26 Oct Climate Change and LGBTQ Rights
[Eoin Jackson (LLM Harvard, LLB Trinity College Dublin)]
All views are entirely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent any organization that the author may be associated with.
In recent years there has been increased recognition that the climate emergency will have a disproportionate impact on minorities. We have seen an acknowledgement that climate change will have a gendered impact, a focus on the danger climate change poses to small-island states and greater emphasis placed on climate justice as a tool for ensuring equitable climate policy. One aspect of the climate response that has remained somewhat under examined is the effect of climate change on the LGBTQ community. This article aims to briefly sketch out some current and potential future impacts of the climate emergency on the LGBTQ community to offer a queer lens into an otherwise heteronormative perception of the emergency.
One of the greatest impacts that the climate emergency is likely to have on the LGBTQ community is the potential deterioration or further exacerbation of the human rights conditions in climate vulnerable countries. The countries most vulnerable to climate change such as Pakistan, Kenya and states in the Sahel region are also ones where LGBTQ people face legal, political, and social discrimination. This makes it more likely that LGBTQ people in these countries are isolated and/or are at risk of violence or other forms of oppression in the event that the climate emergency disrupts the social fabric of the state. As climate change exacerbates inequality, it becomes more likely that LGBTQ people will be unable to assert or demand their rights within the political system, as the state becomes distracted by the need for further climate change mitigation and adaptation.
The impact on LGBTQ rights caused by extreme events was already noticeable in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. LGBTQ people were blamed for the outbreak by leaders in Nigeria, Liberia, and Zimbabwe, among others. Violence and state repression against LGBTQ people also increased during Covid-19, with many LGBTQ centers shut down and people arrested. Should this pattern repeat itself, LGBTQ people will face a greater chance of being demonized under the pretense of being the ‘cause’ of the relevant climate disaster. While climate change may not necessarily lead to the same type of backlash, it places LGBTQ people at greater risk of being utilized by politicians to excuse or justify failures to prepare for extreme weather events. Consequently, the implications of climate change for LGBTQ rights cannot be underestimated.
The heightened risk of persecution could also trigger a greater chance of LGBTQ people being forced to seek asylum status in other countries. The complex intersection of LGBTQ identity and climate change associated risks may be difficult for asylum officers to appreciate, particularly in countries which at least in theory have legal protections for LGBTQ people. Climate refugees have yet to be recognized under the UN Refugee Convention, while LGBTQ people can often find it difficult to have their LGBTQ identity and therefore asylum claim recognized without needing to resort to western stereotypes or outdated perceptions of what it means to be LGBTQ. Climate change makes it more likely that LGBTQ will encounter these barriers due to the nexus between climate change, persecution, and being an LGBTQ person.
Loss of Access to Resources
The LGBTQ community often exists on the margins of society. LGBTQ people are more likely to experience homelessness and poverty. Trans people are particularly vulnerable to socio-economic conditions and can often struggle to access meaningful employment and affordable housing. The LGBTQ community is also more likely to have greater healthcare needs than a non-LGBTQ person, and is dependent upon resources being allocated to the healthcare system to ensure that such needs are met.
Climate change limits access to these limited resources by forcing states to allocate more funds towards climate mitigation and climate adaptation efforts. This puts more vulnerable members of the community at risk of losing their resources, or experiencing further internal displacement as existing protections are undermined by climate disasters. Professor Sean Kidd, writing in The Lancet, has discussed how the combination of rising sea levels and poor air quality results in the degradation of affordable housing and an increase in the number of people migrating to escape the effects of pollution. This places greater pressure on the state to provide for people fleeing these effects, while the state in turn experiences a loss of productivity, as extreme weather events such as flooding and heatwaves, disrupt traditional economic channels. Given that the LGBTQ community is already in greater need of accommodation, and may also be fleeing countries out of fear of persecution, the resulting scramble for depleting resources harms their chances of securing provisions necessary to achieving equality.
Additionally, LGBTQ people may not even be able to access climate adaptation resources due to the aforementioned discrimination. For example, an LGBTQ person may be denied access to emergency shelter due to their contradiction of social norms, or are more likely to experience violence within these shelters due to queerphobia from the local populace. Knowledge of the discrimination that the LGBTQ community may experience in emergency settings also makes it less likely that an LGBTQ person will utilize these services, which in turn places them at greater risk from climate related disasters. The political and economic tensions generated by the diminishment of resources make it difficult for an LGBTQ person to live authentically, while at the same time trying to avail of limited climate protections without experiencing discrimination.
Heteronormative Climate Policy
There has been little recognition thus far of the risks of the climate emergency to the LGBTQ community within climate policy. While there have been calls for gender mainstreaming in the context of climate policy, this has not specifically included a reference to LGBTQ rights nor would gender mainstreaming guarantee that a queer lens has been applied to any potential climate strategies. There has also been little research into this issue, with most existing sources focusing on localized problems within environmental justice e.g the intersection between LGBTQ homelessness and the placement of high polluting facilities in impoverished areas. The lack of research into this area complicates efforts to protect the LGBTQ people from climate related threats (including the increased danger of political persecution) and will need to be remediated to enhance the policy response in this area.
The heteronormative nature of climate policy is not unexpected given the rights based implications of climate change are only beginning to be integrated into global responses (through the 2022 UN General Assembly recognition of a right to a healthy environment for example). However, achieving climate justice will require an evolution of current climate policy perspectives to ensure LGBTQ people are accommodated in the climate response. This could involve the allocation of resources specifically for the LGBTQ community, monitoring of the LGBTQ rights situation in countries affected by climate change, and consultations with local LGBTQ representatives (where possible) to enshrine legal and economic protections for the community during climate mitigation and adaptation efforts. Whatever proposals that are adopted, it is important that LGBTQ people be represented in the climate response to prevent the community from being overlooked during what will be the most significant reforms to the global order since the Second World War.
Climate change has the capacity to disrupt the social fabric in a manner that disturbs efforts to expand long established principles of human rights and equality. The LGBTQ community is at risk of further backlash and discrimination as actors seek to exploit the climate emergency to consolidate inequality. In writing this article, I hope to spark further discussion and research into this area to ensure the LGBTQ community is not forgotten in our response to the climate emergency.