Global warming isn’t merely a political debate for women around the world, but a reality that threatens their health, safety, and economic security.
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Floods. Fires. Bomb cyclones. Tornadoes. Extreme heat and cold, drought and rainfall, causing power outages, and even casualties, according to the latest March 13 United Nations report on the looming Armageddon-like climate change predicted to happen by 2030. Except these things are already happening right now, in the U.S., South and Central America, Australasia and the Arctic. You could call it Armageddon Eve. On March 22, every TV news network declared “whole neighborhoods and towns have been swallowed by raging floodwaters” while Midwestern headlines reported that “floodwaters threatened millions in crop and livestock losses.”
Climate-change Armageddon may be scheduled for 2030, but it’s come early to many places around the globe. According to the sixth Global Environment Outlook, released at a UN conference in Nairobi, Kenya, our Earth is sick, with an array of egregious environmental problems killing millions of people every year. And the poor, specifically women and girls, who comprise 70 percent of the world’s poor, are at the greatest risk. In the U.S., 70 percent of those living in poverty are women, with 35 percent of single women with children living and raising their families in poverty. Elderly women are also most likely to live in poverty, with the poverty rate two-thirds higher among elderly women than elderly men. These are the people who are already in the cross-hairs of global warming and the devastating impact of weather phenomena and the changing temperatures. These are the people who will be hit first and hardest in any catastrophic event.
The economics of climate change are that poor people die. In New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina killed 1,833 people. In Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria killed 3,057. The majority of the dead were women—the poor, elderly and disabled who couldn’t afford to go anywhere else. The scenes from the Superdome in New Orleans during Katrina were mostly of Black and Brown women and their children. One of the starkest images was of a dead woman in a wheelchair outside the Superdome. It was August 28—the end of the month. Women on public assistance wouldn’t have had any money left to take a bus to Houston or elsewhere out of the hurricane zone or even to buy the provisions recommended for sheltering in place.
The UN report reflects the reality witnessed in New Orleans and Puerto Rico: The poor are least equipped to face the challenges of climate change while also being most likely to be hurt by them. They can’t escape. The report details how “climate change, a global major extinction of animals and plants, a human population soaring toward 10 billion, degraded land, polluted air, and plastics, pesticides and hormone-changing chemicals in the water” are combining to make the planet unhealthy and in some places, uninhabitable. Wherever climate change is most dramatic, women will bear the harshest burden because the hardships it imposes only increase existing gender inequalities.
On November 8, 2018, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director of UN Women issued a manifesto on women and climate change. “Climate change and gender inequality are arguably two of the greatest sustainable development challenges of our time,” she said. “Women and girls typically carry a disproportionate burden of unpaid care and domestic work, and this only increases with a changing climate.” She emphasized the gendered impact of climate change, asserting, “Gender inequality, meanwhile, denies full human rights to half the population and fuels discrimination and violence. The key to tackling both issues effectively is understanding the many ways in which they are interlinked.” Mlambo-Ngcuka explains that part of the reasons these gender inequities exist is because “women and girls typically carry a disproportionate burden of unpaid care and domestic work, and this only increases with a changing climate.” And while this gender effect is felt most keenly in the developing world where women are tasked with procuring fuel and water, which can take as many as six hours every day, women are hit hard by the devastation of climate change in the developed world as well, where they are most likely to bear the brunt of weather extremes, like flooding, fires and drought, as has been seen in the U.S. and Australia.
According to data from the Centre of Research for the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) released January 24, 2019, there were 10,733 deaths and over 60 million people affected and/or displaced by climate-related disasters globally in 2018. Eighty percent of those 60 million were women. Among that 80 percent are women seeking asylum and entry to the U.S. at the Southern Border. The 2018 CRED report cites climate change as an influence on what President Trump calls the “National Emergency”: “In Central America droughts affected over 2.5 million people in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua in 2018, which coincided with international migration patterns.”
