The Gender Bias of Global Warming

By Parker Liautaud


Parker Liautaud is an Arctic explorer. Photo: Paddy Scott

Parker Liautaud is a polar explorer and climate change campaigner. He hasundertaken three expeditions to the North Pole and one to the South Pole. In2013, he completed the fastest human-powered trek from the coast of Antarcticato the South Pole. He studies Geology & Geophysics at Yale University and is aFellow at the Yale Climate & Energy Institute.

In September 1995, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action laid out a framework forempowering women and removing barriers to gender equality, emphasizing ourobligation to pursue a world free from discrimination on the basis of gender. Inthe 20 years since then, in a seemingly different realm, the issue of climatechange has spread beyond the laboratories, beyond the scientific journals, andbeyond the legislative bodies of the world to become deeply rooted in publicdebate.

In some countries, the issue is bitterly controversial; in others, therequired course of action has never been clearer. Either way, what has becomeclear in recent years is the extent to which people are already suffering. Withthis comes the need to mitigate and adapt to new risks that previous generationsdidn’t face. In an increasingly vulnerable world, women are oftendisproportionately affected by climate-related risks.

I am not by any means an expert on issues of gender equality, but we don’thave to go far to find abundant evidence connecting gender inequality andclimate change. The most recent report on the impacts of global warming from theIntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – which details the mostup-to-date knowledge on adaptation, vulnerability, and risk – points toimbalances in the ways women and men differ in their vulnerability to climaterisks.

The IPCC report outlines how the effects of global warming are often feltmost severely by the poor who are exposed to exacerbated risks from low-qualityhousing, a lack of access to services, and inadequate infrastructure. Peopleliving in poverty are also particularly sensitive to declining crop yields andincreases in food prices, both of which are already occurring. As stated in thePlatform for Action, the vast majority of the approximately 1 billion peopleliving in poverty are women, a reality which itself leads to an inherent genderbias in vulnerability to climate change. But beyond this are long-standinginequalities that often put women – especially poor women – even more at riskthan their male counterparts.

Extreme weather events such as droughts, floods, and storms register a highermortality rate globally for women than for men. This isn’t random: antiquatedgender roles often exclude women from decision-making processes, sometimespreventing them from taking the best course of action in an emergency. The IPCCcites studies discussing how many women in Nicaragua are expected to stay intheir home, even in dangerous situations, which can put them at risk in theevent of flooding, for example.

In the difficult aftermath of extreme weather events, higher rates ofphysical violence against women often occur, notably in two of the mosteconomically developed countries in the world: the United States and Australia.

Furthermore, the report points to how a lack of institutional protection orsupport can put women at risk when it comes to enduring individual extremeweather events and adapting to changing conditions in the long-term, especiallywhere women have less access to information and community resources. Theseresources could include information on how to respond in a dangerous, extremeweather event, support for methods of adaptation to changing conditions, andeven education, which is a critical component in the empowerment of women.

Gender-based inequalities perpetuate the vulnerabilities faced by women in achanging world, and yet, the above represent just a few examples. When it comesto working towards equality between women and men, the human consequences ofclimate change bring out lessons which demonstrate why the Platform for Actionis so important. This is a human rights issue, and one that is closely connectedto fundamental components of our society, such as education and health.

Yes, men also face differentiated risks, depending on the region. Thedifference, however, is that these vulnerabilities aren’t caused by entrenchedsocietal inequalities. Many climate-related risks to women can be alleviated byimplementing societal changes that are already morally necessary, and which UNWomen is already working towards.

Global warming and gender inequality share an important characteristic. Theyare both widespread, while having profound consequences on individuals andcommunities. The interactions between the two are complex, and I could notaddress them comprehensively in one article, even if I were qualified to do so.To attempt to do so would be trivializing an important matter.

From a moral perspective, equality cannot be a choice or a luxury of the mostprivileged societies. It must be a non-negotiable priority. In the face ofunprecedented global change, we strive to build a resilient world. This willonly be possible if we relentlessly pursue equality in every corner of oursociety.

For more information on Women and the Environment, check out the In Focus editorial package on the new Beijing+20 campaign website.