Megatons of carbon dioxide, radiative forcing, technology deployment, cap-and-trade systems: this is the common vocabulary of climate change. Concepts of equality, justice and ethics are relative latecomers to this highly specialized and technical world. Where they have emerged, terms like ‘climate justice’ usually refer to the interests of developing nations as a whole, reflecting the deep North-South divide, or to the inequality between rich and poor in developed nations. But what of the world’s largest and arguably most systematically disadvantaged group? When it comes to climate change, women and girls will not only suffer disproportionately, but their vast potential to contribute to mitigation and adaptation efforts has been largely ignored.
The world’s poorest communities are widely recognized to be the most vulnerable to climate change. Women and girls represent the largest contingent of this unenviable group: of the 1.3 billion people who live in poverty, 70% are women. Two-thirds of the world’s illiterate population is female, and women often lack the institutional protections of property and inheritance rights that would allow them to overcome this chronic poverty.
This overall inequality is amplified by gendered social roles and unequal access to resources. In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, women and girls spend staggering amounts of time collecting water: it is not uncommon to spend 15 to 17 hours a week in search of water, walking up to 10 kilometers a day during the dry season. Women and girls are more likely to be malnourished than their male counterparts, and in times of food shortages, they are usually the first to go hungry. In a warming world where droughts and food security are increasingly matters of concern, these inequalities represent a serious challenge to women, especially in developing countries.
Natural disasters, projected in many climate models to increase in frequency and intensity, reveal the complex relationship between gender and climate. In general, natural disasters exacerbate existing inequalities and disproportionately affect women: more women are killed than men or are killed at a younger age by natural disasters, mostly due to social norms and general socio-economic inequality. The gender dynamic, however, works both ways: when Hurricane Mitch hit Central America in 1998, more men died than women, in large part because they engaged in high-risk rescue operations.
Despite their greater vulnerability, women have proven to be an indispensable part of developing sound mitigation and adaptation strategies. Communities that actively involve women in designing early warning systems suffer fewer losses from natural disasters. Projects that aim to increase efficiency of household fuels require input from women, since women are largely responsible for collecting and using household fuel in many parts of the world. When women are not included in design and decision-making processes, these projects are frequently unresponsive to the needs of their supposed beneficiaries. Finally, women’s participation in natural resource management programs has been proven to increase the effectiveness and sustainability of natural resource use: when programs specifically target women and girls, households not only better preserve natural resources, but families also benefit economically.
The principle of gendered climate change does not only apply to developing countries: a report commissioned by the Swedish government shows that women and men in highly developed countries consume differently at all income levels, and therefore have different ‘ecological footprints’. For example, women tend to prefer public transportation to private cars or air travel, and represent a higher proportion of those who work jobs with “off-peak” hours: caretaker positions, for example, that require traveling at night and on weekends. Current transportation infrastructures, however, are typically designed “by men for men”: priority is given to male schedules and male preferences for private transportation over public options. When women are more involved in the development of transportation systems, those systems serve entire communities, and the climate, much more effectively.
Finally, the specter of gender inequality, magnified by natural disasters, haunts us at home as well as abroad: Hurricanes Katrina and Rita exposed this inequity in New Orleans, where women before the hurricane were more likely than men to live in poverty, to be primary care givers in single-parent families, and to hold low-paying jobs. As we now painfully know, it was the poorest and most disadvantaged who suffered the most from those disasters.
The impacts of gender and the importance of female empowerment have already been shown to be critical in addressing poverty, disease, and armed conflict. Beyond the basic moral imperative that calls for gender equality in all aspects of public policy, we cannot ignore women’s role in environmental decision-making if we wish to effectively combat climate change.