Korean women mitigate climate change

Kim So-young, a leader of Seongdaegol energy transition movement in climate litigation fundraising night. Photo: SEULKI LEE

Helplessness and depression. That was how the Fukushima Disaster in 2011 affected middle-aged Seoul resident Kim So-young. A mother of teenage twin girls, Kim recalls the day of the nuclear meltdown in neighbouring Japan as a metanoia in her life.

Now, other women like Kim are reacting the same way to the impact of climate change on erratic weather patterns in the Korean Peninsula.

“I was actively mobilising mothers to run children’s library, but the moment I heard about Fukushima, I felt children’s education was futile if there was not going to be a future,” Kim, 47, said. “My instinct told me that what matters for our childrenis not a success but a physical survival.”

The Fukushima nuclear disaster revived Korea’s mass environmental movement, and reset it to deal with the country’s energy transition away from fossil fuels to renewables. South Korea’s anti-nuclear movement since 1987 following the Chernobyl disaster resonated with public, especially mothers.

A senior feminist researcher and current Gender Equality Minister Jung Hyun-baek notes that women in their 30s and 40s have emerged as key players in the anti-nuclear movement because of their concern about radioactive contamination. She notes in her 2013 paper in the Korean feminist journal Feminist Research that the anti-nuclear activism has now taken on climate change.

Women in anti-nuclear action in Seoul. Photo: SEONGDAEGOL ENERGY SUPERMARKET / FACEBOOK

South Korea has 24 nuclear power plants in service, and two of these were commissioned after the Fukushima accident. According to Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, five additional nuclear plants are under construction and all to be completed by 2030.

Even after witnessing the nuclear power plant accidents in neighboring Japan, South Korean government has added nuclear power and is eying the export of nuclear energy technology to other countries like UK and Saudi Arabia.

“In fact, current electricity supply exceeds our demand. We don’t need another nuclear power plant, we could actually shut down some of existing plants,”said Kim Bok-nyeo, a director of Won Buddhism Environmental Solidarity Institute of Anti-Nuclear Information Research.

Total electricity consumption in South Korea was 497TWh while the total supply was 540TWh with a 43TWh surplus in 2016. Kim argues that the country can immediately close down all 24 nuclear plants when its total electricity generation is 22.5GW.

Civil society is dismayed that the current Moon Jae-in administration is planning to expand nuclear power till 2022 when there will be 27 nuclear plants of 27.5GW, and only then reduce them to 18 nuclear plants of 20.4GW capacity in 2030.

In July 2011, Kim So-young from Seongdaegol, home to 24,000 households in Seoul, started to call and send emails asking for support to environmental groups in the country drawing attention to nuclear energy but to no avail. So, Kim just got her community to conduct a nuclear energy study group with youths in the children’s library during summer vacation.

Her initiative took off after securing a seed fund of $2,000 from the local environmental NGO Green Korea. Since then ‘Seongdaegol Energy Supermarket’ under Kim’s leadership went viral as a success story of community-based energy transition and climate change action in South Korea, Taiwan and Japan.

Seodaegol Energy Supermarket is a renewable energy cooperative led by community women. The main project is to sell micro-solar panel with financing package. Photo: SEONGDAEGOL ENERGY SUPERMARKET / FACEBOOK

The Supermarket is a renewable energy business cooperative, designed to make profit by selling energy-saving home appliances, installing micro-solar panels with financing packages and giving extracurricular classes on climate change and energy to secondary school students. The cooperative now employs five full-time staff, all mothers, and strictly keeps to the founding motto ‘make profit from energy transition to renewable energy in the community’.

“We could continue doing this for last eight years because our approach was to establish a community energy business model and we never worked for free. If we did it as public service and one-time campaigns, we will not be able to penetrate the mind of busy and practical Seongdaegol community,” explained Kim.

Visitors to Seongdaegol notice the relatively large number of female elderly population. The Seongdae traditional market is crowded with old women in shopping trolleys. The alley ways between houses could become an open kitchen for mothers when making Kimchi in a large volume.

“There used to be a big traditional market along the main road, but it lost its vitality. However, the traditional ‘Maeul’ or village community spirit of mutual help lives on,” said Park Il-woo the owner of Daeryuk bookstore in Seongdae Market.

With this community bond, women gave birth to three energy cooperatives in the community, middle school, and traditional marketwith 600 members. The Seongdaegol model inspired the Seoul metropolitan government to officially launch the Energy Self-reliant Villages Project and One Less Nuclear Power Plant policy in 2012.

Kim So-young emphasised the importance and benefits of women’s leadership in the community-level movement. “Mothers hold the remote control and the knife. Which means they can control day-do-day  energy and material use,” said Kim So-young.

For 2019, the Seongdaegol community is looking at the first-ever Korean youth climate litigation. About 50 youths and nine lawyers are studying the similar cases from US and Japan. The decision came after local legislative election in June 2018 when young Koreans learnt that not a single candidate addresses climate change issue in their manifesto.

Unlike in 2011, the youth climate litigation team now has support of members of environmental NGO, Seoul metropolitan government, the Green Party, and presidential advisory board. After the fundraising event ‘Hotter the Love, Cooler the Earth’, the team raised over $10,000.

The litigation team foresees challenges in every step of the process. The social stigma of anti-government civic group toward youth is another concern of supporting adults.

“We are talking about possible consequences based on our experience in history, but the youth are very cool and fully committed because the climate change is about their future and a matter of justice,” said Kim.

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