While the cumulative effects of rising global temperatures have already caused dramatic changes to our planet, those changes often seem distant and it's hard to put faces to them. But as climate change becomes more disruptive to daily life around the world, it’s more likely than not that the faces of that disruption will be those of women.
With the world celebrating International Women’s Day on Thursday, it’s a good time to reflect on just how vulnerable women are to the effects of climate change.
If you’re surprised to hear that gender makes a difference, you shouldn’t be. After all, we’ve long known that some groups are particularly threatened by climate change; the world’s most impoverished people are the best example. Millions of the poorest people live in regions that will be increasingly struck by rising sea level, extreme storms, droughts and famines. Women make up a shocking 70 percent of people living in poverty around the world.
The gender imbalance of climate change is about more than just numbers, though. During natural disasters and extreme storms — of which many are increasingly linked to our carbon-loaded atmosphere — women often lack the physical strength needed to pull themselves to high ground or to run for safe cover. If this physical barrier isn’t enough, women are usually responsible for children and relatives and in extreme conditions, they have the added burden of moving everyone out of harm’s way.
It’s this universal role as caregiver — one that we would rarely change if given the chance — that increases women’s vulnerability to our changing climate. With motherhood comes the responsibility of providing food, water, shelter, protection and transportation for children. In a warmer world, these are increasingly challenging tasks.
The World Health Organization estimates that of the nearly 150,000 people already perishing around the world each year because of climate change, nearly 90% are children. And the threats for children, and thus for women, are continuing to mount. More frequent and longer droughts will lead to food shortages for millions, and particularly those in poverty. Similarly, extreme storms and rising sea levels threaten drinking water supplies for millions worldwide. For women, this means traveling further and working even harder to provide for the basic needs of their families and communities.
These climate-related pressures aren’t unique to poor women living in developing countries. Here in the United States, the same social dynamics apply and women are overwhelmingly responsible for caregiving. Here, too, the changing climate is a growing liability to our families’ health.
For example, rising temperatures are severely reducing air quality, particularly in America’s biggest cities, and this triggers health problems for millions of people with asthma. Heat waves, which are already more common in North America, take a particular toll on children and the elderly. In many parts of the country, earlier and longer spring seasons exacerbate allergies. And in all these examples, women disproportionately carry the weight of protecting their children and providing care when family members are sick.
Knowing all the ways in which they are likely to feel the negative impacts of climate change, it’s no wonder that women — whether they are mothers are not — are more concerned about climate change than men.
On the plus side, this gender divide presents opportunity. Empowering and educating women worldwide gives them the resources to continue to provide for their families, even in the face of dramatic environmental changes. In places like Africa, where women are acutely aware of how crop yields and water supplies are changing, they may also be more likely to adopt local adaptation measures. In the U.S., women have the ability to rally together over their growing concerns, which can drive more substantial policy initiatives.
“What we learn from talking about women’s vulnerabilities is that we all have vulnerabilities,” said Kim Knowlton, a scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “No one is immune to climate change.”
Which is, of course, true. Women may be among the most vulnerable, but climate change won’t discriminate in its severity. But looking at the risks through the lens of different groups, including women, gives us all a better sense of how personal the threat really is — and hopefully how each of us can lend to its solution.