How gender and climate change are interconnected

How gender and climate change are interconnected

Climate change impacts everyone. But not equally.

Olga Rabo

Aug 12, 2020

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10

min read


The today’s world is reeling from the devastating social and economic impacts of COVID-19. This pandemic (which we talked about here before) has unmasked how fragile and truly unequal our world really is from economic and social perspectives.

We saw global supply chains disrupted in China (which is a global capitalism issue). We saw black Americans dying in disproportionate numbers in the US (which is a racial justice issue). And we also saw how women across the entire world became silent victims of COVID-19, due to an increase of domestic violence, massive hit on the health and social services sector (which staff is 70% women) and lost income (women shouldered nearly 60%of job losses compared to men). Which, all in all, is a feminist issue.

COVID-19 showed us, now more clearly than ever, that everything is interconnected. This isn’t just about the health crisis — it’s about multiple crises, all at once. It’s a crisis layered on top of another crisis resting on top of a crisis. Kind of like a very terrible cake: as you cut yourself a piece, you get a taste of everything at once, and it’s disgustingly overwhelming.

A recent study conducted by The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) revealed that there is a strong correlation between gender inequality, climate vulnerability and state security, and countries with higher values in one issue area tend to have a higher score in the other issue areas as well. This means, in other words, that if women have less access to financial independence (i.e. gender inequality), they’re also less able to bounce back in terms of jobs and training opportunities after climate-related disasters (as they’re more susceptible to climate vulnerability).

In fact, women are more likely to:

- Die in climate change-related disasters (14 times more likely than men);

- Suffer from increased workload and loss of income;

- Be displaced (80% of people displaced by climate change are women);

- Experience health problems, violence and sexual harassment in the aftermath of climate-related events (e.g. in resource conflicts)

For example, 83% of single mothers were unable to return home after Hurricane Katrina for a full two years after the disaster, as reported by NRDC. Single mothers, not single fathers, mind you. It was also estimated, in the same report, that two-thirds of jobs lost after Katrina were lost by women. Not men. Why? Because after a natural disaster, more often than not, the only jobs available are in construction and rebuilding: the two fields that are traditionally male-dominated.

But it’s not just the US.

Remember the 2004 tsunami in the Indian ocean? An Oxfam report actually found that surviving men outnumbered women by almost 3:1 in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and India. Or, after the cyclone disaster hit Bangladesh in 1991, it was reported that 90% of the overall fatalities were women.

Such differentiated impact of climate-related disasters on men and women is primarily caused by the fact that women have a lower socio-economic status than men around the world.

If you want to understand this, take a look at the Global Gender Gap reportwhich highlights this very well.

It measures gender equity across four different sub-indices across 153 countries: economic participation, access to education, health & survival, and political empowerment. While in some sectors, like education and health, the gender gap is coming to a close, when it comes to politics, women are overwhelmingly under-represented. Out of the 153 countries examined in the report, women hold 25% parliamentary seats and only 21% of public minister’s roles. Worse yet, 85 of the 153 countries haven’t had a woman as their head of state in over 50 years.

So, as women are already unequally positioned in our predominantly male (and predominantly white) power structures, when natural disasters occur (and those normally affect infrastructure, jobs, and housing), it makes it difficult for women to recover. This way, climate-related disasters only exacerbate the gender equity gaps that already exist.

Researchers have repeatedly stressed how imperative it is to understand how gender norms, expectations and power structures shape the different ways that men and women experience climate-related security risks.

The United Nations itself has acknowledged the fact in their 2019 Annual Report on Women, Peace and Security, saying: “The global threat of climate change and environmental degradation is poised to exacerbate the already increasing number of complex emergencies, which disproportionately affect women and girls. There is therefore an urgent need for better analysis and concrete, immediate actions to address the linkages between climate change and conflict from a gender perspective.”

There is an urgent need for better analysis and concrete, immediate actions to address the linkages between climate change and conflict from a gender perspective.

— ANTONIO GUTERRES, UN SECRETARY-GENERAL, 2019

The climate crisis stretches well beyond just climate itself. To tackle it effectively, we need to address the links between climate and other social issues we’re currently facing.

Gender intersectionality and climate change

Gender inequality means that women (as well as children and elderly people) are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, which puts that group at higher risk.

But of course, this is not the case for all women: as always, if you’re white, you’re better off (also when you’re a woman).

