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Women and Climate Change

Although disproportionately affected by catastrophic weather events, women could nevertheless play a crucial role in creating a more secure future for us all

FROM UNUSUALLY POWERFUL SNOWSTORMS in the Northeast to the prolonged drought conditions in the West, climate change is now a part of America’s national conversation.

As we come to grips with how a rise in the frequency of unpredictable and severe weather events could affect communities here at home, “we must also consider their impact on people in the developing world, especially women, who are considered unusually vulnerable,” says Jackie VanderBrug, co-chair of the Impact Investment Council at U.S. Trust.

Yet while women are most at risk, they are also an underutilized resource for climate-change mitigation, VanderBrug says, “and that makes them an important part of the picture for clients who are considering gender-focused or climate-related investments.”

Gender and climate dangers
Women are considerably more vulnerable than men to the effects of shifts in weather as “they constitute the majority of the world’s poor and are more dependent for their livelihood on natural resources that are threatened by climate change,” according to a United Nations report.1 These vulnerabilities are evident in areas such as the following.

Food, water and fuel. In many regions, a family’s primary caregiver is a woman who might spend up to eight hours a day cooking and searching for food, water or fuel;2 also, women farmers currently account for 45% to 80% of all food production in developing countries, depending on the region, according to the U.N. report.3 Climate change will almost certainly make women’s work more demanding, says VanderBrug, “leaving them less time to earn a living, potentially causing more poverty, exhaustion and disease.”

Hunger. Scarce food can affect an entire population, yet women “face hunger more often than men, due to disparities in income, limited access to employment or means of production, and cultural practices that put them last or allow them smaller portions when food is in short supply,” according to Oxfam International.4 When hungry or malnourished, “women may be too weak to respond effectively during a storm or afterward to travel to receive food, water or medical attention,” says VanderBrug.

Freedom of movement. Cultural norms may prohibit women from leaving home unaccompanied or learning skills that could save their lives, such as driving or swimming. Says VanderBrug: “Constraints such as these are why women and children are 14 times more likely than men to die when a catastrophe strikes.”5

Property ownership. After a natural disaster, a family may be forced to abandon a property, “and women can face additional hardships trying to resettle in regions where only a male head of household is permitted to have land tenure,” VanderBrug says. In rural areas, nearly 90% of land titles are held in men’s names, the U.N. estimates, less than 10% are held in women’s names, and the remainder are jointly held.6

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WOMEN AS PART OF THE SOLUTION
Women in developing nations could play crucial roles in mitigating climate change and helping communities adapt to its effects. Here are some examples.

Stoves. About 3 billion people, mostly women, use inefficient cooking stoves that not only create hazardous conditions in homes but also produce significant amounts of CO2, a major contributor to climate change.7

The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves and similar initiatives are developing stoves that burn fuel up to 80% more efficiently than traditional stoves, potentially reducing global CO2 emissions by 1 billion tons a year.8 (For comparison, all U.S. coal-fired power plants produced about 1.7 billion tons of CO2 in 2013.)9 “Women are expected to play a key role in stove distribution,” VanderBrug says. “And their input in the design process is critical to ensuring stove adoption.”

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Forests. In Mali, India and elsewhere, women are spearheading projects designed to improve forest sustainability.10 Ensuring more trees, or limiting their destruction, could help lower global greenhouse gas levels. Trees soak up atmospheric CO2 and produce oxygen as part of photosynthesis. And widespread burning of forests, to make room for crops or livestock, produces one-tenth of polluting CO2 — so less deforestation should mean less greenhouse pollution.11

Agriculture and land. Women make up a large portion of the agricultural labor force — more than 90% in some African countries — yet they have less access than men to fertilizers and other vital farming resources.12,13 With equal access, women farmers could increase their yields by almost one-third.14 As the global population expands from what the U.N. estimates is more than 7 billion today to 9.6 billion by 2050, says VanderBrug, "the role of the woman farmer should prove more vital than ever."

"Despite the long list of disadvantages women face," says VanderBrug, "they may bring a strength and knowledge to a community in the aftermath of any devastation. Their experience and leadership are critical to our collective success in limiting climate change."

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Photos: Woman: Michael Dunning/Getty Images; Fish: Carol Adam/Getty Images

1,3,12 “Women, Gender Equality and Climate Change,” WomenWatch, U.N., 2014.

2,7 Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, cleancookstoves.org, 2014.

4 “Hidden Hunger in South Africa,” Oxfam International, 2014.

5 “Gender and Disaster Risk Reduction,” UNDP, 2014.

6 “The World’s Women 2010: Key Findings for Asia and the Pacific,” U.N. Statistics Division, 2011. (Latest available data.)

8 Stockholm Environment Institute, 2013.

9 U.S. Energy Information Agency, 2013.

10 “Climate Change Connections,” U.N. Population Fund and Women’s Environment & Development Organization, 2009. (Latest available data.)

11 “Forests,” World Resources Institute, 2014.

13 “The State of Food and Agriculture, 2010–11,” FAO, 2012.

14 “Future Finance,” Inter-American Bank (IDP), 2014

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