Government policy on climate change is ignoring the people who in many ways need it most: women. Nuala Burnett explains why, and what we can do.
We are on the cusp of a newfound environmentalism.
Across the globe protestors and activists are demanding government action against climate change, strengthened in their vigor by the denial of corporations and major leaders. But in amongst this surge of publicicity one issue doesn’t make it to the front page, and it’s one of the biggest challenges facing the prevention of an ecological disaster. The inbuilt gender inequality of climate change narratives.
Women and children are amongst the most negatively impacted by climate change. The livelihoods of a vast majority of women, particularly in the global South, are inextricably tied to domestic life, placing them at a far greater risk from extreme events. Many women experience the impacts of climate change first-hand in working to source food, water, and shelter for their families. Traditionally, men are able to find new forms of employment following a major natural disaster, but the lives of women experience great upheaval. Their homes and resources are degraded and, sometimes, utterly destroyed. In central Africa, almost 90% of Lake Chad has dried up, forcing women to walk further in order to collect water, impacting both their day-to-day lives and ability to further their education, widening the gender gap in terms of formalised employment.
This is a dichotomy that is far less prevalent in the Western world, however women continue to be amongst the worst impacted. For instance, following the devastating impacts of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, African-American women were amongst the worst impacted by flooding across New Orleans, a precursor for the impacts of rising sea levels on future Louisiana. Climate change is ultimately an issue that will gravely impact everyone in the long run – but it’s impossible to ignore to disparate social effects it has on women today.
But what can we do?
Short of stopping climate change, or redefining the roles of women in those societies, integration of ‘loss and damage’ financing into climate change policy could help to alleviate some of the pressure. This approach assesses and quantifies the extent of the impacts produced by polluters and consumers worldwide, detailing both economic and non-economic costs, which can be used as a checklist to compensate for climate induced loss.
This economic valuation could help women to recover from the dramatic impacts of climate change through placing a value on home-making, something that has largely been ignored by many policy makers and decision groups. Domestic labour is not a new sociological concept, but is consistently undervalued in policy frameworks, despite the common practice of outsourcing these jobs in Western society. It is common practice for many career women (and men!) to pay others to take care of their homes, children and even food shopping, emphasising the economic value of these practices. A greater push to recognise the work done by women across the globe could lead to a more equitable response to climate change, with the greatest polluters (such as major corporations) being held accountable for their input in a more specific and quantified manner.
Policy is leaving these women behind. Why? Because they’re relatively underrepresented in the sphere of such decisions.
Major conferences have traditionally been largely comprised of white, European men, despite research finding that countries with a high representation of women in parliament are more likely to ratify international environmental policies (although this may simply be a correlation with a more liberal attitude overall). This underrepresentation is an issue not only in terms of gender balance, but in relation to understanding exactly how climate change impacts women differently.
However, following the UN gender equality plan, the most recent COP 24 climate conference in Katowice, Poland was host to events specifically encapsulating the need for gender inequality in a ‘just transition’ towards net zero emissions. A just transition essentially means phasing out fossil fuels without causing mass unemployment and it has the opportunity to empower women to be involved in the move towards a more sustainable future; be it economically, in terms of gender, race and sexuality.
Women comprise over 43% of the agricultural labour force in the global South. Despite this, they’re often unrecognised and unpaid and many do not have access to the same resources as men, meaning that their yields are significantly lower and their crops more at risk from climate induced failure. Yet again, women are significantly disadvantaged in the face of climate change.
But how do we solve this? Let’s listen to them and their local knowledge. Let’s talk to them about sustainable technologies. When provided with the same resources as men, women can raise yields by 30%. In Kenya, empowerment of women has been found to directly correlate not only to increased, but more sustainable maize productivity.
Nearly half of the world’s inhabitants are female; in order to limit global warming to the 1.5°C limit proposed by the IPCC, we need the whole world involved. We can’t just pursue tech solutions and emissions caps, we need to address inequality.
Women are often told that they need to break through the glass ceiling, leveling their own economic progress with that of men. Climate change has created a new atmospheric ceiling of accountability for the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions, an impasse that must be shattered in order for net zero emissions to be reached.
We’re not going to save the world without girls.
Words: Nuala Burnett
Illustration: Izzy Ayres