Global Climate Change: What Does it Mean for the World’s Women?

Just as climate change unequally impacts wealthy and low income countries, as well as the rich and poor within countries, it also disproportionately takes a toll on women.

It’s apparent from recent news that climate change is
finally getting the attention it deserves, even if the United States is still
dragging its heels on addressing the issue. But even that may change — a recent poll commissioned by the Presidential Climate Action Project
found that 66 percent of American adults want the next president to take
strong action on climate change. Many think of this in terms of reducing
consumption and greening our energy. But what about the other side of climate
change? People — particularly women and
poor people — will bear the brunt of a changing climate.

Climate change is causing more severe and more frequent
storms and drought, resulting in changes in timing and amount of rainfall that
damage agricultural production. Added to other environmental degradation, such
as deforestation, erosion, and desertification, these changes have significant
impacts on the health and livelihoods of people around the world. This
particularly affects poor countries, where, ironically, people emit the least
per capita, but pay the highest price for the emissions of wealthy,
high-emitting countries.

For example, the average Ethiopian emits 200 times less
carbon each year than the average American. Yet Ethiopia is expected to
experience more severe impacts, including major changes in temperature, water
availability, and malaria zones in upcoming years, with few resources to adapt.

The severity of climate change impacts on the poor keep
compounding: the poor are often more dependent on the environment for their
livelihoods, in the form of small scale agriculture and herding, which can be
severely influenced by drought or flooding. Moreover, poor families often have
less to fall back on in the event of a climate-related event — both in terms of
financial savings to rebuild their lives, and human capital, including
education that would allow them to pursue livelihoods less dependent on the

Just as climate change unequally impacts wealthy and low
income countries, as well as the rich and poor within countries, it is also
unequal in terms of gender. Emerging evidence shows that women and girls will
experience even greater inequality through the impacts of climate change. We
already know that women suffer disproportionately in nearly all disasters:
elderly women died at higher rates than older men in the European heat wave in
2003, women vastly outnumbered men in tsunami deaths in 2004, women outnumbered
men in cyclone deaths in Bangladesh, and the list goes on. A study of 4,605
natural disasters found that disasters shortened women’s life expectancy
significantly more than men’s (encouragingly, this association was reduced
where women’s status is more equal). Many women are made vulnerable by their
lack of access to sources of emergency information, as well as their lack of
decision-making power in disaster prevention and preparedness programs; they
are also often excluded from disaster recovery operations and from planning at
the national level.

The unequal impact on women is not only evident in major
disaster events- – it also affects everyday life and opportunities. In many
low-income countries, women already work more hours each day than men (a study
in rural Cameroon found that women work more than 64 hours a week, compared to
men’s 31 hours). The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
(FAO) estimates that women produce 60-80 percent of food grown in the
developing world — often small scale crops critical to their family’s
sustenance. Women and girls are responsible for collecting and carrying water — a
time consuming and physically demanding task in places where wells are not
easily accessible. In some places, this work takes hours each day, and as
communities cope with the effects of changes in climate, demands on women’s
time and workloads are likely to increase.

To compensate for increased demands on their time, poor
families may pull girls out of school, if they were are able to attend at all. The
stresses of a changing climate are being added to the many risks already facing
women in developing countries, undermining the critical role that women play in
the health and well-being of their families, the social cohesion of their
communities, and the preservation of their fields, forests, and waterways.

As climate change has unfolded around the world, many
governments and development organizations have begun to develop strategies to
adapt to the effects of climate change which include a wide variety of
approaches, from "climate-proofing" infrastructure to developing drought
resistant crops. Some adaptation programs also address underlying factors for
vulnerability to climate change, such as poverty and ill health. The UN
estimates that $86 billion in new funding will be needed by 2016 to help the world’s
poor cope with the stresses of climate change. However, contributions to
climate adaptation funding mechanisms have so far been relatively small and the
funding mechanisms slow.

Important questions that arise are: when that money is in
place, what kinds of projects will qualify as adaptation, how will the funds be
spent, and how will women’s needs be addressed? Already, there is an overall
lack of attention to the needs of women in low-income countries, and an even
greater lack of women’s participation in climate talks on adaptation to climate
change and mitigation of climate change through reductions in emissions.

To assess adaptation strategies, we must look at what
makes people vulnerable to climate change impacts, or their ability to cope with
change without experiencing declines in living standards. Important factors are
income level and income inequality, as well as health and human capacity –
including education – of a population, in addition to the quality of the
natural environment, such as available water and quality of land.

Interestingly, many of these benefits also accrue when women
are able to attain good reproductive health.
Women’s reproductive health, including their ability to space and time
births, as well as maternal morbidity
and mortality, have important impacts on
the health of women and their children. In many cases they also affect
children’s education and family well-being, particularly among poor families.

The huge scope of climate change requires multiple
strategies to prevent its worst effects and stave off reversals in hard won
advancements in human health and development around the world. It is troubling
that this comes at a time when international financial
support for voluntary family planning and reproductive health
declining. The world needs more women-centered research and strategies for
climate change adaptation, and the world’s large emitters must shoulder the
responsibility for their impacts on the world’s poorest populations in order to see a world that is more
equitable, healthy, able to prevent catastrophic climate change, and to adapt
to its impacts.