Hypatia – Petra Tschakert Interview


C. Shaheen Moosa: Tell us about yourself.


Petra Tschakert: My name is Petra Tschakert, I’m an associate professor at Penn State University. I’m in the Department of Geography, but I’m also associated with the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute. And on top of that, I have a research affiliate position with a climate change research unit in Norway, called CICERO. And I have been heavily involved in the Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC Working Group II, which looks at impact, vulnerability, and adaptation. And I’ve been working on a chapter—a new chapter—in Working Group II: Chapter 13 that looks at livelihoods and poverty.


CSM: Why do we need to be attentive to gender when thinking about climate change?


PT: It is really important to look at gender as well as other dimensions of identity and inequality in the context of climate change, and that is for a couple of reasons. The newest IPCC report tells us, quite convincingly, that climate change impacts and risk to climate change are very much related to vulnerabilities that exist in societies. Now, these vulnerabilities are very much a function of how marginalized or how privileged people are within society, and so the more privileged they are the more options they have, the more capacities they have to prepare for changes, to prepare for extreme events. And the more marginalized they are, the less options they have. Now, what we have found consistently throughout the literature is that gender plays a role in terms of inequalities. So the higher, more pronounced inequalities are within a society, the higher the likelihood that a certain group of people will be marginalized and, hence, will be more vulnerable, will have less opportunities to adapt. Now, gender is one of the various dimensions of inequality. Other dimensions are age, so we look quite a lot at young children and the elderly, but also race, ethnicity, in certain countries, caste, ability, disability. These are all dimensions of inequality and, of course, also identifiers, or signifiers, markers of identity, but we’ll look at these various drivers of inequality and dimensions of inequality to better understand vulnerability and risk.


Now, there has been quite a mushrooming of literature in the domain of gender and climate change. So, we have seen that over the last, yeah,10 years or so. Now what is important about this, of course, is that we pay attention to gender. However, there are two pitfalls that I think we have experienced while working through the massive amounts of literature, especially for this IPCC assessment. One is that very often gender is just reflected in the literature as women. So there is a tendency to only look at women or primarily look at women and the impacts of climate change. And the focus here is how women are differentially or more severely impacted by climate change. And it’s important, but, of course, it essentializes women. It portrays women, especially women in the global south, as poor and helpless. It portrays them as victims of climate change without having any voice, without having any knowledge, without having agency. And that is, of course, not true and, hence, problematic. And, of course, there’s the flip side of only looking at women, which in one way, of course, obscures and hides how men are differentially impacted or certain groups of men. So there’s very little research that has been done on climate change impact on men, especially men who are marginalized in society. What we do know from various extreme events, for example, Hurricane Mitch in Central America, is that men—actually, more men—died during the hurricane because they were expected to assume the heroic role of lifesavers. And many of them, of course, were not equipped to fulfill that role and died. So when we talk about gender, what I think we really mean is differential impacts on men and women and the roles men and women fulfill in society. And I think the second major problem with the very narrow focus on women is that this type of literature and the many, many case studies we see ignore that we are not just women, right? We are women with a certain age, with a certain background; myself being white, being privileged, being educated. So we cannot isolate the fact of being a woman or a man from other drivers or markers of identity and dimensions of inequality. And, in fact, very little research exists that looks at gender and class, or ethnicity, or caste, or age at the same time. And there’s certainly a major gap that we hope can be filled, soon.


CSM: Why do you think it is important for feminists (and/or feminist philosophers) to engage with the topic of climate change?


PT: It’s an interesting question to think about the role of feminists in debates on climate change. And I would say one doesn’t have to be a feminist to make a contribution to really, really important climate change debates, but what we do see is that feminist epistemologies can be really helpful to help us understand vulnerabilities and risks to climate change. And when I mean feminist methodologies, I don’t necessarily want to constrict it to a particular discipline, to a particular field. Feminist epistemologies are certainly used in philosophy, in critical theory. But I’m a geographer and we also use feminist philosophy… feminist epistemologies in addition to colleagues who work in philosophy. What that allows us to do is to understand how knowledge about climate change and climate change impacts is constructed: what counts as knowledge? what counts as evidence? and what type of knowledge may get left out, may fall through the cracks, or is maybe considered too difficult, too cumbersome to collect? And we see that quite clearly within the IPCC, in Working Group II, what counts as evidence for climate change impacts.


So these very sophisticated methods, however, don’t allow us to assess how people experience climate change. We call those embodied experiences—experiences that people feel on their very body—and, quite honestly, we don’t have good research yet that allows us to understand how people are psychologically, emotionally affected by climate change. What shifts in rainy seasons, extreme events, droughts, or floods mean, for example, to women who have to collect water, collect firewood, who may not be able to clean themselves when in kind of a post-hazard, post-disaster camp. These are all direct and indirect dimensions of climate change impacts that the very, very sophisticated, and nonetheless rooted in physical signs, assessments, what these methodologies don’t allow us to do. So feminist epistemologies open our eyes to a broad understanding of what counts as knowledge and how we can assess this type of knowledge at scales that range from, obviously, the international, global scale to the scale of the body, and I think that is a very, very important contribution. I think another contribution that feminist epistemologies allow us to make is a more sophisticated focus and a more sophisticated frame of analysis to understand what I mentioned earlier, these intersecting dimensions of inequality. There’s a term for that, we call it intersectionality. So how these different dimensions of inequality—along the axes of gender, race, ethnicity, age, caste, disability—how they intersect. I think paying attention to such intersecting dynamics is really something that feminist researchers or researchers who employ a feminist methodology can help us pursue.


