How the Women, Peace and Security Agenda Must Change in Response to the Climate Crisis

Thursday, December 3, 2020 - 00:00

Originally published on the International Feminist Journal of Politics Blog.

Written by Carol Cohn and Claire Duncanson

The 20th anniversary of UNSCR 1325 in October this year has been an occasion of reflection for feminist peace activists around the world. What has been achieved? What is still to be done? Most agree that the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Agenda is far from meeting its goals of a gender-just sustainable peace. Despite many important interventions analyzing the reasons for lack of progress, here, here, here and here, few of the lamentations focus on what we think is one of the most profound challenges that will shape the realization of the WPS agenda in years to come: the climate crisis.

In our latest article in IFJP “Women, Peace and Security in a changing climate,” we argue that confronting the climate crisis must be understood as both practically and conceptually inextricable from the realization of the WPS agenda. If the goals of the WPS agenda are understood as ensuring women’s human security, ending and preventing wars, and building gender-just, sustainable peace, confronting the climate crisis must be foregrounded in our analyses and action.

How is the Climate Crisis Intrinsically Linked to WPS?

If it was the threat war posed to women’s human security that was at the heart of the WPS agenda, it is now clear that women’s human security – in fact all people’s – will never be attained unless we can also deal with the climate and ecological crises. The staggering impacts these crises will have and have already started to have on food security, livelihoods, health, access to water, and shelter, as well the displacement to which they contribute, make a mockery of the idea of human security. And as we know, all of these impacts have deeply gendered dimensions.  

Even for those who construe the WPS agenda as centered on narrower, traditional understandings of security and warfare, climate breakdown still needs to be confronted, because of the ways it amplifies the well-documented drivers of armed conflict such as poverty, inequalities and economic shocks. Climate change may not directly cause violent conflict, but evidence suggests that climactic conditions in combination and interaction with socio-economic and political factors can intensify it. When, for example, societies cannot fairly distribute resources which climate breakdown has rendered increasingly scarce, such as water, arable lands, and pasturing lands, conditions for violent conflict are ripe. And increased militarization is often the state response, which further entails its own violences.

And finally, when we look at the heart of the WPS agenda, the goal of building gender-just peace that is sustainable, we see that climate disruption creates severe challenges to the project of peacebuilding—so much so that it must transform our understanding of how to build peace. We need to consider not only climate breakdown’s impacts on peacebuilding, but also the ways each decision made as part of peacebuilding will have impacts on climate breakdown and citizens’ ability to cope with it.     

First, there are the many ways that climate breakdown undermines peacebuilding. Building peace requires the provision of jobs and livelihoods, at the same time as climate breakdown destroys the conditions for maintaining traditional livelihoods. Building peace requires addressing issues around land reform and restitution, at the very same time that climate breakdown reduces the quality and quantity of land available for sustaining livelihoods, and contributes to yet more people leaving their homes. Building peace requires dealing with the injuries caused by war as well as the health needs which went unaddressed during war, while climate breakdown puts additional pressure on health services through the rise in infectious diseases.

Second, as if climate breakdown’s effects on peacebuilding were not already enough of a challenge to how we imagine doing successful peacebuilding, WPS advocates will also need to consider the effects of peacebuilding on climate disruption, and on citizen’s resources to cope with it. For example, decisions about postwar economic recovery – e.g., about jobs and livelihoods, land reform, infrastructure – should not only consider the key peacebuilding question of whether they deepen or transform pre-existing inequalities (e.g., do transport infrastructure plans prioritize local level feeder roads, access to markets, healthcare and schools, or only main highways and railways to facilitate large scale resource extraction?). Now, these policy decisions must also be made in light of their effects on climate disruption and must assess whether the proposed solutions will be sustainable as the climate continues to change. 

In the somewhat longer term, the climate crisis not only necessitates a rethink of how to do peacebuilding; it also threatens the entire project of peacebuilding. The almost unimaginably increasing scale of humanitarian crises that will be caused by the climate crisis in the next decades will devastate economies, disrupt our already-unequal systems of meeting basic human needs, and subsume massive amounts of financial, governmental, physical and human resources. Consider the 2020 coronavirus pandemic – itself arguably a product of human’s ecosystem destruction—and the economic losses and social costs it has produced, and the scale of resources that have been required to respond to it. And then add the economic costs and human misery arising from more frequent and intense storms, fires, droughts, and coastal flooding, as well as the loss of arable land and the spread of other infectious diseases. Given the already tremendously inadequate resources and attention given to post-war humanitarian response, peace agreement implementation, and post-war reconstruction, is it realistic to think that the resources required for peacebuilding will not be subsumed by the humanitarian and economic disasters caused by deepening climate and ecological crises?

What’s wrong with current responses to the climate crisis?

When it comes to responses to the climate crisis, as with the quest to build peace, to the extent that women’s activities, knowledge, and solutions ever get acknowledged, it is their local, small scale efforts. While these efforts may at times be recognized, or even glorified in “sustainability savior” discourse, at a wider policy level they are not viewed as significant, not seen as relevant to the scale required to solve the problem – and they are then certainly never funded or invested in at a scale that would, in fact, have a larger impact. The strategy of supporting local, democratically controlled solutions could actually be seen as a large-scale strategy requiring large scale investment; but its associations with women and the “feminine,” along with the associations of centralized, technocratic solutions with the “masculine,” help make it appear ‘self-evident’ that the latter is the most “realistic” path.

