April 22, 2021

By Aline Coutinho


On this Earth Day, many conversations will focus on the importance of protecting the environment while also achieving environmental justice and gender equality. But it hasn't always been this way. As a matter of fact, concerns about gender equality and women’s participation in climate policy decision-making have only recently been incorporated into international law and climate policy design[1]. Today marks an ideal moment to look at a brief history of environmentalism, and explore how climate policy has become increasingly gender-responsive.


The first Earth Day in context: A (very) brief history of environmentalism

Broadly speaking, environmentalism refers to shared concerns for the environment as well as to social movements and advocacy efforts to manage the interaction between humans and the environment, and limit negative human impact on the Earth and its ecosystems[2].

Throughout the nineteenth century, environmental concerns were primarily raised by celebrities and within elite circles. They spoke out against the advancement of industrialization and colonial pioneers' resource extraction practices. These groups advocated for preserving nature as pristine spaces, inspired by Romantic “back to nature” ideals[3].

At the beginning of the twentieth century, technocratic conservationist efforts rose to prominence, led primarily by governments. These included the introduction of resource and wildlife management strategies and policies, as well as the development of national and provincial parks, mostly as a reaction to the possibility of wildlife and ecosystem collapse similar to what happened to the bison population[4].

New forms of environmentalism emerged in the 1960s, characterized by an increasing sense of urgency to protect the environment. During this time, significant environmental concern was advanced in the general public. Public awareness also increased around issues associated with air and water pollution, hazardous waste, and the use of industrial chemicals and pesticides. It was also recognized that these environmental problems transcend national boundaries, and that technological advancements and industrial processes may also disrupt ecosystems and the environment. Several historians agree that it was the work of a woman, Rachel Carson, that ignited this third wave of environmentalism (cf., Young, 2015: 44). In her best-selling book, Silent Spring, Carson warned about the negative effects of chemical products such as pesticides on the environment. Meanwhile, peace and environmental movements of the time started to draw attention to nuclear weapons testing and its impact on the natural world and on human health.

It was in this context that the first Earth Day took place in 1970. On April 22 of that year, approximately 22 million people across the United States protested against the negative impacts of human activities on the environment. The attention brought to environmental degradation by the Earth Day protests led to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency. In the following year, Environment Canada (currently Environment and Climate Change Canada) was created.


The rise of environmental justice

In the 1980s, environmental movements started to recognize the call for environmental justice, the acknowledgment that environmental degradation and socioeconomic inequalities are inextricably linked. Increasingly, evidence echoed what many people had experienced - the disproportionate risks of environmental degradation faced by women, racialized, and low-income individuals. Awareness was raised around environmental racism, including in Canada.

This bottom-up attention to environmental justice demanded public policy be based on mutual respect and justice for all peoples. Calls for the ethical, balanced use of land and resources, as well as disposal of waste became a part of the discourse on sustainability. Environmental justice movements also started to demand equal participation and representation at every level of decision-making[5]. Despite these developments, environmentalism remained mostly a white, middle-class movement.

In 1990, Earth Day mobilized around 200 million people around the globe, raising global awareness of environmental issues. Shortly after, in 1992, the Earth Summit was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. This was a global conference bringing together an unprecedented number of civil society organizations and government representatives to discuss a global agenda to address environmental degradation. Perhaps the biggest legacy of the 1992 Earth Summit was the creation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which paved the way to the Kyoto Protocol.

The Kyoto Protocol was the first international agreement negotiated between “developed” and “developing” countries[6] to limit or reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Under the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities”[7], the Kyoto Protocol sought to bind high-income countries responsible for emitting GHG emissions. But it was unsuccessful in securing the commitment of large emitters such as the United States. Issues of equity and justice mainly referred to international or regional inequalities and responsibility. For instance, the Kyoto Protocol famously led to the establishment of flexible market mechanisms such as cap-and-trade, but no consideration was given to indirect gender and social implications of a carbon market. Indeed, climate change law and policy remained focused on technological solutions, overlooking social solutions and outcomes that are increasingly a concern of environmental social movements.


The Paris Agreement, a game changer that still leaves work to be done

The Paris Agreement represents a new era of climate action. It is the first internationally binding treaty to bring countries together to engage in meaningful climate action, from undertaking efforts to reduce emissions to implementing adaptive measures. The Paris Agreement, signed on Earth Day, 22 April 2016, allowed each country to set their own commitment to fight climate change through nationally determined contributions, providing a more context-sensitive approach to tackling climate change.

Prior to the Paris Agreement, international law largely overlooked gender and other social considerations in climate policy, even though women play a critical role both as leaders of grassroots environmental movements, and in the management, conservation, and use of natural resources. As climate-induced natural disasters increased, so too did the interest in climate adaptation, in addition to mitigation. Similarly, the vulnerability of women in the face of climate change became a primary concern. Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, women and gender-focused groups had a larger presence at the conference meetings that led to the creation of the Paris Agreement. Since then, international organizations such as the United Nations Climate Change have been calling for gender mainstreaming[8] in national climate actions. However, although fairness and equity considerations became front and center of international climate change law and adaptation policy, women still remain underrepresented in decision-making and leadership positions of policy circles that address climate change[9].

We have come a long way in including gender considerations in climate policy. However, much work remains to be done, especially in engaging the expertise and voices of women. On this Earth Day, Smart Prosperity Institute recommits to advancing research and policy recommendations that take gender implications into consideration. We also urge governments and international non-governmental organizations to commit to including women in all stages of climate and environmental policy design and implementation. As Geraldine Terry once argued, there is “no climate justice without gender justice”[10].


[1] Terry, G. (2009). No climate justice without gender justice: An overview of the issues. Gender and Development, 17(1), 5-18. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27809203

[2] Davies, A. R. (2020). Environmentalism. In A. Kobayashi (Ed.), International Encyclopedia of Human Geography (Second Edition) (pp. 259–264). Elsevier. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-08-102295-5.10791-7

[3] Young, N. (2015). Environmentalism and Its Opponent. In Environmental Sociology for the Twenty-First Century (pp. 38–57). Oxford University Press.

[4] Idem.

[5] Ramirez-Andreotta, M. (2019). Chapter 31—Environmental Justice. In M. L. Brusseau, I. L. Pepper, & C. P. Gerba (Eds.), Environmental and Pollution Science (Third Edition) (pp. 573–583). Academic Press. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-814719-1.00031-8

[6] Disclaimer: The terminology “ developed” and “developing countries” was widely used at the time of the development and ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, in the 1990s. In tandem with other organizations, such as the World Bank, Smart Prosperity Institute is reflecting on the use of this terminology. For the remainder of this piece, we will prioritize the categories of high-income/low-income countries.

[7] Wang, T., & Gao, X. (2018). Reflection and operationalization of the common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities principle in the transparency framework under the international climate change regime. Advances in Climate Change Research, 9(4), 253–263. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.accre.2018.12.004

[8] Gender mainstreaming refers to the systematic and ongoing consideration of gendered implications of governmental actions, programs and policies.

[9] Mitchell, T. (2017). Women in Paris: The Inclusion of Gender Considerations in the Negotiation and Text of the Paris Agreement. New Zealand Women's Law Journal, 1, 113-141.

[10] Terry, G. (2009). No climate justice without gender justice: An overview of the issues. Gender and Development, 17(1), 5–18.