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Story Publication logo October 7, 2022

An Inequitable Truth: Gender and Its Inseparable Link to Climate Change


cars in intersection

On its surface, a campaign to make Berlin’s downtown car-free seems purely environmental. Yet, this...


I’m aware that the connection between gender, transportation, and environment is not necessarily intuitive. As someone who researches issues in gender studies, I’m used to easily finding a gendered lens to any topic. The idea of gendered mobility wasn’t on my radar until I stumbled upon a startling statistic that around the world: Two thirds of women use public transportation as their primary mode of travel whereas 2/3 of men use a car as their preferred mode.

In the fight to keep Berlin "green," public transport serves as a battleground. Image by Laura Goodfield. Germany, 2022.

After looking more closely into Berlin and Germany at large, I found similarly surprising statistics surrounding the correlation between gender and mode of transportation. In Germany, only a third of cars are owned by women. Despite Germany’s effort to position itself as a beacon of gender equality, stark disparities still exist in the transport sector. This disparity is further contextualized by the power of Germany’s auto industry lobby. Their leverage on the transportation sector slows popular initiatives—for example, the push to impose a more climate-conscious speed limit on Germany’s infamous Autobahn.

With limited progress, a slow bureaucracy, and sometimes industry’s outright refusal to take reasonable and necessary climate action, the consumer and citizen increasingly bear the burden to take personal action. It is no coincidence that women around the world bear the brunt of this burden. Climate anxiety, as defined by the American Psychological Association, is “a chronic fear of environmental doom.” This phenomenon is experienced at higher rates by women and children. Some studies have found that increased levels of anxiety are positively correlated with the likelihood of taking personal action against climate change. This can be through something as simple as switching to a reusable cleaning cloth, exchanging an oil engine for an electric one, or even choosing to pursue a career in climate activism. Yet, the scale that balances both personal and structural changes is quite delicate: How can we expect industry to change without changing ourselves? How can someone personally make a sizable impact in the face of only 90 companies responsible for 2/3 of global greenhouse gas emissions?

Perhaps there is no one "right" answer in the debate over structural and personal. I spoke with a lifelong Berlin resident, Alina, who lives within the inner S-Bahn ring that could potentially become car-free. While she supports the initiative, she also realizes the irony in the necessity of using cars to access other sustainable lifestyle choices, such as local produce "green boxes": “This organic farm sends us produce once a week. Which of course is a great service, it greatly improves our lives, we think we’re doing a good thing because we’re supporting this organic farm in Brandenburg but of course, the only way they can bring it to us is by driving, you know, and so I sometimes also think you know of course… we don't use a car and I'm all in favor of reducing traffic but on the other hand… someone drives to Berlin once a week and brings us our produce.”

Sustainability isn’t just defined as choices that allow our atmosphere to thrive; we must consider the well-being of all life systems. Yet in the context of a climate crisis, there likely must be some element of self-sacrifice on the side of human consumption.

Across the world, young female activists have driven the climate movement, speaking out against the dangers and consequences of climate change. Women like Greta Thunberg, Daphne Frias, and Vanessa Nakate are fighting for not only their future but the rest of the world’s future. The rest of us must prepare ourselves for the unthinkable, or quite literally the unlivable. What if they are not successful? What if we run out of time? What if their demands are not met? What if their voices are not taken seriously?

Unfortunately, we know and have witnessed the initial consequences of climate change: women suffer. Not just the women who dare speak in defiance of industry or in defiance of their governments, but also the women thousands of kilometers away whose stories are not necessarily recognized on conference panels. Out of the 1.3 billion people who live in poverty, 70% of those are women. In low-middle income countries, women in poverty are dependent on natural resources, resources that could be completely destroyed due to climate change. Rising temperatures, rising sea levels, and the immeasurable pileup of trash on land and in our oceans are undoubtedly caused by the unbridled consumption and industry in high-income countries like Germany and the U.S. Maybe not every woman who chooses to take the U-Bahn is consciously making the connection that our daily actions and the structural policies that contextualize our actions are making life worse for someone else, somewhere else.

Even though the intention behind my research into gendered mobility and sustainability was to further examine the relationship between the two on the city level, I’ve learned that it is difficult to understand gender and climate change without a macro view. Additionally, it is increasingly impossible to evaluate the power dynamics of those emitting more than their share and those who are affected most by environmental ruin without talking about gender, race, and class.

Whether you choose to take public transportation or organize a protest on the steps of the Capitol, any effort for community and global preservation is a step towards lessening gender inequity.