CSM: How does your work—academic, policy-based, or activism—address the issues raised by climate change (within an interdisciplinary discussion)?


PT: My research has been really, really fascinating so far, and I’m absolutely delighted that I have a chance to do very ground-based fieldwork—ground-based fieldwork meaning with communities both in Africa and in Asia—on climate change experiences, on observations, but also on how we collectively—communities, researchers, NGOs, governmental officials—can prepare to be better equipped to face climate challenges and other challenges, how to be better prepared to face them in the future. So that is one really important work of my research, and I can expand on those in just a moment. The other one has been my experience with the IPCC as a coordinating lead author, as I said earlier, on a new chapter that deals with livelihoods and poverty. So it’s the first time Working Group II in the IPCC looks at impacts on poor people, in the broadest sense, and livelihoods. So very often, of course, when we think about poor people we think in terms of economic measures. Poor, thinking income poor. But, of course, there are a multitude of measures to describe who is poor. We call this multidimensional poverty: not having access to resources, not having access to educational services, being in poor health, all these components encapsulate poverty. So our task was to see whether or not climate change does have an impact on poverty, and, of course, it does, on many, many different levels. For example, it makes people who are poor in a transient way, throughout certain periods of the year, more likely to become chronic poor or chronically poor. And that is certainly something that had not been part of any IPCC assessment before. We, of course, also understand that the poor people don’t just live in poor countries. We now know that actually the most of the poor live in middle-income countries, including China, including India, but also Brazil, and it’s important to not forget that people who live in poverty, people who are marginalized, in countries that have progressed tremendously, have made tremendous economic progress, are nonetheless at risk and affected. And, of course, that also means people in the U.S., people in Europe, people in high-income countries who are marginalized are significantly experiencing the impacts of climate change. For example, the Chicago heat wave: turns out that most of the people who died were old, single, black men who were isolated within the society, who had nowhere to go, and, hence, suffered the consequences of this incredible heat wave. Very similar patterns in France during the heat wave. And, of course, the same pattern is visible when we think about cold spells, right? So who are the people in our society who are at risk, who are vulnerable? And I think this is what our chapter really does demonstrate quite convincingly.


My own work in the field has to do a lot with, not just assessing vulnerability—I think we are beyond the point of just assessing how vulnerable people are… My work really contributes to how we can enhance people’s adaptive capacity, what that means in terms of understanding change, environmental change, in the broadest sense, what people have observed and how we can complement their observations—their very empirical and ground-based knowledge—with the best science we have. For example, downscale climate projections and how we can, in a very culturally appropriate way, combine these two—we call this the co-production of knowledge—to  generate, we call those participatory scenarios, storylines of how the future could be in rural communities at the level of district… district level disaster risk managers. And by envisioning how the future could be, we are already in a better position to identify actions that we have to take today, decisions that we have to take, and understanding which possible decisions and actions may increase our vulnerability in the future. And doing that collectively is, I think, an incredibly important element of enhancing adaptive capacities.


CSM: What steps should be taken to address the issues raised by gender and climate change, immediately or long term?


PT: Important next steps in this entire understanding of climate change impacts and vulnerability, I can see them at two different levels. One is at the level of research, and the other one is at a very practical and also policy related level. So I think in terms of research, what I would be absolutely committed to pursue over the next couple of years is a better application of this fairly theoretical concept of intersectionality I mentioned before, right? How can we design better methodologies to assess how different constellations of inequalities interact? How they change over time, how they change in specific contexts, and what these intersecting dimensions mean for shifting vulnerabilities. I think this is really, really the key gap in the literature right now. So if we can move from these many, many, many and many good case studies on impacts of climate change on women to a better understanding of intersecting inequalities, then I think we have made a major step forward in understanding climate change vulnerability. And I think, from a scholarly perspective, that is exciting. It’s challenging, but I think this is where our efforts should go. On a more practical level, I think it is absolutely crucial to also contribute to training. I work a lot with research partners—for example in Ghana, in Assam, India—and we’re sharing the best insights we have and we’re sharing the best methodologies that help us not only to do and conduct research, but to enhance these adaptive capacities. So how can we do a better job facilitating capacity building on the ground with people who have been disadvantaged in their own societies, who have been marginalized. And I think there is a wealth of fantastic ideas and methods out there that range from participatory video, to games, to environmental theatre. So I think we can be really, really creative to facilitate this type of learning. I also think it is absolutely essential for us as researchers to reach out to people who work at the policy level. For instance, I work with disaster risk managers in Assam, north-eastern India, to better allow them to incorporate climate projections, to incorporate what we know from various dimensions of vulnerability in their five or ten year risk management plans. They have a mandate to do that, but very often they don’t have access to the best science and they don’t have access to various computing facilities, methodologies, that allow us to tease out the very, very detailed findings we have from the community level. So if we can do that and collaborate with disaster risk managers, whether that’s in India, in Assam, or here, I think we also make an incredibly important contribution that will allow us to be better prepared and equipped to deal with the challenges that are definitely ahead of us.


Transcribed by Bailey LePage.