Union to formulate a recovery plan from the coronavirus crisis that would be environmentally friendly, a sort of new green deal for the Continent, and thus presented to the world a classic example of how to turn a crisis into an opportunity.
Perhaps it’s not by chance that Merkel is Europe’s unofficial leader on matters of climate. A 2003 study conducted by the Washington-based Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that women in their daily lives are more likely to make decisions that are ecologically more responsible and sustainable than men. The researchers’ conclusion was that “women’s higher levels of empathy, altruism, and personal responsibility make them more interested in environmentalism as a way to protect not only themselves and their families, but also others.” In light of the vast environmental crisis, it would be logical to have more women in key positions.
In Israel, the situation has improved slightly with the appointment of a quartet of women to head ministries that deal with the environment: Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg, Energy Minister Karine Elharrar, Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli, and Economy and Industry Minister Orna Barbivai. The improvement is already palpable, as a foreign diplomat in Israel who deals with the issue of the environment noted to me not long ago. Since the inauguration of the new government, she said, acknowledgment of the climate crisis has progressed by leaps and bounds, and at long last there is someone to talk to seriously about the subject. There is not necessarily a direct link between the ministers’ gender and their seriousness vis-à-vis the climate crisis, but it’s clear that the agenda of these four offices bears more feminine characteristics than before.
Women’s leadership is not only forward-looking; it is also a necessary correction of environmental injustice. The existence of that injustice can be gleaned from a study published last July in Sweden. The researchers set out to examine patterns of consumption by the country’s citizens, in order to discover how greenhouse gas emissions might be curtailed. But without intending to, they came up with far more interesting results as well: The study found that men’s consumption habits cause 16 percent more fossil-fuel emissions on average, per capita, than those of women, even though the two genders spend similar amounts of money as consumers.
The largest disparity was in outlays for fuel and meat consumption – which together accounted for 70 percent of the men’s expenditures. Not only are these two industries geared primarily to men, as the study indicates, but they are also managed primarily by men (as a glance at the list of owners and managers of the major energy and meat-production corporations in the world show). These men stubbornly maintain the industries and make high profits for themselves, while actively making efforts to block regulation that would curtail their polluting activities.
In Israel, too, the percentage of women’s ownership of private automobiles is lower than that of men, as the local organization Transport Today & Tomorrow found. Studies in different countries have revealed that in one-car families, it’s the men who are the primary users of the vehicle, in order to get to work, whereas the women usually use public transportation or walk. Although women use private cars less, they suffer more from the pollution that cars cause, because they spend more time in the public space.
The inequality does not end there. United Nations reports have shown that when natural disasters (or epidemics) occur, violence against women increases, more women are fired from their jobs than men and the task of looking after the children – which is heightened in these situations – devolves on them even more than usual.
Grasping this, the United Nations decided that every climate-related charter of the world organization must address women and the greater effects of global warming on them as a separate issue. This development was spearheaded by Christiana Figueres, who was executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, in 2010. Figueres was appointed to that position six months after the international community failed to reach an agreement at the 2009 Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. With tremendous effort, and with a negotiating team comprised largely of women, the charismatic Figueres succeeded in leading all the world’s countries to sign the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Earlier this year British sociologist and journalist Anne Karpf published a book titled “How Women Can Save the Planet.” Coping with the climate crisis is not only a question of reducing emissions, she writes. It is in fact an issue that touches on the most basic question of how we want to live. In her view, the crisis is bound up with the feminist struggle – the wrongs emanate from the same human foundation, and the solution will stem from what can be termed feminine thought. The key to change is a slower way of life that embraces downsizing, which is more suited to families and communities and less to the careerist rat race that is identified above all with masculinity. According to Karpf, we must also change the character of our relationship with nature, so that we will act alongside the environment and not seek to control it.
The similarity between correcting our approach to the environment and the correction that is needed also in the relations between the genders is not coincidental. And focusing on the connection between feminism and climate will ultimately produce a dual solution, Karpf argues: both a reduction of gender disparities and a decrease in global warming. That becomes clear when we look at the list of the world’s richest people. Among the 80 wealthiest individuals on the planet in 2021, 72 are men and just 8 women. In fact, generally speaking, most of the world’s poor are women.
The numbers show that the top 1 percent creates twice as many greenhouse emissions as the poorest bottom half (50 percent) of the world’s population. Therefore, actions such as raising taxes for the rich in order to limit the wealth of such a small minority will increase the income and the wellbeing of the majority. This will lead to better economic equality between men and women and will be helpful in terms of the environment. If you’re going to set out a manifesto for a radically better future, Karpf writes, you might as well make it comprehensive, visionary and a white male climate-denier’s nightmare.