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Can we tackle climate change with social equity?


Lisa Hiwasaki

Program Leader, IDRC

Lowine Hill

Program Management Officer

Gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status, age, and physical ability all influence how individuals experience climate change and adapt to its impacts. For climate action to be effective, research must move beyond simply studying bio-physical risk factors or individual aspects of social vulnerability.

On International Women’s Day 2018, IDRC launched a new funding opportunity aimed at supporting greater social equity in climate action. We believe that sustainable climate action should be based on research to better understand the interrelated factors—climatic, environmental, social, cultural, economic, institutional, and political—aggravating the differentiated impacts of climate change. Over the course of a rigorous process reviewing and selecting projects for funding, we learned a great deal. Those lessons are shared here.

We believe more than ever that social equity is essential for effective climate action. In our pursuit of solutions to reduce gender inequality and improve resilience, we also organized a panel discussion on gender, power structures, and global change in February 2019. 

Beyond gender equality to social equity

Out of 499 proposals submitted for the funding call, over 90% focused solely on women and gender (although we also encouraged research tackling the wider issue of social equity). Gender is one of many factors influencing how individuals are impacted by and adapt to climate change: age, ethnicity, marital status, household composition, education level, and class are also important determinants of a person’s vulnerability and capacity to adapt.  Understanding the intersection and interplay of these and other, external factors—including market forces, urbanization, globalization, and technological change—is necessary to address the root causes of climate vulnerability (CARIAA 2018). 

From participation to knowledge co-creation

More than 60% of submitted proposals used participatory methods, and participation of women—whether as informants in research or as beneficiaries of training or capacity building—constituted an important component. Participation alone, however, is often not enough; rather, participatory action research—which involves the participation of the community in planning, vision setting, and the identification of needs and priorities, the recognition of multiple voices and power relations within communities, and feedback of research results to participants—is necessary to ensure demand-driven research which can lead to social transformation (Apgar and Douthwaite 2013). We did observe several projects which proposed knowledge co-creation as a key research component, for example, integrating local knowledge with science, and including conversations between different community groups to validate research results. We believe such research projects have a greater potential to improve the agency and adaptive capacities of the most vulnerable groups.

Challenging power structures for social transformation

The vast majority of the research projects we reviewed under the theme “climate and disaster resilience” proposed collecting data separately for men and women and using gender analysis tools to better understand the ways in which women are more vulnerable than men. However, it is necessary to move away from depicting women and other vulnerable groups simply as weak and powerless victims of discrimination and climate change. Rather, the focus should be on gender / social relations negotiated at the household level, as well as structural power relations at community and state levels (panel discussion 2019). 

Research in climate hot spots across Africa and Asia showed that an individual’s capacity to adapt to climate change is influenced by conditions such as access to resources, existing social capital, and working conditions, all of which can contribute to limiting or enhancing their agency. When a person has agency, she can take advantage of new opportunities, such as moving into traditionally “male” roles, diversifying livelihoods, or developing entrepreneurial skills. The changes required for enhanced climate resilience need to be supported by enabling environments, recognizing women as leaders with increased decision-making authority, creating formal and informal institutions to codify these roles, and redistributing labour (CARIAA 2018, CCP 2018). We believe that social transformation can take place through research that helps us better understand—and thus challenge—existing power structures at different levels, and then engages men and others in power to change these structures. There is evidence of such transformations taking place around the world.

Social equity for effective climate action

By June 2019, six projects will have been launched, and we expect to announce these projects officially at the Women Deliver conference in Vancouver.  Four of the projects address climate and disaster resilience, while the remaining two explore migration as a climate adaptation strategy. At the same time, we have recently launched an initiative to support these six projects’ goal to advance gender equality and social equity. Through such support, our intention is to share the learning on implementing gender-transformative research while increasing our internal capacity to more effectively manage and support socially transformative research.

We believe that these efforts will collectively enhance the effectiveness of IDRC’s climate adaptation research programming to reduce social inequality, strengthen climate resilience, and enhance the livelihoods of the most vulnerable and marginalized communities in the Global South.  We believe we can tackle climate change through socially equitable climate action that empowers women, men, girls, and boys to increase their agency and their resilience, and thus become positive agents of transformation. IDRC will continue to build the evidence base for this by promoting intersectional and transdisciplinary research that challenges and transforms existing power structures at all levels.