Hurricanes that destroy entire fishing villages on the coasts, massive fires that turn the sky red and black at the same time, and long-lasting droughts that wither entire crops and cause grain prices to skyrocket – such extreme weather events are becoming more and more common as a result of climate change. However, men and women are affected differently by its effects.
When Cyclone Gorky hit the coast of Bangladesh in 1991, nine times as many women died as men. During the devastating bush fires in Australia in 2009, twice as many women as men wanted to get to safety. And when two million people in Kenya went hungry because of a severe drought in 2016, it was the women who received the last food.
For decades, experts have warned that traditional gender roles make people more vulnerable to extreme weather events. Policymakers have long ignored these warnings. Today they are forced to rethink and ask themselves how to reduce inequalities that otherwise threaten to worsen.
Women rarely own their own land, so they are more directly threatened by hunger during droughts
The climate crisis primarily threatens poor sections of the population who have no political influence, says Lisa Schipper, co-author of the interim report published in February by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). “In most countries, women are left out when it comes to making fundamental decisions. This also applies to discussions about the use and utilization of resources. Most women have no say in this.”
Climate change exacerbates the disadvantages of women
Women often live on the fringes of society because of their gender. From there, they are less able to adapt to climate change or recover from its adverse effects. Scientists gained this insight during a mega-review of scientific literature on the effects of climate change and people’s adaptive behavior.
Women often have less money, their needs are often not taken into account by political decision-makers – mostly men. This, in turn, makes women more vulnerable to further discrimination.
In many cultures, providing the family with water is a woman’s job. But in times of drought, women and girls have to travel longer and longer to fetch water. They often leave after dark or return late in the evening. In the dark, however, they are at greater risk of sexualised violence.
If the paths to the water points become longer, they also take more and more time. As a result, they can be managed less often and families have less water available overall. In cultures where men eat and drink first, there is little left for women at the end. Women need sufficient water for hygiene when they are menstruating – but this is becoming increasingly difficult in times of drought. Girls often cannot go to school because of their bleeding.
In many countries, women do not learn to swim – this increases their risk on the coasts when there are floods or rising sea levels
The consequences for women are very similar when extreme weather brings too much water with it. For example, people lose their homes during floods, toilets are destroyed and hygiene products are scarce. In countries where menstruation is taboo, this is an additional problem for women. According to a 2020 study by the Swiss science journal Frontiers in Water, two-thirds of women in Bangladesh are unable to work for six days each month. During their menstrual period, they have no safe place to change and dispose of their menstrual items.
Gender roles can also be lethal for men
But there are also consequences of extreme weather conditions that affect men much more than women. In the United States, men are twice as likely to die from a heat-related illness than women. Because physically demanding work, such as in agriculture or construction, is more likely to be done by men.
Most of the fatalities in the devastating “Black Saturday” bushfires in Australia in February 2009 were men. Many men tried for too long to defend their homes from the flames. And many were too late to heed family or friends’ advice to run to safety, according to a 2016 study published in the journal Geographical Research.
Rigid gender roles increase the pressure on men to protect their belongings in dangerous situations
The effects of climate change on transgender people, on the other hand, have so far been little researched. In countries where data is available, researchers found that transgender people are more likely to be homeless than non-transgender people and face discrimination when it comes to accessing health care. They could therefore be at greater risk from extreme weather events such as heat or storms.
How can gender-equitable adaptation to climate change be achieved?
In the Paris climate agreement of 2015, the heads of state and government not only agreed to limit global warming to an average of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The signatories also agreed on a “gender-equitable” approach to adapting to climate change. It should be based on the best available scientific knowledge.
This could be achieved by redesigning those systems that still cling to old inequalities. Power relations would have to be renegotiated, according to the IPCC in its report on adjustments. This could mean sharing wealth and resources more evenly and ensuring fair representation in environmental policy decisions.
But: “So far there is little empirical evidence for such a change,” says the report. Instead, progress is made in small steps. The authors only found sufficient participation by women in adaptation projects in isolated cases. The same applies to the special consideration of gender issues in national climate policy.
“What we wrote in our report was not breaking news,” says Martina Caretta, a co-author of the IPCC report. “However, what frustrates me as a scientist is that no steps have been taken to improve women’s representation and decision-making power.”
Women are more environmentally friendly than men
Greater equality between men and women could even slow down climate change. After all, women are responsible for far fewer emissions than men. They tend to eat less meat and drive less, according to another IPCC climate solutions report from April this year. In Germany and Sweden, for example, men use eight to 22 percent more energy than women.
“Women are often more environmentally conscious,” says Minal Pathak, a senior IPCC scientist. However, this is often because women are less empowered to lead a lifestyle that is highly polluting. “In a way, this is often not a conscious decision made by women.”
The climate protest movement Friday for Future is mainly led by women
Still, according to the IPCC report, carbon pollution is lower in countries where women have more political say – even after accounting for income and other factors. In addition, women contribute more to structural changes than men. According to scientific studies from Sweden to Uganda, from India to the Philippines, there are a disproportionately large number of women and girls among the leaders of the climate protest movement “Fridays for Future”.
There are also examples of countries in which women hinder or have hindered climate policy. For example, the government of former German Chancellor Angela Merkel blocked reforms in the EU auto industry. However, according to the scientists, women’s politics tend to be less harmful to the environment than men’s.
The report also shows that women are making climate change a priority in all sectors of society: voting, working, shopping and engaging in their communities. They are more committed to the environment than men and are less likely to deny climate change.
If you improve the participation of women and their opportunities to get involved in politics, you automatically improve climate protection, according to the conclusion of IPCC scientist Pathak. “Countries where women have a stronger voice – a stronger political voice – move faster on climate change.”