In the UK, research showed that BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) women are suffering greater financial and psychological consequences from coronavirus in comparison to white women. 42.5% of BAME women reported that they had lost support from the government, as opposed to 12.7% of white women (that’s three times the difference). Over 50% of BAME women said they were “not sure where to turn for help” as a result of COVID, compared to 18.7% of white respondents who were asked the same.

BAME women and Covid-19
BASED ON: FAWCETT SOCIETY

Women of color are more likely to end up in debt, be out of work, struggle to pay rent, struggle to receive any kind of support, and the list goes on and on. This is where intersectionality comes into play to add that extra taste to the cake.

Everything is interconnected.

You cannot adapt a gender-blind, racially-blind approach when trying to solve climate change. The social issues we’re currently facing cover all spectrums of our entire existence: it’s a horizontal, all-encompassing scope. These issues are stuck to each other like they’re super glue, and you simply cannot solve one thing and dis-attach the other. It’s impossible. If you do, it only hurts more. And yet, this is how people in power positions — the predominantly white, predominantly male people — are trying to solve the climate crisis.

Today’s policy makers approach problem solving in siloes: they’re trying to find a single solution for each single problem So while this definitely helps keeping things “more organized”, tucked in neat little boxes, such an approach doesn’t allow to see the bigger picture, to see our world as a whole. It ignores complexities, symbiotic relationships, and interconnected issues that we’re experiencing as society, and it jeopardizes our efforts to actually solve any of our problems efficiently.

The interplay of gender inequality, racial injustice and climate change is a fitting example of this phenomenon.

Did you know?

The first climate scientist who discovered global warming actually happened to be a woman. Her name was Eunice Newton Foote, a name you never heard of. She published her research paper in 1856. Few years later, a man, John Tydall, published the exact same research, and today he’s known as the founding father of climate science.

The future is female? Yes, but where are the women?

By applying a gender lens to the climate crisis, we begin to see things differently. Or rather, more holistically.

Climate change does have an effect on women. So, can women have an effect on climate change? According to research, they can, and they do, and they do so positively.

The study on the impacts of climate change on women and public policy, conducted by Women’s Environmental Network, observed that developed countries with higher levels of female political representation have been most successful in reducing their carbon emissions. Of the 16 countries ranked high between 1990 and 2004, 13 of these countries had a higher proportion of female representatives.

Furthermore, women are found to be more concerned about climate change than men. The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication did a study in 2017 on gender differences in public understanding of climate change. They found that women are more likely to agree with climate scientists, believe that climate change will be harmful, and are concerned about climate change, in general, more than men are:

Gender differences and global warming
BASED ON: THE YALE PROGRAM ON CLIMATE CHANGE COMMUNICATION

When you think about how women, globally, suffer from climate change more than men do, this finding makes total sense. Women are concerned about climate change because it affects them more.

But it’s not just the climate crisis.

Take the 2008 financial crisis, for instance. You might have never looked at it though the gender lens, but, apparently, in the aftermath of 2008, multiple reports suggested that banks led by a higher proportion of women suffered less from the global economic crisis. As a consequence, this called for a more balanced gender ratio in leadership, and the number of women on the board (for European banks, at least) doubled from 15% to 24% since 2008.

Or take coronavirus. The Guardian suggests that countries with female-led leadership have done a better job handling the pandemic in comparison to countries with male leaders, at least statistically speaking. Just think of Iceland, New Zealand, Germany, Finland, Taiwan...

Of course, none of this means that “women are better than men”. This only means that gender-balanced institutions can potentially reach more effective decisions because they account for a wider range of needs, perspectives, and ideas.

Things are the same when it comes to fighting climate change: if you want to reach better solutions, you need to invite women to the table.

Yet, gender dynamics are still relatively poorly understood at the international level in all sectors — and they are generally lacking in climate-security policymaking as well.

According to the United Nations, women are still under-represented in decision making on climate issues, citing only 33%. More often than not, women are simply not involved in the decisions made about the response to climate change.

The failure from leaders to take into account the disproportionate impact of climate change on women and the roles that women play in lessening its harmful effects will mean a slow recovery from climate-related disasters and slow transition to green energy. And “slow” normally means losing more money.

The solution? Involve more women. Women account for 50% of the world’s population. When we solve a world crisis, 100% of the world’s population needs to be involved. It’s as simple as that.

Women and climate change: What’s next?  

As we’re sitting on mountains of evidence proving that climate change affects women more, we still need to better understand inequalities, different needs, vulnerabilities, roles, and capacities of women to contribute to positive environmental outcomes if we truly want to solve the climate crisis.

Everything, after all, is interconnected.

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