A Gendered Take on The Climate Crisis

Jordyn Barker | Contributor

Recent natural disasters, rising temperatures, and dire warnings from scientists have aroused popular concern over the impending climate crisis. While much attention has been paid to  the destruction a climate catastrophe could wreak on human civilization, many media outlets have failed to recognize the disparate impact climate change will have on minority communities. Historically, minority groups have experienced a disproportionate share of hardship in times of crisis. Whether the disasters are natural or economic, societies tend to distribute hardship in discriminatory ways. Two infamous examples in recent US history are the 2008 Recession and Hurricane Katrina. Both of these disasters disproportionately impacted low income communities, African Americans and women. This historical pattern of placing undue burdens on minorities in times of crisis is incredibly relevant to climate change. Much like previous disasters, experts predict that the ramifications of climate change will not be felt evenly. Instead, minorities and disadvantaged populations will endure the most hardship as the world struggles to adjust to uninhabitable living conditions and violent natural disasters. Since most institutions and governments around the world are headed by white men, it is incredibly important to acknowledge the specific hardships women will endure in the future.

Poverty creates vulnerability to climate change. While poverty impacts both men and women, on average women suffer from greater economic instability and a higher likelihood of experiencing poverty than their male counterparts. This troubling trend occurs in both impoverished and wealthy countries.  This is due in part to limited educational opportunities for women around the world, as women are more than twice as likely to be illiterate than men (UN Women). Specifically in developing nations, women are more likely to perform agricultural labor. In fact, female labor accounts for anywhere from forty-five to eighty percent of all food produced in developing nations. In Africa specifically, the gender divide in agricultural labor is even more startling. Ninety-percent of the African female workforce is engaged in agricultural labor. (UN Women) Women are also more likely to be burdened with the majority of child-rearing and home-building work. This type of work is usually unpaid, and often leaves women financially dependent on the men in their lives. These facts are incredibly problematic, as all of these factors combine to put women around the world at an economic disadvantage.

Agricultural work specifically is often poorly paid and physically demanding. Climate change poses a serious threat to agriculture, thus threatening the livelihood of already impoverished women. Rising temperatures, droughts, wildfires, and floods will likely increase as climate change accelerates. These environmental conditions are incredibly dangerous to the agricultural industry, which depends on environmental stability. These conditions could render portions of  the planet currently used for agriculture unsuitable for such a purpose. Destruction of agricultural lands would not only eradicate the sole source of income for many women, it would also lead to widespread famine. Food shortages threaten all members of society- however studies have indicated that famine often disproportionately impacts the health of women and children in an impacted area. (UN Women)

Women also are more likely to sustain physical injuries in a natural disaster. One reason for this is pregnancy. Pregnancy can be physically, mentally, and emotionally taxing in the best conditions. Climate change will create conditions that exacerbate pregnancy complications, making unwanted pregnancy outcomes more likely, and placing the lives of pregnant women in jeopardy. Climate change has been accelerated  by increasing air and water pollution. Pollution is most prevalent in low-income communities, which often lack the resources necessary to maintain clean air and water. (GIWPS) In addition, studies have indicated that women face an increased risk of physical abuse by an intimate partner during or in the immediate aftermath of natural disasters. (GIWPS) These factors combine to further endanger women during times of environmental disaster.

Finally, climate change will likely lead to mass migration. As previously populated areas of the planet become uninhabitable, current residents will be forced to flee in droves. Massive human relocation could create a refugee crisis on a scale previously unseen. Impoverished individuals are the most likely to be displaced during mass migration, and most of those living in poverty are women and children. As demonstrated by the Syrian refugee crisis, developed nations are often unwilling to offer asylum to desperate immigrants fleeing for their lives. This unwillingness combined with perilous conditions makes the journey to asylum an extremely dangerous one. Unfortunately, women are most likely to sustain injuries or even die on the journey to safety. Female refugees often face physical and sexual abuse on the journey to asylum.

Any sufficient solution to the catastrophic environmental occurrences will require an understanding of the ways that climate change uniquely disadvantages women around the world. Disaster relief responses have historically left out women and minorities, leaving the most vulnerable members of the population to fend for themselves after environmental catastrophes. In addition, women suffer from disproportionately higher rates of poverty around the world, limiting their resources to combat the effects of climate change in their communities. The danger that droughts and floods pose to the agricultural industry will further financially devastate women, who make up a much higher proportion of the agricultural labor force around the world. Impoverished and disadvantaged women around the world will also face specific dangers on the road to seeking asylum, which the proliferation of natural disasters caused by climate change will make necessary. World leaders must take these factors into account when drafting policies to combat climate change.