Zarina Ahmad is an award-winning PhD researcher at the University of Manchester, freelance community practitioner, activist and member of the ClimateXChange Directorate.

Several years ago, the Scottish Government began a national programme enabling communities to tackle climate change. From 2013, I have been directly involved in setting up over 150 projects run by people of colour and from minority ethnic backgrounds.

The projects were fantastic and of different scales, from a one-off event to seven-year long projects. I have many favourites but one that sticks out encouraged women to cycle, as a way to use active transport to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. One of the participants started off as a volunteer there and now runs her own cycling projects and was even featured in the cover of a cycling magazine.

Unheard knowledge

What I found during that time was that it was mostly women who were running those projects. They were passionate about doing work to tackle climate change, finding solutions and driving change. However, there was a majority of men in senior jobs such as policymaking, where people are more likely to be heard.

This made me curious about why that was the case because it did not make sense to me. From my experience, women had the experience and knowledge about what was needed to tackle the climate emergency and were doing a lot of the work for change but there seemed to be things in this sector that excluded women from voicing their proposals.

Women of colour and from ethnic backgrounds are even less likely than white women to be considered in climate policy. I grew up in Scotland and have a Pakistani heritage background, so I have felt and seen first-hand how challenging that can be as many of the climate solution conversations were male centred and Eurocentric excluding perspectives, knowledge and experiences of those from different cultures and heritage.

Climate change impacts affect women more than men. For instance, research shows that women are more likely than men to be responsible for buying and cooking food in their households, food labour is very gendered. For instance if there is a food shortage or if food prices increase, women are the ones who need to figure out how they are to feed the family with less and find alternative solutions. We see this type of action at different levels across the world. Women are the ones who have solutions, the ones with the resilience to adapt when faced with climate impacts. So, why are they not being heard?

I grew more and more interested in the intersectionality of climate, gender, ethnic communities and food practices, and ended up becoming a researcher.

My research focuses on environmentally sustainable food practices of women with Pakistani heritage. For instance, I explore which parts of the food journey are more gendered, from food production, packaging, transport to what ends in our plates. The aim is to understand how these food practices have been culturally passed down but are sometimes excluded from environmental and sustainable narratives. I would like to understand how we can include them and why they have been missed.

Policymakers and communities

Policymakers find it hard to engage with certain community groups because it tends to be a one-way relationship. However, for that engagement to work, policymakers need to do outreach work, build relationships with communities and listen to them. This will help them understand how each side can support the change that the other wants to see.

So, when I organise events related to my research, we invite women from those groups as well as policymakers. However, we want to shift the power dynamic and tell policymakers that they are there only to listen. This makes participants feel empowered to voice their opinions. Policymakers at our roundtables are seen as equal partners; they are not seen as representatives of an institution but as Sarah or Paul or whoever is at the table.

Britain can benefit so much from learning from the experiences of women from diverse backgrounds. They were born and/or live here but hold cultural knowledge and have practices that are not as well known in the UK and that can help tackle the climate emergency.

Involving women in research

I have been finding some issues in research as well. Many studies in the UK on gender, especially on women of colour, consider women as the object of research because they are seen to be victims of society who need help or a burden on society rather than recognising them as knowledge givers and therefore involving them in the research process, which is important. Research needs to consider what it truly means to co-create and collaborate. For this shift to happen, valuable resources have to be shared equitably in a way that everyone is valued and the benefits are mutual. We are more likely to create positive change this way.

Another issue is that research on people from diverse ethnic backgrounds, often wrongly labelled as hard to reach communities, actually portrays these communities in a very negative and stigmatised way, as if they are either vulnerable, a burden to society, or need help. This perception needs to change and has been going on for too long.

Positive change in Scotland

To finish on a positive note, even though the changes might seem small, when we take a step back we can see that there are many changes happening both here and globally. I have been to countries that are generally considered progressive and was amazed about how much more ahead we are here in Scotland in terms of gender equality and climate action. What I like about being here is that positive initiatives are doable and there are pathways in which we can get involved in making change happen at a local level and at a national policy level.

Everyday people are bringing about positive climate action and are passionate about specific topics within their area, and can continue to do so through local initiatives. The National Lottery funds sustainability projects and there are many other smaller funds out there available for communities.

However what we do need is more agency to make the bigger societal and structural changes to tackle climate change in a fair and equitable way putting justice at the heart of any strategy. Local and national government set their climate/net zero targets, which can only be met if we are all working together to a shared vision.

Remember, if you are in a position of privilege open the door for others to step through or, if like me, you see a door slightly opens, don’t be shy and push that door open. Take the opportunity and make change happen.

Related link

International climate justice, conflict and gender – ClimateXChange report