Gender dimensions of climate change


UNESCO, Nairobi, Kenya

Climate change is a global phenomenon; as such, all people are vulnerable to its impacts. And, yet, one major demographic in particular disproportionately bears the brunt of shifting weather patterns: women. The fact that the world’s women must suffer the consequences of a warming planet more acutely than their husbands, brothers, and fathers is made all the more ironic by the fact that women have repeatedly found themselves at the margins of the political decision-making process. And, yet, while an increasing number of stories highlight the human costs of climate change, too few recognize the inherent gender dynamic present when discussing the causes, impacts, and response to global warming. 

In the strictest sense, there is an argument to be made that climate change has claimed the lives of more women than men: a 2006 London School of Economics paper studied 4,605 natural disasters in 141 countries and found that, particularly in countries with a high level of discrimination against women – say, not being able to move freely without a male escort – casualties were higher among women than among men. With the number of weather-related natural disasters having quadrupled in the past two decades, a pattern that is only predicted to exacerbate in the future – our changing climate is set to further endanger women’s lives.

But the threat climate change poses to women is hardly limited to natural disasters. Often constrained by laws and cultural norms that limit their economic opportunities, many women in developing countries depend upon agriculture. Indeed, women produce roughly 60 per cent of the world’s food; in Africa, this number reaches up to 80 per cent.15 Even within the already challenging sector of subsistence agriculture, women face additional obstacles: land ownership restrictions (women own approximately 1 per cent of the world’s land) allow very few women to gain financial control any productive land upon which they may farm.

What does climate change mean for women in agriculture? Desertification in arid regions forces women and girls to spend more time and travel further to collect scarce resources such as water and firewood – leaving less time for education or other means of generating income. Lower crop yields due to drought or flood – the IPCC projects that  yields of rainfed crops will drop by up to 50 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa by 2020– lead to emptier pockets after the

harvest, and emptier plates for children. And with rising temperatures driving up the risk of certain diseases, women, as the primary family caregivers in many communities, must devote time to sick family members that they would otherwise spend in their fields, on other work or studying. As climate change worsens in developing countries, threatening in particular the livelihoods of families heavily dependent on subsistence agriculture, women around the world can expect to face even greater hurdles in achieving sufficient education, greater economic opportunities, and gender equality.

This gender imbalance on the local level is mirrored on the global scale, as evidenced by the dominance of men across the international decision-making process. One need look no further heavily skewed gender composition of the major summits on climate change: there has yet to be a conference of parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change at which at least one-third of negotiators were women, or at which women comprised at least one-fifth of delegation heads.

Women are also underrepresented in the world’s leading body of climate-change researchers — the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — whose reports inform the UNFCCC negotiations. Only five of the 31 members of the panel’s senior management (the IPCC Bureau) are women. Among the most senior roles, the IPCC chair, three vice-chairs and eight of nine working group co-chairs are all men. Of the IPCC’s 600 lead authors for 2007’s Fourth Assessment Report, just 16 per cent were women.

The implications of women’s absence from these two leading bodies of climate change researchers and responders are profound. Women represent over half the global population, and not only does their disempowerment prevent us from understanding the true extent to which climate change is disrupting the way of life for our most at-risk communities, it also perpetuates the antiquated narrative that women are mere victims rather than agents of change. Indeed, from growing drought-tolerant crops in Kenya to drawing upon indigenous knowledge to protect farmland against monsoons in India, women around the world are demonstrating that adapting to and mitigating climate change is possible.

This institutional exclusion is slowly eroding. In 2012, the nearly 200 governments at the UN climate change talks agreed to promote gender equality in the negotiations. Still, this decision is non-binding, and only “encourages” equal representation of genders in future negotiations.


Renewable Energy and Women
Renewable energy is central to the mitigation of climate change. It can also play an important role in improving the health and wealth of women in poor, rural communities. Women and children are disproportionately exposed to indoor air pollution from burning wood and coal inside as cooking and heating fuels. According to the World Health Organization: “Women exposed to heavy indoor smoke are three times as likely to suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (e.g. chronic bronchitis), than women who use cleaner fuels”. Granting rural women access to and control over clean and renewable energy sources is crucial to protecting them against harmful diseases and providing an opportunity for them to manage their own economic futures.