Women and Climate Action

On Sept. 27, 2013, the latest Assessment Report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was released, reaffirming anthropogenic global warming as "unequivocal," and calling for "substantial and sustained reductions" of greenhouse gas emissions. Many other scientific studies warn that in the years ahead global warming and climate change will almost inevitably lead to an increase in environmental disasters, including severe drought, long heat waves, torrential rain, and more violent storms. Geologists also warn that global warming and the melting glaciers are likely to increase earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions in the years ahead.

Climate-related disasters have different impacts on different social groups; poor communities in the Global South and women face the most severe deprivation. Worldwide an estimated 80 percent of climate refugees -- people displaced by environmental disasters -- are women. Moreover, climate-related gender disparities tend to be most extreme in countries with entrenched, longstanding gender inequalities that restrict women's physical and social mobility. For example, in the Bangladesh cyclone of 1991, almost five times more women died than men because women could not swim, wore restricting clothing, or were forced to place themselves in extreme danger because they had to wait for a male to accompany them. Men who had access to public spaces were able to warn each of the danger but did not always inform their families left at home.

The feminization of poverty has led to a sharp gender disparity in poverty levels, and thus women on average have a smaller carbon footprint than men. Yet poor women around the world are more vulnerable to climate change, destruction of biodiversity, and loss of livelihood than groups with higher levels of consumption and pollution. Many women of the Global South rely on natural resources and ecosystems for subsistence and income. Unpredictable temperatures, drought, and flooding pose enormous challenges for women who, as the primary and often sole caregivers, are responsible for providing food, water, and firewood for their families. With reduced access to water and crops, the time spent on obtaining necessities increases.

In many countries of the Global South, the majority of farmers are women. Women produce between 60 and 80 percent of all food in the developing world, yet they own only about ten percent of all agricultural land and hold about two percent of land rights. Women as a group also have greater difficulty gaining access to education, income, land, livestock, and technology. Climate change may negatively impact female farmers more than male farmers by increasing burdens placed on women by further limiting their access to natural resources, employment, and other amenities. Thus it is impoverished women who bear the increasingly untenable consequences of climate change induced "eco-catastrophes."

Thus far, the global political and business elite has failed to take meaningful action. Yet as the human toll rises intolerably, an unprecedented climate movement is sweeping across the world. Women have often spearheaded environmental movements in their countries and regions. The Chipko Movement against deforestation in India, the Green Belt movement for tree planting in Kenya, and the movement against nuclear testing and toxic dumping in Micronesia are just a few examples. While the United Nations General Assembly was convening in Manhattan this September, the first International Women's Earth and Climate Summit was held in nearby Suffern, N.Y., on Sept. 20-23, drawing women leaders from 35 countries to bring attention to the climate emergency. An excerpt from their Declaration states:

"The science is clear. There is no more debate. The time for action is NOW. We will answer humanity's increased vulnerability with our increased commitment. We know that while women are among the most negatively impacted by climate disruption, we are also key to creating climate solutions... Cancel plans for future carbon developments and bring atmospheric CO2 concentrations back below 350 ppm [parts per million]; divest from dangerous and dirty fossil fuel developments -- coal fired power plants, oil shale fracking, deep-water oil drilling and Tar Sands, and rapidly phase out fossil fuel subsidies; put a price on carbon and implement carbon-fees and Financial Transaction Taxes... "

This Declaration needs to be widely disseminated, endorsed by activists and used to put pressure on lawmakers to take climate action nationally and on the global scale. And yet, while recognizing the tremendous efforts of female environmental activists and eco-feminists, we must be careful not to allow a focus on gender inequality to deflect attention from the intertwined issues of corporate globalization and widening North-South inequalities across the world and within women as a group. We must also consciously avoid making generalizations about women's vulnerability and virtuousness, which could lead to an increase in the responsibility of women, especially poor women in the South, for mitigating climate change. Rather than separating women's issues from other progressive agendas, women's climate action needs to be an integral part of the global social movement for climate and social justice.