Re-arranging Deck Chairs on the Titanic? The UK Government and the WPS Agenda in a Time of Climate Crisis

Friday, October 21, 2022 - 00:00

Originally published on the LSE Women, Peace and Security blog.

By: Carol Cohn and Claire Duncanson

Carol Cohn and Claire Duncanson discuss strategic policy opportunities to boost the UK Government WPS agenda in climate justice and gender equality.

In the 15 years of UK Women, Peace and Security (WPS) policies, programme and National Action Plans, there has been next to no mention of climate change.

How is this possible?

The entire point of the WPS agenda is to ensure that women can live secure lives. And there is no graver threat to women’s security than climate change.

An atlas of human suffering” is how UN Secretary-General António Guterres described a 2022 IPCC report on the threat of climate change to human wellbeing: “I have seen many scientific reports in my time, but nothing like this”. The report warns that increased heatwaves, droughts and floods are “causing cascading impacts that are increasingly difficult to manage. They have exposed millions of people to acute food and water insecurity, especially in Africa, Asia, Central and South America, on Small Islands and in the Arctic.” About half the global population – between 3.3 billion and 3.6 billion people – live in areas “highly vulnerable” to climate change. Throughout the globe, the climate crisis poses the gravest threat to the security and wellbeing of women and other marginalised groups. As the IPCC notes, “People and ecosystems least able to cope are being hardest hit.”

Women often bear the brunt of climate change: they are the majority of the world’s poor; their role of caring for households, children and the elderly leave them least able to flee; they are more dependent than men on local natural resources for their livelihoods; and unequal gender relations often leave them with few economic or material resources.

Whether in sudden-onset disasters such as floods and typhoons, or slow-onset disasters such as rising sea level, increasing temperatures, land and forest degradation, desertification, and the loss of biodiversity, women are disproportionately affected. When these crises combine with armed conflict, the situation for women becomes exponentially worse.

Other governments, if not the UK, are integrating climate change and WPS in their policies and practice. The UK government has one small fund which makes the links, but both Sweden and Canada bring together the WPS agenda and the climate crisis in their Feminist Foreign Policies. The Scottish Government also recognises the ways that climate change and conflict have mutually reinforcing gendered impacts, and supports women in their efforts to address them. These governments seem to be responding to the UN Secretary-General’s call, in his 2019 Annual Report on the WPS agenda, for “better analysis and concrete, immediate actions to address the linkages between climate change and conflict from a gender perspective.”

Feminist scholars (also see here and here), too, have long been making the case for the WPS Agenda to take the climate crisis more seriously.

It is high time the UK government did so.

In so doing, it not only has an opportunity to make its WPS policy far more realistic, relevant and timely; it also has the opportunity to learn from the history of WPS. It is crucial that it does.

The WPS agenda was an agenda with ambitious aims that could have had truly transformative impacts. Yet it has become a relatively limited programme, focused on a somewhat narrow set of goals: protecting women from the harms of armed conflict, especially conflict-related sexual violence, and supporting the participation of women in peace processes. These are, of course, important aims in and of themselves. Their achievement would improve the lives of many women. But the original motivating goal of the many feminists and women’s organisations who campaigned for a UNSC resolution was much more expansive. Many hoped that bringing a gender lens into the UNSC’s work would foster a more inclusive and transformative approach to peace and security. Some campaigned for the WPS agenda to directly address the root causes of war in the gendered dynamics of militarism and capitalism. In the memorable words of Cora Weiss, one of the drafters of what became UNSCR 1325, the goal was not to make war safe for women, but to eradicate war. This has fallen by the wayside.

The risk, when thinking about women and the climate crisis, or about the ways climate change must be an integral part of the WPS agenda, is that the programme will be similarly limited; a risk that the focus will be only on the ways women suffer disproportionately, or on the need to include more women in climate decision-making. Indeed, most of the current reports that bring WPS, and climate together fall into that trap. They offer multi-country studies establishing that gender inequality, climate vulnerability and state fragility are positively correlated or frame the key problem for women, when climate change and conflict combine, as increased levels of GBV, or provide case studies of women sustaining inclusive peace on the frontlines of climate change

Again, these issues deserve attention, in and of themselves. But they miss the fundamental point, the life-or-death point, the how-to-avoid-descending-more-deeply-into-the-atlas-of-human suffering-point: that our only real hope is to address the root causes of the climate catastrophe we now face. The rest is just re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

It is only by confronting what’s driving both the climate crisis and the wars which motivated the WPS agenda – the current extractivist economic model, rooted in centuries of colonial plunder, appropriation of women’s labour, and environmental destruction – that a renewed WPS agenda could offer any real hope.

And offer hope it can. If the UK government decides to raise its ambition – acknowledging not only the centrality of the climate crisis to the WPS agenda, but also the urgent necessity of addressing the crises’ root causes – meaningful, life-altering change can occur. The most profoundly important thing that a renewed WPS agenda can offer is the insight that current “realist” models of how to ensure security and a “thriving” economy have led to world in which almost no one, except perhaps the most hyper-elite among us, can be secure, while planetary well-being is teetering. And feminist alternative visions of the values that should be at the heart of our economies and our relation to the rest of the natural world do, in fact, offer far more realistic pathways to avoid the worst of the crises we face; they can propel us to a world where people, including women and other marginalised groups, are safe and secure, are able to flourish.

In short, the UK’s policy on WPS must confront the economic root causes of both war and the climate crisis and adopt policies that reflect feminist alternative models of economies designed to foster the well-being of all people and the planet itself.

This is perhaps the only thing that really matters at this moment in human history – all the rest is deck chairs.

The views, thoughts and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author(s) only, and do not necessarily reflect LSE's or those or the LSE Centre for Women, Peace and Security.


About the authors

Dr. Carol Cohn is the Director of the Consortium on Gender, Security and Human Rights, at the University of Massachusetts Boston. 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 research and writing has focused on gender and security issues ranging from work on the discourse of civilian nuclear defense intellectuals and U.S. national security elites to gender integration issues in the US military, the concept of “vulnerability” in security and humanitarian discourse, and gender mainstreaming in international peace and security institutions. Currently, much of her energy is devoted to a collaborative international knowledge building project to create a “Feminist Roadmap for Sustainable Peace and Planet,” which she works on jointly with Claire Duncanson.

Claire Duncanson is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Edinburgh. She has published widely on issues relating to gender, peace and security, with a particular focus on and gender and peacebuilding. She teaches and supervises in these areas to undergraduate and postgraduate students at the University of Edinburgh. Her current work aims to bring a feminist analysis to the political economy of building peace. She is the author of Gender and Peacebuilding (Polity Press, 2016), and a range of publications on the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda and on gender in militaries. Claire works with Carol Cohn at the Consortium on Gender, Security and Human Rights on the “Feminist Roadmap for Sustainable Peace and Planet” Project ( ), co-authoring "Whose Recovery? IFI Prescriptions for Postwar States" in Review of International Political Economy (2019) and "WPS in a Changing Climate" in the International Feminist Journal of Politics (2020). Claire is an active member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and has co-authored with fellow WILPF member Vanessa Farr on the implementation of the WPS agenda in Afghanistan for Sara Davies and Jacqui True’s Oxford Handbook on the WPS Agenda.

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