How does climate change affect men and women differently?

Not much progress was achieved in defining the guidelines for the implementation of the Paris Agreement at COP23 last month. Despite that, an important plan was decided upon.
Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0/ Flickr

The COP23 which took place last month brought to light an important aspect of the struggle to stop climate change: governments agreed to integrate gender equality as a guiding principle for climate action by adopting the first UN Climate Gender Action Plan. This aims to highlight the role of women in climate action and advance gender-responsive national and international climate policy work.

In November 2017, the COP23 conference was held in Bonn, Germany, or, as it is more officially known, the 23rd Conference of the Parties (“COP”) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The COP happens each year to make decisions on how to combat climate change. Thousands attend, including delegates representing countries, observers, civil society and journalists.

In 2015, at the COP21 in Paris, the Paris Agreement was decided upon and it was set in motion in November 2016. The Paris Agreement brings all nations together to combat climate change and adapt to its effects, with enhanced support to assist developing countries to do so while keeping global temperature rise this century to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, although preferably 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Why do we need a Climate Gender Action Plan?

Climate change is causing changes in global temperatures, weather patterns and ecological systems. This threatens communities all over the world. However, the effects will be felt differently between the global North and South, social classes, races and between men and women. Natural disasters can exacerbate existing social differences. Furthermore, climate change can be expected to worsen the gap between men, women, and gender-nonconforming individuals in terms of opportunity, safety, and general wellbeing.

Women and girls will be disproportionately affected by climate change. That is due, first and foremost, to the fact that globally speaking, women tend to be poorer than men. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that in the US in 2015, female full-time, year-round workers made only 80 cents for every dollar earned by men, a gender wage gap of 20 percent.

The UN report, The World’s Women 2015, showed that non-partnered women with children in developed and developing regions, as well as older women in one-person households in developed regions, have higher poverty rates than men with the same characteristics. Building on this, the key finding of the report “Shock Waves: Managing the Impacts of Climate Change on Poverty” was that climate change represents a significant obstacle to the sustained eradication of poverty. Knowing this, it is clear that because women make up the majority of the poorest world citizens, climate change is and will continue to have a devastating impact on their lives.

As women are globally poorer than their male counterparts, this, according to the World Bank, means they are more likely to live in fragile housing in disaster-prone areas, and work in sectors dangerously susceptible to extreme weather events, like farming and agriculture. They also receive much less government and community support for recovery. The result is that the impact of a storm, flood, drought or earthquake is more than twice as significant for poor people than anyone else.

Terry Cannon, from the Institute of Development Studies in the UK, highlights in his 2002 article, how, in the case of Bangladesh, women already had a lower nutritional status in pre-disaster situations, which subsequently worsened during crises. During the 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh, Shannon Doocy, a researcher from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, USA, observed that studies which reported sex-specific mortality in the natural disaster observed a higher mortality rate among females (71/1000) compared to males (15/1000). Social development specialist Valerie Nelson cites in Oxfam’s Gender and Development publication that the reasons for this mortality disparity were due to cultural norms concerning the preservation of female honour. This means they left their homes too late, as well as being less likely than men to know how to swim.

The more dependent on natural resources, the more vulnerable

Climate change has a greater impact on those most reliant on natural resources for their livelihoods. According to Rachel Masika in her book ‘Gender, Development, and Climate Change’, women around the world can often be responsible for fetching water and firewood for the family, which can place them under increasing strain as they trek further and further in the face of climate change-induced diminishing plant resources and water shortages. Trekking long distances for water and fuel also affects the academic performance of young girls as they are often kept at home to help with household duties, and this is particularly the case in times of household stress or high workload.

Climate change is also likely to cause an increase in health problems in affected societies, due to disruptions to food and water supplies as well as an increase in chances of a natural disaster. Due to patriarchal societal structures, women are often placed in the traditional role of caring for the sick and elderly. It is likely that women’s caring workloads will increase further as climate change symptoms worsen. In the study previously mentioned by Valerie Nelson, it was also pointed out how, in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch in Honduras and Nicaragua, it was more difficult for women to return to work because of their increased domestic and care responsibilities. That, in turn, made it difficult for them to engage in income-generating work. Additionally, a disproportionately large number of women work in the informal sector, and informal sector jobs are often the worst hit –  and slowest to recover –  when disasters strike.

Whether the new UN Climate Gender Action Plan will be robust enough to ensure a transition from a fossil-fuel based economy to a more sustainable model of development that ensures women’s human rights and gender equality remains to be seen, but what is for certain is that the time for international action is now.


Isobel Edwards

Isobel has a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science and a master’s degree in Emerging Economies and Inclusive Development with a focus on gender from King’s College London. She has worked in various areas of international development including cooperation and development for the EU in China, peacebuilding and statebuilding for the OECD and in environmental affairs for the UN, both in Paris. She now works in Geneva mainly on UN affairs relating to peacebuilding and the prevention of violent conflict, the human impacts of climate change and food and sustainability.
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