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The Weather Corner: How Women are on the Frontlines of Climate Change’s Impacts and Solutions

Himanshu Gupta • March 23rd, 2021.

We’re bringing you exclusive content from our newsletter, The Forecast, right here on Medium. Sign up for our newsletter here. This story is from our feature called the Weather Corner, where we take a deep dive into weird weather around the world, from our March 17th, 2021, newsletter.

This International Women’s Day in The Weather Corner, we’re highlighting what climate change means for women around the world. Global crises, from the COVID-19 pandemic to climate change, have disproportionately worse impacts on women due to persistent gender inequality. However, for climate change, women also hold the keys to some of the most effective solutions.

First, some statistics: Women are more likely to die from extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change like heat waves (according to studies on France, China, and India) and tropical cyclones (according to studies on Bangladesh and the Philippines). Following extreme weather events in many regions, women are also more likely than men to suffer poor mental health, partner violence, and food insecurity.

Source: CarbonBrief

For example, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami saw male survivors in Indonesia and Sri Lanka outnumber their female counterparts by up to 4 to 1; when Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar in 2008, some villages had twice as many deaths among women compared with men, according to Devex.

The reasons for this vary but largely can be explained by gender inequality. Experts explain that during times of evacuation, in many places, expectations around gender roles mean that women will stay behind to care for children and members of their community. One study conducted in Bangladesh even showed that cultural expectations for women to wear the sari — a long dress that can restrict movement — can make it more difficult for women to escape from floodwaters.

Climate change-fueled extreme weather doesn’t just affect women’s mortality; it also affects maternal health and birth outcomes. Pregnant women often experience reduced access to reproductive and maternal care services when extreme weather events cut off access to necessary resources. They face health risks, too: Pregnant women are especially susceptible to dehydration, a risk when water access is affected by rising temperatures or natural disasters. Exposure to infectious diseases, such as malaria (the spread of which is boosted by climate change in some tropical regions), could heighten the risk of miscarriage and other serious maternal health issues. Pregnant women who are exposed to higher temperatures are more likely to have underweight, stillborn, or preterm babies.

Plus, overall, women make up the majority (about 70%) of the world’s poor. The world’s poor — in low-income communities and developing countries around the world — is already disproportionately affected by climate change due to increased exposure to environmental hazards and pollution. Poor women in particular often manage their households, which can include securing food, fuel, and water for their families, so in rural communities they are highly dependent on threatened local natural resources.

Women hold invaluable knowledge of the land and have the forethought to sustainably manage resources at the household and community level. They can — and do — play a crucial role in responding to climate change and adapting to its impacts. We must recognize their contributions and the potential of their leadership and work to remove the barriers that stand in their way.

Increasing the number of women in environmental decision-making has already proven to be successful. For example, when women are included equally with men in disaster preparedness training, their survival rates improve. As reported by Devex, when the nation of Bangladesh focused on promoting women’s leadership in disaster management, it saw a widespread drop in mortality from cyclones. 1991’s Cyclone Gorky killed around 140,000 people in Bangladesh, with deaths among women outnumbering those of men by 14 to 1. But 2007’s similarly powerful Cyclone Sidr killed an estimated 3,500, and the ratio of women to men killed dropped to 5 to 1.

On the flip side, if policies or projects are implemented without women’s meaningful participation, it can extend existing inequalities and decrease effectiveness.

Female empowerment at every level is a worthwhile endeavor, of course: When women are included at higher levels in politics, nations see tangible gains for democracy, including greater responsiveness to citizen needs and increased cooperation across party and ethnic lines, according to the United Nations. One study of 31 democratic countries found that the presence of more women in parliament in places as diverse as Timor-Leste, Croatia, Morocco and South Africa led to legislation related to anti-discrimination, domestic violence, family codes, inheritance, and child support and protection, according to The National Democratic Institute.

Plenty of women around the world aren’t waiting around, and are taking action to fight climate change now. In the scientific community and local communities, in boardroom meetings and at protests in the streets, women are leading the way.

Greta Thunberg at the European Parliament. Source: Wikimedia

Amazing climate activist and Swedish teen Greta Thunberg became a household name in 2019 when she led climate strikes, inspiring thousands of students to walk out of class and demand action on the climate crisis. Other notable young activists include Mari Copeny, AKA “Little Miss Flint,” who raised awareness for the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, when she wrote a letter to then-President Barack Obama and inspired Obama to fly to Flint himself, giving the crisis national attention.

New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern is also demonstrating crucial climate leadership. She declared a climate change emergency last year, and under her, the country committed to net zero emissions by 2050, one of the boldest climate commitments on a national level.

Katharine Hayhoe is one of the world’s most renowned climate scientists — she is currently the chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy. Her Ted Talk on climate change communications has over 3.8M views, and in 2017, she was named one of Fortune’s world’s greatest leaders. She has been published in over 125 peer-reviewed papers, abstracts, and key reports including the National Climate Assessment. (We had the opportunity to interview her for a podcast last year, where we discussed why the U.S. Military calls climate change a “threat multiplier;” the impact of climate change on agriculture in terms of risk, resilience, and profitability; and how the secret to a fruitful discussion is common ground.)

Celebrating International Women’s Day one day a year is important to recognize the work they’re undertaking. But working towards creating a sustainable future for women around the world every day will truly honor and empower all women.

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