Excerpted From: Becky Jacobs, Suffering in Search of a Methodological Frame: Interdisciplinarity in the Context of the Gendered Impact of Climate Migration, 48 William and Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review 135 (Fall, 2023) (79 Footnotes) (Full Document)

BeckyJacobsAs part of an interdisciplinary collaborative in which I participate, I was tasked with centering my chosen research topic, the gendered impact of climate migration, within the methodological frame of scholars such as geographers Sylvia Wynter and Doreen Massey, historian Achille Mbembe, philosopher Gilles Deleuze, philosopher and psychoanalyst Félix Guattari, and anthropologist Tim Ingold. At first blush, this might appear to be just the type of pointy-headed exercise in which out-of-touch scholars engage endlessly, but I would argue that this approach offers several benefits. First, interdisciplinarity obviously creates a broader perspective from which to consider, in this case, the relationship between climate displacement; marginalized populations, particularly women and girls in developing countries; the lack of access to basic resources and services; and an increased vulnerability to violence and other negative impacts. There is a pragmatic dimension to this approach, too, which, given the absence of laws--or the slow response of existing law--to effectively respond to the suffering of women, children, and other marginalized populations in the wake of increasingly frequent and severe climate-related disasters (such as extreme droughts, hurricanes, cyclones, floods, and storms), leads to improved communications among those working on the issue and, ultimately, to innovative partnerships, projects, or solutions. Any effort that has the potential to mitigate gendered vulnerability to climate events is one worth undertaking.


To provide context for the theorizing that follows, let me briefly share some data on gender-specific risks related to climate displacement. Generally, climate change exacerbates existing gender-related inequalities. When climate-related disasters occur, women and children are up to fourteen times more likely than men to be killed. f they manage to survive the event itself, women are at greater risk in the aftermath as a consequence of socio-cultural norms as well. Often unable to leave their homes while male household members migrate in search of better economic opportunities, women endure poor health outcomes; increases in paid and unpaid workloads; food, legal, and resource insecurity; and decreases in educational, economic, and other resource opportunities.

Those women and children driven to relocate due to climate events, or from the precarious or hazardous conditions caused thereby, are also disproportionately more vulnerable to negative outcomes than their male counterparts, despite near equal displacement rates. More than fifty percent of the forty-one million internally displaced due to a climate event in 2018 were women. Lacking legal status and access to resources and power and often responsible for the care of others, women are at particular risk during their migration for a variety of perils throughout their journeys, including increased incidence of mental health crises, physical injuries, and water-related diseases; exacerbation of the underlying disease; risk of domestic and community violence, including physical and sexual assault, female genital mutilation and cutting; kidnapping, trafficking, exploitation, forced marriage, and pregnancy.

There is somewhat of a legal architecture to respond to climate change on an international level, including the 1992 U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (“UNFCCC”), the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the 2007 Bali Action Plan, and the 2015 Paris Agreement. For example, the 2015 Paris Agreement contains language pertaining to the need for “gender equality, empowerment of women,” and “gender-responsive” action on climate change adaptation and capacity building. Although none of these agreements directly mandate action on climate-related gender vulnerabilities, the text that was agreed at the Seventh Conference of the Parties in 2002 did include “gender equality.” Further, in 2014, the Parties adopted the Lima Work Programme on Gender, one goal of which was to “promote gender sensitivity in developing and implementing climate policy.” The enhanced December 2019 Lima Work Programme set forth objectives designed to strengthen gender-responsive action and mainstreaming in the implementation of the UNFCCC.

Although gender-specific risks are recognized in these international agreements, their language on the issue is hortatory, lacking concrete incentives for action. Similarly, while the national Parties to the Framework Convention reportedly have adopted over 100 decisions with gender-related mandates, a lack of demonstrable improvements in the lived experiences of the target populations suggest that more needs to be done.

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As Doreen Massey once noted: “The description, definition and identification of a place is thus always inevitably an intervention not only into geography but also, at least implicitly, into the (re)telling of the historical constitution of the present. It is another move in the continuing struggle over the delineation and characterisation of space-time.” The historical constitution of our present, of our societal and legal responses to the climate crisis and the human suffering that it has wrought, will inevitably be judged by future generations--should there be future generations left to judge. However, law alone cannot resolve this emergency. Other disciplines are contributing to, and must continue to be enlisted in, finding solutions.

My effort to force specific methodological constructs onto one particular topic clearly has not solved the problem of the gender-based violence and other negative impacts to which women and children are exposed during climate migration. However, the theories posited by Sylvia Wynter, Achille Mbembe, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Doreen Massey, and Tim Ingold offer new insights into the socio-philosophical environments in which “legal” issues are examined and defined and law is made. The law is sometimes a blunt and very inadequate instrument for effecting genuine change when problems are rooted in intersectional systems of oppression and inequality. Even a well-crafted law may have little impact on embedded cultural influences and social power dynamics. Accordingly, analyses that acknowledge and incorporate relevant holistic and multisectoral theories might improve efforts to identify new, and strengthen existing, legal protections for those suffering in a very real, non-theoretical sense.

Waller Lansden Distinguished Professor of Law, University of Tennessee College of Law. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..