What does climate change have to do with women’s well-being?

In villages across Maharashtra, India, men marry multiple women in order to have someone to get water for their households, despite polygamy being illegal. After Katrina, rates of domestic violence against women increased. And in France, more women died in a heat wave than men.

Women experience the effects of extreme weather events differently than men, often because they make up a greater proportion of poorer and older populations, but also because of differentiated gender roles. Differences can be seen not just in developing countries, but in developed ones as well.

Effects on women’s health

Extreme weather events can impact the body through increasing stress:

A study in Kenya showed that the decrease of one millimeter in annual rainfall lead to increases in cortisol levels of 0.9% (the body’s major stress hormone that is released in response to both psychological and physiological strain on the organism).

It can also lead to the increased prevalence of certain diseases that thrive in warmer weather.

There is also evidence, however, that the extreme weather events that are increasingly probable with climate change may affect the health of pregnant women and babies.

For instance, in some regions, heat waves and decreases in rainfall have been associated with reductions in the likelihood that a pregnancy will be carried full term and in birth weight, which can have impacts over lifetime health and well-being. For instance, pregnancies that coincided with heat waves have resulted in “a decrease of 7 to 11 grams in the weight of the baby” or a “0.5 percentage point reduction in the probability to be born at full term.” Although these effects haven’t been found in all regions and may in some cases be slight changes, the increasing prevalence of heat waves could make this a larger issue.

Differences due to demographic patterns

The effects of extreme weather events may be more drastic on some countries than others, but the effects may end up being uneven within households as well. For instance, “women and children are 14 times more likely to die than men during natural disasters.”

However, this is due in part to higher rates of poverty among women:

where the socioeconomic status of women is high, men and women will die in roughly equal numbers during and after natural disasters, whereas when the socioeconomic status of women is low, more women than men die (or women die at a younger age).

Age can also be a factor in higher mortality rates during natural disasters:

During the Kobe earthquake in 1995 1.5 times as many women as men died. In Kobe, many elderly single women died because they lived in poor residential areas, which were more heavily damaged and more likely to catch fire.

Therefore, some women tend to be affected by extreme weather differently than men due to the intersection between gender and other factors like class or age.

Differences due to gender roles

However, while class and age are often contributing factors, differences in gender roles can lead to different experiences for women and men as well.

In villages across Maharashtra, India, for instance, men sometimes take on multiple wives to ensure that there are enough women to fetch water. As Bhagat, a farm laborer said, “I had to have someone to bring us water, and marrying again was the only option…My first wife was busy with the kids. When my second wife fell sick and was unable to fetch water, I married a third,” even though it is technically against the law.

Bhagat says the women, some of them widows or abandoned, are also happy with the arrangement.

In addition to differences in the division of labor, women may be less prepared to respond when emergencies do occur. For instance, in some regions, women are not taught to climb trees or swim, or they may need to wear clothing that can slow them down. In some communities, they may need permission or an accompanying man to move freely in public.

After a natural disaster, there can also be differences in the distribution of resources along gender lines.

In principle, women are at an advantage in famines and droughts because, unless they are pregnant or lactating, they can better cope with food shortages due to their lower nutritional requirements and higher body fat…Nevertheless, in some famines more female than male famine victims die at a very young age or as infants, an outcome that must be due to discriminatory access to food resources in times of famine with a bias against female babies and children…

However, differences in gender roles can be harmful to men as well as women. For example:

More men than women died when Hurricane Mitch hit Central America in 1998 because of societal expectations that they should carry out high-risk rescue activities…Men have specific vulnerabilities that affect their health and safety and that are linked to socialized gender roles, traditional norms and values, and the way in which prevailing ideas of masculinity are constructed.

Differences in contribution

While there are differences in how each gender may be affected by climate change, there are also differences in their contribution to it, even in countries known for gender equality. According to one study, men tend to use a total of 22% more energy in Sweden and 39% more in Greece. The differences in energy use from travel are particularly striking, ranging from 70% more energy used by men in Norway to 350% more in Greece, “despite the fact that most women are now in the paid labour force. Women make shorter work trips, are more inclined to use public transport and make more trips to serve another person’s travel needs, while they also drive far fewer miles per year than men (Wachs, 1987; Turner et al., 2006; McGuckin & Murakami, 2007; Oldrup & Romer Christensen, 2007).”

Differences in meat consumption and leisure activities also contribute to the higher total energy consumption among men. The associations between masculinity and meat are ingrained in our culture; while the number of vegans is about equal, the number of vegetarians is higher for women than men. While, some people are trying to change the norms surrounding meat consumption and masculinity, these differences show the need to think about intersectional issues to understand the scope of these problems and to develop effective solutions.

Possibilities for gender equality

However, while there may be differences in how climate change affects people based on gender, there are also opportunities for ensuring gender equality as communities work to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

For instance, the shift to a world without fossil fuels will create new jobs in a variety of fields that are nascent enough to have a fresh opportunity for a more equitable gender ratios. Currently, many highly paid energy jobs are mostly men, such as mining, petroleum and nuclear engineers and technicians, with about 13.1% of people in “mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction” are women. Jobs in wind and solar are currently skewed towards men, but they are new enough that it is possible to change that before a strong perception of a field as “masculine” or “feminine” kicks in.

In addition, adapting to climate change calls for a new paradigm, one where bigger isn’t always better and some self-aware uncertainty may be help with more nuanced decision-making that’s sure to include women. For instance, on a recent survey about nuclear power:

Men are much more likely to jump out with very strong opinions which may not have any basis in fact…Maybe the industry should be doing a better job communicating to women. A lot of messaging isn’t targeted to women, even though they’re often the primary decision-makers in their home.

What’s being done about this?

Many of the impacts felt by women are due to the intersection of factors like class and social roles, problems that aren’t unique to climate change, showing the need for a broader focus on promoting gender equality to ensure that women aren’t left more vulnerable no matter the threat. There are a series of UN conferences this year dedicated to developing a plan to curb emissions, culminating in a conference in Paris at the end of the year; some groups are focusing on how to ensure that gender equality is considered within these plans. Learn more about their work here.