Wanner Thomas | The biopolitics of climate change: biopower, gendered knowledge and the environment


It is generally acknowledged that ecological sustainability cannot be realized without addressing the problem of gender inequalities. Gender equity and equality are inextricably linked to poverty, the destruction of eco-systems, the pollution of rural and urban environments and the depletion of natural resources, and hence are a central perquisite for achieving sustainable development goals. As the United Nations Environment Programme states, “gender equality and equity are prerequisites to poverty eradication and sustainable development” (UNEP 2006: 3). Gender is seen a critical variable in shaping processes of ecological change, sustainable livelihoods and the prospects for sustainable development. At the same time, sustainable development policy initiatives that seek to mitigate environmental degradation and its negative effects on livelihoods has its own gendered impacts and operate through and produce particular framings and meanings of gender and gendered power relations.
Climate change is arguably the most pressing sustainable development challenge of our time. There are increasing calls for ‘mainstreaming’ gender issues into climate change debates and policies. Climate change has major social and economic implications for countries, and mitigation and adaptation policies to climate change have gender dimensions. It can be said that the causes, effects and solutions to climate change are gendered. Climate change will affect men and women differently with women and the poor seen as the most vulnerable (IPCCC 2007). Through culturally determined distinctive roles, responsibilities and knowledge, men and women have a different experience and relationship to the environment and to environmental change. Climate change thus has the potential to either exacerbate or decrease gender inequalities, and challenge dominant discourses of gender relations and associated gender subjectivities.
This paper examines the links between gender, knowledge and the environment, providing a critical consideration of the biopolitics of climate change. The paper is motivated by providing a critical stance about increasing calls for gender mainstreaming of climate change policies. Gender is understood as a political, negotiated and contested element of social relationships and with this a central element of how human-nature relationships are framed. The biopolitics of climate change is about analysing of how hegemonic discourses of climate change and gender intersect, and produce specific subjectivities and ‘regimes of truth’ about gender and climate change. The major aim of this paper is to problematize simplistic constructions and understandings of gender, gender subjectivities and gendered environmental actions as a response to climate change. The paper tries to contribute to a more politicised conception of gender and gendered knowledge within the context of climate change policies. A major question which the paper addresses is how gendered knowledge is framed and utilised in the biopolitics of climate change, and with what effects.
Biopower for Foucault is a new technology of power which emphasises the protection of life and the protection of the body. It is through biopower that populations are regulated and controlled. Nature, and humans are part of it, is seen in this paper as the ultimate ‘body’ upon which power operates to create subjectivities and dominant discourses. Biopower, as understood in this paper, is thus about challenging dominant discourses and specific regime of truths about climate change which perpetuate gender inequalities and the subjugation and management of the environment. The paper also draws on feminist political ecology which focuses on access and control of natural resources, gendered constructions of knowledge, and the local and global political economic contexts that shape gendered relations with the environment.


  • Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2007). Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC, Summary for Policymakers. At http://www.ipcc.ch/ (accessed 11/04/10).
  • United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) (2006). Gender Plan of Action. Nairobi: UNEP.