Recently, more than 115 world leaders gathered at the largest and most important United Nations meeting ever on fighting against global warming.
In fact, the United Nations Climate Change Conference through its Copenhagen Accord has failed to reach a deal on industrialized and emerging nations reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, although it has successfully set a goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius over the coming years, and developed nations made a financial commitment to help poor nations cope with the effects of climate change.
After all this time, most of the debate about climate change has revolved around countries’ relative responsibility for limiting the growth of greenhouse gas emissions and funding efforts to shift to low-carbon energy and other green technologies. Climate change is more than just an issue of energy efficiency or industrial carbon emissions; it is also about people, where and how they live, what they consume, and the rights and opportunities available to them.
It is therefore fundamental to reflect on how climate change will affect women, men, boys and girls differently around the world, within nations, and how individual behavior can undermine or contribute to the global effort to cool our warming world. Climate change will not only endanger lives and undermine livelihoods, it will also exacerbate the gap between rich and poor and amplify the inequities between women and men.
Prior to the United Nations Climate Change Conference, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) published a book about the state of the world’s population in 2009 entitled, Facing a Changing World: Women, Population and Climate. This publication explores the critical connections among population dynamics, reproductive health, women’s lives and climate change as they relate to greenhouse gas emissions and societies’ resilience against the impacts of climate change.
According to the report, international climate change agreements and national policies are more likely to succeed in the long run if they take into account population dynamics, family planning, gender relations, reproductive health care, women’s well-being and access to services and opportunities as these elements could influence the future course of climate change and affect how humanity adapts to rising seas, worsening storms and severe droughts.
The report shows that women have the power to mobilize against climate change, but this potential can only be realized through policies empowering women. It also shows the required support that would allow women to fully contribute to the adaptation and mitigation as well as build resilience to climate change.
Women are indeed among the most vulnerable to climate change, partly because in many countries they make up a larger share of the agricultural workforce and partly because they tend to have less access to income-earning opportunities than men. Women manage households and care for family members, which often limits their mobility and increases their vulnerability to sudden weather-related natural disasters.
Drought and erratic rainfall force women to work harder to secure food, water and energy for their homes. Girls drop out of school to help their mothers with these tasks. Such a cycle of deprivation, poverty and inequality undermines the social capital needed to deal effectively with climate change.
Women are currently suffering disproportionately as a consequence of climate change.
Environmentalists estimate that 70 percent of the poor, who are more vulnerable to environmental damage, are women. Women die in greater numbers in disasters than men, and they tend to die at younger ages, but there are few reliable studies to document this phenomena, largely because there has so far been little focus by the international community on the gender impact of natural disasters.
Localized case studies associated with a devastating 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh, the 2003 European heat wave, and the 2004 Asian tsunami nonetheless affirm the greater vulnerability of women.
Through sampling data from natural disasters in 141 countries between 1981 and 2002, economists Eric Neumayer and Thomas Plümper confirmed that natural disasters and their subsequent impact on average kill more women than men.
Furthermore, the condition of women surviving from disaster could be no better as they still have to stay at shelters with more problems such as sexual harassment, discrimination, violence and they have limited access related to their reproductive health rights.
In Lamreh shelter in Aceh for example, in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, hygiene kits for women were provided in a very limited number. Due to an emergency, a woman gave birth in an unsafe and unhygienic way; girls and women were raped, trafficking and discriminated against. With the 2006 Lapindo Mud case in East Java, women were left with tremendous problems as their specific needs were not prioritized and they were vulnerable to trafficking.
Nowadays, women in poor and wealthy countries alike are increasingly working either directly on climate change, on the global stage or in their communities, or they are struggling and strategizing to prevail amid deteriorating environmental conditions. Since women are usually responsible for household work, women in affluent countries have substantial power to reduce their families’ carbon footprint and environmental impact.
At the same time, women in developing countries have the power to reject the consumption pattern modeled on more affluent countries and to craft their own alternatives. And women everywhere have the power to teach the next generation about the importance of sustainability. In addressing the issue of climate change, the Indonesian government for example has been conducting gender mainstreaming strategies in relation to the environment, disaster relief and social conflict supported by running gender-responsive programs. Women’s and environmental NGOs in Indonesia have also been working together in facilitating women to manage local resources in their regions by providing technical assistance.
The mandates of governments and other institutions to consider women’s circumstances and gender relations have been established in declarations of rights and other agreements predating the world’s current focus on climate change. The 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women commits ratifying nations to conform their legislation and legal system to gender equality and to eliminate all distinctions, exclusions or restrictions made on the basis of sex.
The 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) Program of Action placed sexual and reproductive health at the center of women’s equality with men and their dignity and capacities as human beings. The 1995 Beijing Platform for Action called for gender mainstreaming in development and human affairs generally, meaning a fundamental consideration of differential impacts of policies and programs for women and men as the rule rather than the exception.
The secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has made an important step forward by putting women as important actors in ensuring their communities’ ability to cope with and adapt to climate change. The UNFCCC Secretariat is newly committed to taking gender into consideration in its deliberations, and the Global Environment Facility is now committed to assessing the impacts of its investments on women. The percentage of women at the negotiating tables of the Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC appears to be improving slightly, it varied from 15 percent to 23 percent in the 1990s and in recent years has been around 28 percent.
It is thus timely the climate debate should continuously take into account the human and gender dimensions of every aspect of the problem. Women must be involved not only in negotiations and planning, but also in implementation involving a vast array of institutions. Women’s voices will need to be forceful and heard, from tribal councils to national energy ministries to the halls of the United Nations. As stated by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai of Kenya, there is unlikely to be climate equity without gender equity.