Unquestionably, the most urgent and demanding crisis of our times is climate change and the need for climate justice. The world is getting warmer. The science is undeniable.
Without determined action there will continue to be an increase in climate disasters and their related impacts: famine; land degradation and loss; destruction of homes and infrastructure; huge numbers of climate refugees; and the mass extinction of animal and plant species.
When ocean levels rise, harvests fail and natural disasters disrupt communities and claim lives, we are all affected. But it does not affect us all equally.
It might seem unusual to describe climate change as a feminist issue. But it uniquely and unequally affects women and girls in many ways. Despite being the people who contributed the least to problem, they are often the hardest hit, especially in poor countries.
The current crisis is largely the result of human activities since the mid-20th century. Global temperatures have been rising and are at their highest since records began. Since 1900, the average air temperature has increased by about 1° Celcius and the four warmest years on record have occurred since 2015.
The planet’s increasing temperatures are melting ice caps in the Arctic, raising sea levels, changing rainfall patterns and creating other extreme events such as hurricanes and cyclones.
Climate change and poverty
Extreme weather is destroying livelihoods and displacing communities around the world. Unpredictable seasons, combined with rising sea levels and erratic rainfall which contributes to floods, droughts and crop failures, mean that millions of people already struggling to survive are finding it even more difficult to grow food, get clean water and access shelter.
The right to adequate food, water, health and housing are basic human rights. But the greater the poverty, the harder it becomes to recover from failed harvests, destroyed homes, water scarcity and deepening health crises.
More than 9 million people already face severe food shortages and this number is expected to rise. About 70% of the world’s poor depend on culitvating the land for their food and livelihood. More than 1.3 billion people in the global South rely on agricultural land that is slowly degrading.
Long-term changes in climate can cause droughts, floods and increased salt in the soil, which affect water supply, farming crops and rearing animals. This affects food production, the spread of disease and the displacement of communities.
Climate change can force mass migration when food and water supplies become scarce, or when their homes and livelihoods are destroyed. An average of 26 million people flee their homes every year due to climate-related disasters. Of these, 80% are women.
Impact on women
Women and girls living in poverty are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, due to their given social roles and their status in society.
Women and girls often bear the heaviest burden of climate change as the majority of the world’s poor are women. They have fewer rights, are denied critical access to land, inheritance and money.
70% of the 1.2 billion people suffering from hunger in the world, are women and girls.
Most of the world’s estimated 1 billion rural women rely on agriculture or natural resources to survive. This dependency makes them vulnerable to climate change.
Women and girls are more likely to be pulled out of school to work on the family’s land. When climate change forces women and girls from their homes, they become vulnerable to early marriage, adolescent pregnancy, rape and trafficking.
A 2015 report by Georgetown University found women are disproportionately affected by environmental changes, for many reasons. They make up the majority of the world’s poor and are responsible for most of the agricultural work and food production. This increases their personal and economic vulnerability to lost harvests, floods and droughts.
In many countries, women also bear primary care responsibilities for families and communities and when resources become scarce, the burden of this (often unpaid) care work increases.
Because women often have less access to resources, they are also likely to be the last to leave when a natural disaster occurs: a 2007 study by the London School of Economics found that natural disasters are more likely to kill women than men.
Women and girls are responsible for collecting water in 80% of households without access to piped water.
Climate change also harms pregnant and parenting women. Increasing heat and air pollution is associated with adverse pregnancy outcomes, including premature birth, low birth weight babies and stillbirth.
As primary caregivers for children, women are more likely than men to shoulder the burden of caring for children with health problems aggravated by climate change, such as asthma and allergies.
Poverty in the global South
While climate change impacts us all, its effects fall particularly hard on women and girls because of inequalities based not only on gender, but also on race, class and nationality.
Globally, women and girls represent 70% of those living in poverty. The combined effects of inequalities based on gender, race, national origin and economic class make the harmful effects of climate change fall most harshly on women and girls of colour, especially in the global South.
Research into the gendered politics of disaster and climate change argue that gender hierarchies, patriarchal structures and masculinity are closely related to the denial of environmental crisis and to female vulnerability to climate-aggravated disasters.
A 2017 survey of US adults by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication on gender differences in public understanding of climate change found women are more likely than men to believe that climate change will be harmful, to be concerned about climate change and to support climate change mitigation policies.
Right to healthy environment
We all have the right to a healthy environment, including clean drinking water, breathable air and a safe and sustainable place to live. Climate change threatens these rights.
Voracious consumption in the global North is the engine of climate change. Climate justice spotlights how those least responsible for climate change — poor people of colour, especially in the global South—suffer its gravest consequences.
When we do not demand governments divest from fossil fuels and invest instead in sustainable energy sources, we are contributing to the oppression of marginalised people, particularly women.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) now recognises women’s unique vulnerability to climate change. Yet, in many countries they are still excluded from making decisions about environmental sustainability. Still, they play a crucial role in climate change adaptation and mitigation.
Women have the knowledge and understanding of what is needed to come up with practical solutions for a changing environment.
But we are still a largely untapped resource because of restricted land rights, lack of access to financial resources, education and training and technology. Our limited access to decision making prevents us from playing a role.
Evidence shows that women’s empowerment and advancing gender equality can deliver results, including food and economic security and health. It can also lead to environmentally friendly decision making at both household and national levels.
Climate change affects all of us, but its impacts on women are especially pronounced. We can all do more to mitigate our own impact on the environment and to rally our communities around change.
Whichever course of action we choose, we must all commit to protecting and promoting women’s rights and safety by actively promoting climate justice for all.
To change course, we need a revolution in which female empowerment is central.
[Based on a speech given to the Geelong Women Unionist Network International Women’s Day breakfast held at Geelong Trades Hall on March 7.]