The world seems to have finally reached a consensus. Climate change is real and is primarily caused by human activities. Temperatures are rising and the impacts of changing weather patterns are seen everywhere. Climate related disasters are on the increase and having lasting effects on health, the environment, economy and global security. As the UNFCCC struggles to negotiate an international climate treaty, the affects of climate change are being seen more clearly. The Arctic has seen higher temperatures and ice has melted more rapidly in the past year than was expected, more drought and greater flooding, stronger hurricanes and typhoons are only part of the picture.
Rising sea levels from melting polar ice will force millions to be displaced from coastal areas and become environmental refugees. The effects of climate change threaten every living thing; humans, coral reefs, polar bears, fish, forests - everything. Climate changes will affect us all, but not equally. Of the worlds' poor, 70% are women and climate change is exacerbating the problems and inequities that women already face. When a climate disaster strikes, the people generally hit the hardest are women. Most of us are unaware that climate change is an equity and gender issue.
Impacts in Developing Countries
Though the affects of climate change are significantly impacting poorer people, it is particularly affecting women. Climate change is exacerbating the problems and inequities that women already face. Women are generally bound by the need to collect food, fuel and water as well as the cultural mores that may prevent them from being educated, owning land or presenting solutions to village leaders.
The impact to women following climate disasters is disproportional no matter where the geographic location. Women's livelihoods are more dependent on natural resources, which are threatened by climate change. Women are responsible for food, fuel and water in most households in developing countries. When weather patterns are erratic, women spend more time on each of these tasks, which then means less time spent on education, family and health. Girls are often taken out of school either to help with the additional burden the climate crisis has placed on the mother or because there is no longer discretionary income to pay for her education.
Women in developing countries are at greatest risk for many reasons.
- In the 2004 Asian Tsunami, 70 - 80% of overall deaths were women
- Statistics show that more women died than men because they stayed behind to rescue children and the elderly
- Women are less likely to have access to information about help or assistance
- Women are more vulnerable than men due to socially enforced roles and responsibilities
- More women may die because they cannot swim, are not allowed to leave the house or have not been warned
When faced with climate issues of drought, erratic rainfall, flooding and deforestation women must work harder to ensure safety and survival for their families who are dependent on their ability to acquire fuel sources, food and water.
Erratic climate shifts can lead to conflicts over food, fuel and water. In the Darfur region of the Sudan where drought and desertification have increased so have destruction of homes and villages. Women in particular have been the victims of intimidation, rape and abduction forcing thousands to become refugees.
Impacts in Developed Countries
It is difficult for us to think that we are being significantly affected here in North America or Europe, but climate disasters do not discriminate. In the 2003 European heat wave, of 20,000 deaths, 70% were women.
Climate disasters amplify inequalities and directly affect already impoverished or under-employed women. Women of Katrina may seem invisible and forgotten, but are still disproportionately affected today. A climate disaster re-enforced an already large gender gap that many of us did not know existed. Women of Katrina are underemployed, lack child and health care services, suffer more domestic abuse and cannot find adequate housing three years after the hurricane. Following Katrina, women were often forced into housing situations that were overcrowded, resulting in increased domestic violence and in some cases women had no choice but to return to a former abuser to seek shelter for herself and children. Moreover, women were stripped of their support systems as family and friends were re-located to distant areas and never re-united, resulting in fewer social resources and networking to assist in getting back on their feet.
Following a natural or climate related disaster, women report problems with finding shelter, limited access to financial resources, lack of education and skills, and social/cultural barriers that limit women's access to employment and services. These problems are universal for women no matter what their geographic location or their country.
Coping Strategies and Adaptation
Although women are typically seen and referred to as the "victims" of climate related disasters, they are also the unsung heroines. Women generally have a sense of how to adapt and have found ways to cope that include:
- Finding safer shelter in higher locations, making temporary shelters or moving their homes permanently
- Saving assets such as ovens, seeds, livestock and keeping them in higher locations
- Adapting foods or meals during lean times
- Utilizing energy saving devices such as solar cookers
- Switching to other crops that may be drought resistant, multiple crops for sale in market places, developing more fertile soils
- Reverting to the use of traditional medicines and health care
- Saving money, distress sale of stock or belongings and taking additional jobs
- Community organizing and collective action to prepare for future disasters
Women globally have demonstrated their capacity to adapt. In Micronesia, women used their experience working the land to dig into the ground and create a new well filled with drinkable, fresh water. Planners and decision makers had not considered their possible contributions. "We have seen time and again that communities fare better during natural disasters when women play a leadership role in early warning systems and reconstruction." In Uganda, members of a women's cooperative successfully campaigned to build a borehole, reducing their seven hour walk for water to 30 minutes round trip. "Women's carbon footprint has been shown to be smaller than men's. At the same time women have led many of the most innovative responses to environmental challenges." (Oxfam)
The Kyoto Protocol does not mention gender. Not only are women the most impacted by climate change, they are the group most under-represented globally. When adaptation and Clean Development Mechanisms (CDM) are talked about, only recently have they begun to examine them from the gender perspective. Funding of these programs from a gender perspective is also just now taking form. Women are not decision-makers when it comes to environmental or climate policy decisions. Though a small percentage of women may be present, their solutions and gender perspective is absent. The percentage of women holding top positions in EU boardrooms is less than 10%, less than 20% in trade unions and less than 30% in governmental positions.
There can only be conjecture that decisions and solutions would be different if women were in the majority. Men typically dominate the industries of energy, construction, transportation and waste management. These are the very industries that are the biggest contributors to climate change and are also the industries that have been the slowest to move toward change, conservation and efficiency.
Women as the solution
Women already play an important role in the mitigation of climate change by changing buying habits, educating family members, conservation efforts, and their willingness to take action.
Involving both women and men and their respective viewpoints in the climate adaptation process of planning and implementation is critical to ensure that the end solutions will actually benefit all members of a community. In the US, there is a greater need for gender representation in all relevant fields of climate action planning. As women, we must take on more leadership roles in these areas.
Women are accustomed to playing a behind the scenes role of educating and influencing families, friends and communities toward new ideas. (Advertising executives know this all too well!) Educating women in greater depth about the issues of the climate crisis, its impacts on life in general and women specifically, and the importance of the role women should play in the solutions are essential. With greater shared awareness and a more solid foundation of understanding, women would feel more empowered to step forward and participate in the sharing of ideas, as well as in the planning and implementation process. Climate justice and equity are key issues that must be addressed as we move toward Copenhagen and the finalization of a treaty that will impact everyone, everywhere.