Why Climate Change Is A Women’s Issue

Multiple news outlets are now reporting that President Donald Trump is set to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord, the landmark pact to reduce global warming.

While environmentalists are warning that is very bad news for many reasons, bringing the world far closer to the “danger limit” where extreme conditions become the norm, it could be particularly harmful to women around the world. Here’s why:

Women are more likely to live in poverty.

Women make up the majority of the world’s poor, and that simple fact means they are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change ― particularly if they live in rural areas. That’s because women tend to be responsible for securing water, food and energy for cooking, and the effects of climate change ― namely drought and/or uncertain rainfall ― make that process and responsibility all the much more onerous for them. 

“In almost all disasters, women bear the brunt more than men. Anytime there are mass movements, which is what happens when you have famine, floods, fires and other disasters, women are more vulnerable, women end up doing much of the physical labor of gathering and preparing food, fuel and water,” Dr. Richard Jackson, a professor at the Fielding School of Public Health at the University of California, Los Angeles, told HuffPost. 

“Climate change very much visits its greatest impact on the poor worldwide,” he added. “Wealthy people can move. Wealthy people during Hurricane Katrina could get in their cars and drive off. It’s always the poor that bear the biggest brunt of any kind of threat or disaster.”

When natural resources disappear, women are less likely to get an education.

When biodiversity declines and fresh water sources disappear as a result of climate change, it is often women world-wide who have to attempt to pick up the pieces. And that means that in some communities, they must dedicate a significant portion of their day to finding clean water or collecting wood the UN says ― time they might otherwise have spent getting an education.

“Girls are sometimes kept home from school to help gather fuel, perpetuating the cycle of disempowerment,” the group says, showing just how many ways climate change touches on women’s lives. 

They are also more likely to die from natural disasters.

A startling 2007 study found that women are much more likely than men to be killed in natural disasters, and that natural disasters also lower the life expectancy of women more than men. The reasons for that are complex: partly, it’s because of biological, physiological differences. So pregnant women, for example, are less likely to be able to rescue themselves in a natural disaster. But cultural and social norms play a bigger role, the study’s authors argue. Women may be more likely to look after relatives or to the home during an emergency, which means they do not put themselves first. They point to other research that suggests that even wearing traditional clothing, like a sari, has been known to put women at greater risk, because it impedes their movement. 

Not only that, but when social order breaks down as it sometimes does after natural disasters, women and children are the ones who are most vulnerable to things like rape and abuse, Jackson said. 

“When social order breaks down and people become out of control, the most vulnerable and the weakest are the ones that suffer the most,” he said.

Pregnancy can make women particularly vulnerable.

First and foremost, pregnant women are more likely to be affected by extreme heat events, like heat waves or long, extended hot seasons, Jackson said.

But climate change can have an affect on pregnant women in other ways, too. For example, it is looking increasingly likely that climate change may have helped drive the spread of Zika, the virus that can cause birth defects and possibly miscarriage, too. And climate change can exacerbate environmental problems that put pregnant women at risk.

“Air pollutants can cause respiratory illness in pregnant women and also lead to low birth weight or pre-term birth,” a fact sheet from Carnegie Mellon University explains. “Climate change worsens air quality because warming temperatures make it easier for ground-level ozone to form.”

Saving the planet is quite literally in everyone’s best inerest, but it’s worth remembering that it’s often those who are already most vulnerable who are impacted first.

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