Time for Australian feminist climate diplomacy

This International Women’s Day we recognise the contribution of women and girls around the world, who are leading the charge on climate change adaptation, mitigation, and response, to build a more sustainable future for all. 

This is the critical decade for climate action and all foreign policy interventions will be judged against this global challenge. To meet this challenge, it is time for Australia to adopt the focus and techniques of feminist foreign policy.  It is well established that Australia’s reticence to act on climate change is undermining our diplomatic relationships, particular with our near neighbours in the Pacific. As a collective action problem, climate change requires nations to look beyond their own narrowly defined interests and seek collective global solutions.  

Feminist foreign policy provides a lens through which we can see climate action as a shared priority, a human security and human rights issue, and one which is central to Australia’s relationships with the region. Additionally, as a framework which emphasises the need for policy coherence between domestic and international issues, feminist foreign policy highlights the need for Australia to take domestic action on climate change in order to fulfil our international role. 

Critically, the impacts of climate change are gendered, and so the solutions must be informed by rigorous gender analysis. Feminist foreign policy, with its focus on understanding and transforming the systemic drivers of inequality and marginalization, can further our understanding of the historical contributions of nations to climate change and rebalance of the scales towards the most marginalized who face the greatest impacts

Climate Diplomacy for the Critical Decade

The latest IPPC Sixth Assessment Report on Impacts, Vulnerability and Adaptation (2022) has recognized this need for feminist climate diplomacy, stating that not only are the impacts of climate change heavily gendered, intersectional solutions that promote just and equitable mitigation and adaptation actions to support sustainable development can lessen climate risk: 

Structural vulnerabilities to climate change can be reduced through carefully designed and implemented legal, policy, and process interventions from the local to global that address inequities based on gender, ethnicity, disability, age, location and income (very high confidence). 

This includes rights-based approaches that focus on capacity-building, meaningful participation of the most vulnerable groups, and their access to key resources, including financing, to reduce risk and adapt (high confidence). 

Evidence shows that climate resilient development processes link scientific, Indigenous, local, practitioner and other forms of knowledge, and are more effective and sustainable because they are locally appropriate and lead to more legitimate, relevant and effective actions (high confidence). 

To date, Australian diplomacy has not fulfilled this brief. Instead, Australian foreign policy as expressed through the 2017 White Paper has relegated climate issues as just another risk to the region, low on the list. Our national plan takes a technology-driven, neoliberal market solutions approach in which gender is not mentioned once, not to mention other kinds of knowledge and approaches to climate change such as First Nations perspectives

This IWD we provide practical recommendations for short- and long-term goals for Australia’s climate action – including immediate priorities for COP27.

“Evidence shows that climate resilient development processes link scientific, Indigenous, local, practitioner and other forms of knowledge, and are more effective and sustainable because they are locally appropriate and lead to more legitimate, relevant and effective actions”

Storm and flooding in Fiji

Short and long-term priorities for feminist climate diplomacy

Australia’s short-term goal must be to take to a much more ambitious national climate action plan (NDC) and Long-Term Strategies to COP27 in November. The long-term goal must be to reorganise DFAT to enable it to tackle the centrality of climate change as a human security risk, acknowledging that current diplomatic methods might also need to adjust. Australia should prioritise working with our Pacific neighbours on climate diplomacy (see further IWDA recommendations here). 

To this end: 

  • We welcome the recent announcement that Australia has appointed a Gender Focal Point to UNFCCC and look forward to meetings with civil society and academics. We would like DFAT to support/endorse a track 2 dialogue that would create a ‘Feminist Climate Club’ alliance in Canberra and beyond. 
  • The Gender Focal Point position is also meant to ensure that Australia is adopting a gender-responsive approach in the design and implementation of Australia’s climate policy as per the UNFCC Gender Action Plan. Australia must lead by example and integrate gender into national climate policy in order to have credibility when integrating gender into Australian development funded climate projects. 
  • Australia should support gender-equal leadership on climate policy, including in delegations, negotiation teams, the nomination of lead authors for IPPC reports, and domestic climate policy.   
  • We welcome the pledge made by Australia at COP26 to provide an additional $500 million of climate finance targeting projects in the Indo-Pacific Region. All Australian climate investments should involve a methodology for ensuring a gender-sensitive approach. 
  • We urge DFAT to elevate climate diplomacy and resource the climate and gender teams to undertake this work, including the crucial issue of climate induced displacement in our region. 
  • We encourage the Foreign Minister to commission a new White Paper on Climate Diplomacy, and make a landmark speech in the leadup to COP27, with the meaningful participation of Pacific diaspora and First Nations peoples to create a genuine moment for dialogue. 
  • We call on DFAT to create a Climate Strategy that brings together policies and approaches across Gender, Women Peace and Security, Indigenous Peoples, Pacific and disaster risk reduction. 
  • We urge the Federal Government to bring back the Department of Climate Change to elevate domestic policy to add legitimacy to our international positions. 
  • We urge DFAT to support research linking scientific, Indigenous, and other forms of knowledge as priority for robust and diverse evidence-based policymaking on climate change.

COP27 gender recommendations (in line with the Women’s Environmental and Development Organisation (WEDO) recommendations for #FeministClimateJustice at the UN Commission on the Status of Women 66 in New York). 

  • Australia should work with partners in the region to champion the global effort to recognize and redress loss and damage from climate change, centering the most marginalized peoples and communities in addressing climate impacts, particularly women and girls; 
  • Commit to ending the sovereign debt crisis to ensure fiscal space for climate action and gender equality; 
  • Cast a critical, intersectional, feminist lens over climate solutions, particularly the emphasis on net zero and nature-based solutions in the climate and biodiversity arenas. For example, technology alone will not solve the climate crisis and Australia must reject false solutions that justify the operation of technologies that are not compatible with ensuring a 1.5-degree future. Australia must commit genuinely to emissions reduction across all sectors and take action to support renewable energy, and address deforestation rates across the country. 
  • Advance a just and equitable energy transition, shifting from a fossil-fuel based economy to a low-carbon and renewable energy system that upholds women’s human rights and advances social and environmental justice; and,
  • Fulfill historical obligations to provide gender-just climate finance that is predictable, adequate, transparent, accountable, accessible and in the form of grants rather than loans. 
  • Focus Australian diplomatic efforts on building political support for the Gender Action Plan at COP27, in order to promote feminist climate justice at the global level;
  • Ensure the Australian Health Impact Assessment pays greater attention to gender issues and intersectional impacts, in line with WHO recommendations. 

Australia has a real opportunity to lead the world in feminist climate justice. There has never been a more critical moment to start.

Professor Susan Harris Rimmer, Climate Justice Lead, Griffith Climate Action Beacon.  Susan is part of the Australian Feminist Foreign Policy Coalition and is collaborating with Esther Onyago, Rowena Maguire and Bridget Lewis from QUT and Maria Tanyag from ANU on feminist climate research and this piece represents a collective position.


Professor Susan Harris Rimmer

Professor Susan Harris Rimmer is the Director of the Griffith University Policy Innovation Hub. She was previously the Deputy Head of School (Research) in the Griffith Law School and prior to joining Griffith was the Director of Studies at the ANU Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy.

With Professor Sara Davies, Susan is co-convenor of the Griffith Gender Equality Research Network. Sue also leads the Climate Justice theme of the new Griffith Climate Action Beacon.

Susan is the 2021 winner of the Fulbright Scholarship in Australian-United States Alliance Studies and will be hosted by Georgetown University in Washington DC.

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