In our article, we argue that to survive this climate emergency, we need nothing short of a paradigm shift: a feminist green transformation. In arguing for such a transformation, we are not just making another call for green economies, or green new deals, which are too often market-based approaches that involve the commodification and enclosure of resources and commons, undermining livelihoods, justifying land- and green-grabs and dispossessing local people, especially women food producers. Too often, their attention to gendered power relations and global justice issues is all but non-existent. Instead, we are calling for a restructuring of production, consumption and political–economic relations along truly sustainable pathways, with feminist analysis at the core.

What ways forward for WPS given the context of climate breakdown?

The WPS story – the invention of the WPS agenda, the creation of an architecture meant to actualize it, the fight to get it implemented, and the many inventive ways in which women around the world have found to employ it in their struggles – is in many ways a heroic one. It is also a painfully frustrating one, if you consider the quantities of time, thought, organization, and energy that have been poured into it, in contrast to how little progress there has been in changing the male-dominated war system and the terrible price that women pay for it, and how very far away we are from the goal of gender-just sustainable peace.

But what must be acknowledged, now more than ever, is that this effort has not only been heroic and frustrating, a story in which our goals can be reached if only we can better mobilize to vanquish those who would stand in the way of WPS progress; it is a story that has to change. It is an agenda that has to change, in part because it was, for complex political reasons, limited even in its own time, and in part because it is now utterly inadequate to the time and the crisis in which we live.  

Climate breakdown will multiply and intensify the problems that the WPS agenda aims to solve, it will severely deplete the already anemic resources available to deal with them, and it will rob us of the luxury of time to engage in working for small wins through bureaucratic business as usual. The twentieth anniversary of UNSCR 1325, then, must be seized as a vital opportunity – not only to reflect on the WPS agenda, but also on the ways in which it, and we, are uneasily situated in the current historical moment, and on the urgency of devising new approaches to the challenges to come. Imagine what could happen if even half of the feminist thought, energy, and action that has gone into WPS advocacy were now turned loose on envisioning and effecting the paradigm shifts that are now so desperately needed.

As we argue in our article, and elsewhere, we need to develop a feminist political economic analysis of the transnational actors and processes that threaten the sustainability of both peace and the planet. We need to map routes of intervention in those processes. And we need to articulate policy alternatives based in transformational approaches to our understanding of the nature and purposes of economic activity, and of humans’ relation to the planet. We have been calling this a “Feminist Roadmap for Sustainable Peace”. In this short time we have to envision, promulgate and enact the paradigm shift needed to reverse the current path to climate catastrophe, it is our hope and belief that the Feminist Roadmap for Sustainable Peace can make an important contribution.

Read the full article: Women, Peace and Security in a changing climate

Each blog post gives the views of the individual author(s) based on their published IFJP article. All posts published on remain the intellectual property and copyright of the author or authors.

carol jpg crop.jpg

Carol Cohn (she/her/hers) is the founding Director of the Consortium on Gender, Security & Human Rights. She works across scholarly, policy, and activist communities to create the multidimensional, feminist gendered analyses that are imperative to finding sustainable and just solutions – not only to wars, but to the structural inequalities and environmental crises that underlie them. Her scholarship has addressed topics such as the gender dimensions of nuclear and national security discourse, gender mainstreaming in international security institutions, gender integration issues in the US military, and the strengths and limitations of the international Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda, and she has published a textbook on Women and Wars (Polity Press). Her current focus is on bringing feminist political economic analysis into both the Sustaining Peace and the WPS agendas through a collaborative international knowledge-building project to create a “Feminist Roadmap for Sustainable Peace” . Recent work in that project includes “Whose Recovery? IFI Prescriptions for Postwar States” co-authored with Claire Duncanson, in the Review of International Political Economy. In honor of the US presidential election, she has published “‘Cocked and Loaded’: Trump and the Gendered Discourse of National Security,” in Language in the Trump Era: Scandals and Emergencies, edited by Janet McIntosh and Norma Mendoza-Denton (Cambridge University Press).


Claire Duncanson.jpg

Claire Duncanson (she/her/hers) is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Edinburgh. She has published widely on issues relating to gender, peace, and security. Her current work aims to bring a feminist analysis to the political economy of building peace, and she works with Carol Cohn on the “Feminist Roadmap for Sustainable Peace” project.

 Recent publications include Gender and Peacebuilding (Polity Press), “Beyond Liberal vs Liberating: Women’s Economic Empowerment in the United Nations’ Women, Peace and Security Agenda” in the International Feminist Journal of Politics, and (co-authored with Carol Cohn) “Whose Recovery? IFI Prescriptions for Post-War States” in the Review of International Political Economy. She is also an active member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and has co-authored with fellow WILPF member Vanessa Farr on the Women, Peace and Security agenda in Afghanistan for Sara Davies and Jacqui True’s Oxford Handbook on Women, Peace, and Security


© 2024 CONSORTIUM ON GENDER, SECURITY & HUMAN RIGHTSLEGAL STATEMENT All photographs used on this site, and any materials posted on it, are the property of their respective owners, and are used by permission. Photographs: The images used on the site may not be downloaded, used, or reproduced in any way without the permission of the owner of the image. Materials: Visitors to the site are welcome to peruse the materials posted for their own research or for educational purposes. These materials, whether the property of the Consortium or of another, may only be reproduced with the permission of the owner of the material. This website contains copyrighted materials. The Consortium believes that any use of copyrighted material on this site is both permissive and in accordance with the Fair Use doctrine of 17 U.S.C. § 107. If, however, you believe that your intellectual property rights have been violated, please contact the Consortium at