Climate justice, explained
We’ve all seen the impacts of the climate crisis, but chances are if you’re reading this, you haven’t seen the worst of it. Here’s what you need to know about climate justice.
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With women and girls making up 70% of people living in extreme poverty, and the climate crisis having a disproportionate effect on low and lower-middle–income countries, it’s no surprise that women are more affected by climate change than men.
This isn’t just anecdotal, nor is it an easy situation to contain: The gender inequalities of climate change are proven to be more fatal to women during and after emergencies, leave them more vulnerable in terms of key areas like food security and livelihoods, and their impacts can carry lasting effects for all of us.
It’s a complex topic, but we’ve done our best to break it down into eight things you need to know about women and climate change.
48% of women in low-income countries rely on the land for their livelihoods. However, in many of these countries, it’s illegal for women to own the land that they work, even if it’s a family plot. At a Seeds of Hope event for Concern US, our activist friend Bono put it more succinctly: “They can work the land, but they can't [expletive] OWN the land.”
This puts women at a significant financial disadvantage for being as successful as their male counterparts. Female farmers often lack equitable access to the same tools, seeds, and other resources, meaning that their land is less productive. This means they’re also left out of many initiatives to help farmers adapt to the effects of climate change (more on that in a bit).
Water is a women’s issue. Over two billion people around the world lack clean water at home, which means collecting water from a source point. This often means walking 30 minutes each way. As a result of this, women and girls are left to complete what UNICEF calls “a colossal waste of time” — a total of 200 million hours spent fetching water every day. Likewise, collecting food and firewood as well as other natural fuels are often chores left for women and girls.
With resources becoming more scarce due to the climate crisis, many women and girls are left to go even further for these daily necessities. This not only takes up a significant portion of their days, but also leaves them open to attacks, either by another human (especially in conflict zones) or wild animals.
In more ways than one, gender equality saves lives. A 2006 study conducted by the London School of Economics showed that, across 141 natural disasters, women mortality rates are higher than men’s in situations where “economic and social rights are [not] fulfilled for both sexes.”
Harmful gender norms leave women behind men in terms of some key, lifesaving skills during a natural disaster: Women are more likely to be illiterate, which means they may not have the full information they need in an early warning system or following a climate event. They are also less likely to know how to swim or climb trees, as the UN Environment Programme points out, and in some circumstances may not be allowed to evacuate their home without a man’s consent. They’re also often left to care for other vulnerable people, including children and the elderly. All of these factors contribute to women being more likely to lose their lives, or at the very least sustain major injuries, when a disaster strikes.
Women who survive a flood, mudslide, drought, or earthquake are still vulnerable. In the wake of a climate-related emergency, people often have to relocate either temporarily (such as last year’s Mount Nyiragongo eruption in the DRC), or for a longer period of time (such as the large number of IDPs in the wake of a decade-long drought in Somalia). In these contexts, women and girls — especially those heading their own family without a male partner or guardian — are more vulnerable to sexual abuse and human trafficking. They also face greater discrimination in supply and aid distribution, and miss out on key information. As UN Women notes, this creates a “cycle of vulnerability” against future disasters. It can also fuel a family’s cycle of poverty.
There are a number of health issues that can be attributed in part to climate change. Air pollution leads to greater chances of respiratory disease (such as asthma) and cardiovascular issues. Floods, monsoons, and cyclones contribute to higher rates of waterborne illnesses. Less food grown means less food available to eat.
This isn’t a shared burden. Women are often more susceptible to these issues, inhaling more toxins cooking over non-eco stoves and using more water in their daily routines which could leave them open to parasites. Maternal and child health is affected by climate-related events, especially if a climate disaster requires a country or community’s healthcare system to divert maternity resources to emergency response. And women are often the first to cut back on their food (and, by extension, nutrition) when a climate-affected harvest doesn’t yield as much as expected.
It’s important to note that, as with many of these issues, these impacts don’t solely affect women. A woman who is malnourished during her pregnancy is more likely to give birth to a malnourished child, setting them up for a lifetime of potential health and development issues. Viruses like Zika, which come from mosquito bites, can also be passed in-vitro. Beyond the right of all people to enjoy equal opportunities and treatment from a society, this is another reason that we should all care about gender equality in the context of climate change.
Climate refugees face a unique set of challenges. Because they are not, strictly speaking, refugees, and many only migrate within their own country, they aren’t accorded the same rights and protections as legal refugees. “These people fall through the cracks,” Erol Yayboke of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told NPR in 2018.
“It’s hard for countries to come to a consensus on something like this.… The reality is there are tens of millions of these people, and we don’t agree on what we can do about them.”
In the meantime, many people displaced by climate change are women. Female refugees often face their own challenges within an already-challenging context, and without the same rights accorded to women forced to migrate due to climate, they’re that much further behind. Finding basic, and safe, shelter is more difficult for women, and they are also at heightened risk for sexual assault and gender-based violence. Earning an income while in displacement is another challenge, and many women are left without a support system in place.
Community plans for early warning and other forms of disaster risk reduction often leave out the people who stand to lose the most from these disasters. The problem is that, when these systems are then put into place, they don’t account for the adjustments that would need to be made for the elderly, disabled, or — most often — women. This also holds true for the more “everyday” responses to global warming, such as Climate Smart Agriculture practices. Many women are left out of these trainings and resource distributions.
This is all the more true for Indigenous women, women who are HIV-positive, women of a non-dominant race, caste, or ethnicity, and women whose other identities can leave them further marginalised beyond their gender. As the Thai activist Matcha Phorn-in put it: “If you are invisible in everyday life, your needs will not be thought of, let alone addressed, in a crisis situation.”
What’s especially damaging about this truth is that women are key partners and leaders in the fight against climate change. Bringing their expertise and experience to the decision-making table will ensure that the ways we fight the climate crisis will be more sustainable, successful, and equitable — for all.
Concern’s climate change response is built on the understanding that climate vulnerability depends not only on the impacts of climate change on a community, but also that community’s resilience to climate emergencies.
From start to finish, our projects fully involve communities in the planning and execution process. We also make a point of finding the most vulnerable groups within communities — such as women and the disabled — to ensure that our programs leave no one behind. Our projects don’t focus solely on dramatic headline-grabbing events such as cyclones or droughts, but also on the everyday climate risks; smaller, less dramatic events which combine to keep people in poverty.