Over the past month, I have been speaking to women in Canada and the American Midwest about a powerful force that discriminates against us. I am not talking about the glass ceiling or sexists bosses, although we all know those still exist. I am talking about climate change.
You might think that a force as sweeping as global warming would be an equal opportunity threat: that it would endanger men and women alike. But the fact is climate change exacts a heavier toll on women.
Women produce up to 80 percent of the food in the developing world. Drought and unpredictable rains brought on by climate change will make this work far more precarious. Women will have to labor harder and longer to ensure their families have food, fuel, and water.
Our role as caretakers puts us at even greater risk in times of extreme weather. Studies have found that women are 14 times more likely to die as a result of storms and other extreme weather than men.
Fourteen times! Why? Because women often look after the children, the elderly, and the sick, and that means we have less mobility in a flood or wildfire.
The good news is that we can help women change this.
If you ask people the tools we need to stop climate change, most talk about wind and solar energy, fuel efficient cars, and biofuels. But there is another solution that is not so widely known: empowering women.
Right now, hundreds of millions of women are denied basic education, are married off too young, or lack access to adequate health care. The leading cause of death for girls between the ages of 15 and 19 is medical complications from pregnancy.
Most women and girls want more control over how and when they build their families, and most development organizations support that aim. Now researchers also recognize that what is good for women is also good for the planet.
Two groundbreaking studies, one from the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research and one from the Futures Group, found that simply by meeting women's existing needs for voluntary family planning, we could reduce carbon emissions by between 8 and 15 percent.
That is the equivalent of stopping all deforestation today.
This is an extraordinary proposition. Empowering women to make critical decisions in their own lives can help solve the biggest environmental and humanitarian challenge of our time.
This opportunity exists not only in developing nations, but here in America as well. Millions of women in the U.S. lack access to family planning. Giving them and their sisters around the world the education and health care they want will make enormous improvements in their lives.
This is a very promising finding. But in no way does empowerment take the place of government action on climate change. Developed nations in particular must do our part. We have released the lion's share of global warming pollution into the atmosphere. It is our moral obligation to power our economies in cleaner, safer ways.
Yet in the face of so urgent a crisis, we must fight with every weapon we have. Improving women's lives while curbing emissions offers another arrow in our quiver.
So in addition to what you may already be doing to protect the environment, I encourage you to also support organizations that empower and educate women here and around the globe.
And tell your lawmakers that the government's paralysis on climate change must end. It's embarrassing how many members of Congress continue to deny the existence of global warming, and it's shocking how many potential candidates for the 2012 presidential race have retracted their previous support of climate action. As some are saying in the media, these deniers are the new birthers.
To break through this willful ignorance, we must press our leaders in government and business to change how we produce energy and transport ourselves. Yet at the same time, we can also engage the world's women as a potent force of change.