Women x The Environment: Decreasing Our Vulnerabilities

Three months ago, women all over the world came together to defend causes that affect their lives and to ensure that honest actions are taken to improve women’s quality of life. The Women’s March originated in Washington, D.C. gave a powerful message and call for activism that quickly spread throughout the United States and around the globe. As women, we are at the intersection of many diverse issues, but few are as critical and as overlooked as our intersection with climate change; with the March for Science and Earth Day upon us, there is hardly a better time to delve into this intersection.

As countries continue to develop, leaders around the world are searching for solutions that ensure that we do so without exacerbating climatic conditions. As we have been warned time and time again, we are experiencing the repercussions of excessive industrial development and subsequent carbon emissions. Due to the greenhouse effect, our planet’s average temperature is rising and there are (and will continue to be) changes in our climate and our ecosystems. 

As Richard S.J. Tol wrote, “Climate change is the mother of all externalities.” By the mid-20th century, changes in ocean patterns and acidification will re-distribute marine species and challenge the productivity of fisheries in regions that depend on them for sustenance and economic stability. By the late-20th century, the production of major crops such as rice, wheat, and maize will experience a decrease in output, affecting the food security of people in developing countries and around the world. Changes in climate are already producing more heat-related mortalities and fewer cold-related mortalities, and may also increase the spread of disease due to increased vector habitats. Increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events are expected, and people around the world—and even in the United States—are already being displaced due to rising sea levels.

Women, however, are increasingly vulnerable. We tend to have higher mortality rates during extreme weather events than men. Pregnant women (and, consequently, the children they carry) are more vulnerable to vector- and water-borne diseases. While women are disadvantaged across the board, women in developing counties or underserved communities are disproportionately susceptible.

In developing nations, depending on the country, women produce from 45 and up to 80% of food. Climate changes, such as increased drought, not only make agricultural tasks much more difficult for women farmers, but also decrease output and profits. Conditions are further exacerbated by the limited resources and the lack of opportunity for women in many low-income countries. Decreased profits from agricultural products could mean less sustenance for children and/or fewer resources to be able to clothe them and send them to school. These repercussions mean that the population is not achieving their social and economic potential, which can have everlasting affects on a community.

So, what can we do? While there is extensive evidence that women are more affected by environmental degradation than men, we also stand at an advantage for creating change to save our planet. In many cultures, women are at the center of the household: they make decisions about what products to use, what foods to eat, where to go, and how to get there. This gives us unprecedented power over cultural change and the effects of climate change. Small changes in the household quickly multiply and can decrease national emissions by more than 123 million metric tons of carbon per year. However, female action as home alone will not be enough to solve climate change or make sustainable development more successful.

Currently, women constitute between 26-33% of heads of delegation in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)—a clear minority. However, in order to solve the issue of climate change, we need multi-dimensional perspectives that can offer those multi-dimensional solutions. In this way, women can draw from our various intersectionalities in order to decrease our planet’s (and our) vulnerabilities.

There are endless benefits to including women in talks about the climate and sustainability in general. It begins with our nature; women generally tend to work well in collaborative situations. We also think more about disadvantages communities, which leads to more holistic solutions to sometimes oversimplified problems. But even with women at the table, the effects of a well meaning-project on women may not be completely assessed.

A gender analysis, as defined by Juliet Hunt is “the process of assessing the impact that a development activity may have on females and males, and on gender relations—the economic and social relationships between males and females which are constructed and reinforced by social institutions.” Gender-analysis is a critical part of creating solutions, as it allows project managers to think more deeply about the effects a project may have on gender equity from its inception. It also creates opportunities for innovation and more multi-dimensional solutions, which are more likely to succeed.

While the effects of climate change are real (and frightening), it is not hopeless. The role of women in climate change does not have to be limited to high-level conferences and large development projects. One of the simplest things you can do is measure your carbon footprint; you don’t know what part of your lifestyle to fix unless you understand the impact you are having on the planet. As we celebrate Earth Day, we should keep in mind both the vulnerabilities and the possible opportunities for women within the fight against climate change.



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Paola is a senior studying Science, Technology, and International Affairs with a focus on Energy and the Environment at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. Through various internships and jobs, she has cultivated a passion for issues of sustainability, in particular the intersection between business practices and social and environmental responsibility. Connect with her via LinkedIn.