Evonne Taylor didn’t need to read the climate report. Her family is already feeling the impact. On Valentine’s Day, Taylor was in the back of an ambulance. Her 7-year-old daughter Kayla was in severe respiratory distress and unconscious from an asthma attack. It was her third asthma crisis in a year. This time, she spent three days in the hospital, two in intensive care. Kayla’s sister Aliyah, 14, witnessed Evonne giving Kayla CPR on the family’s living room floor while they waited for the ambulance to arrive. Taylor said of the climate-change report, “This is not the future. My baby nearly dying is right now. Her friends—almost every one of them—have asthma. How can that be right? Our kids shouldn’t know more about climate change than our president does. We need real help. Our kids are dying, here.”
Laporshia Massey, 12, suffered a fatal asthma attack at school. The family of the sixth-grader sued the Philadelphia School District—because of cutbacks, they no longer had a school nurse. Six months after Massey died, an unnamed 7-year-old boy lost his life to asthma at a different elementary school where they were without a school nurse, even though nearly one in five inner-city kids has asthma. Kids with asthma are the canaries in the coal mines of climate denialism. One in ten American children has asthma, which often is caused by environmental factors and can lead to permanent lung damage. But for low-income children, that number is much higher. A 2017 study in the journal Pediatrics found the asthma rate grew in all economic groups, but it went up much higher in our poorest families, with the rate now over 17 percent in the lowest income group.
More than two out of every five Americans—that’s over 133.9 million people—now live in counties with unhealthy levels of air pollution. Philadelphia, where Massey died, ranks 12th among American cities with the worst air pollution, and 23rd for its high ozone levels, according to a report on air pollution from the American Lung Association. At these levels, just going outside in the hotter months can be life-threatening for the elderly, small children, and anyone with existing lung problems. The air pollution study reported that “the burden of air pollution is not evenly shared. Poorer people and some racial and ethnic groups are among those who often face higher exposure to pollutants.” For Evonne Taylor, a Black single parent who has to keep the windows shut for half the year to protect her daughter, can’t afford expensive air filters or to run the air-conditioner for months on end.
Philadelphia’s environmental activists say that environmental racism is having a direct impact on the city’s most vulnerable residents—it’s the fifth most populous city in America, and the poorest big city. Sabirah Mahmud, who is 16, organized the Climate Strike action at Love Park, in response to this and the UN report, because her younger sister, now 6, will be graduating from high school in 2030. “It’s discouraging to have people go to school and prepare for a future that they won’t have,” she said. “Adults are letting the next generation down because they’re not pressuring their representatives to vote for the Green New Deal, and nobody in Congress is doing anything.”
Just as women and girls are most impacted by climate change, women and girls are also leading climate action. A study from Yale University released on November 20 last year found more women than men support efforts to address climate change, like limiting emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide. Scientists have even suggested that the “differences in gender socialization and resulting value systems (e.g., altruism, compassion),” and “feminist beliefs including commitment to egalitarian values of fairness and social justice,” contribute to women being more focused on climate action than men. The Yale study determined that women were more likely to promote climate action. “Out of 100 substantive climate solutions identified through rigorous empirical modeling, improving the education of women and girls represents one of the top solutions (No. 6) to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions that cause global warming—similar in ranking to restoring tropical forests and ranking above increased solar energy generation,” said the report. “Across 130 countries, women in government positions were more likely to sign on to international treaties to reduce global warming than men.”
The main spokesperson for climate change in the U.S. political sphere is Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) who crafted the Green New Deal (GND), which has become the focal point of political commentary and progressivism on climate change as well as the ire of the GOP and even some centrist Democrats. Ocasio-Cortez’s work also highlights another aspect of the climate change debate: the generational divide.
Greta Thunberg, the 15-year-old Swedish high-school student leading a global effort at global-warming awareness has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Whether she wins in April, her work has galvanized a movement, rallying other girls like Sabirah Mahmud and Aliyah Taylor, and commanding the attention of adults. At the COP24 summit in Poland this past December, she called out the adults in attendance for their caution and inaction. “You are not mature enough to tell it like is,” she said. “Even that burden you leave to us children. But I don’t care about being popular. I care about climate justice and the living planet.”
Mlambo-Ngcuka sees the consequence of climate change and its effect on women quite differently from the men’s conversations. “Recognizing that women are not naturally a ‘vulnerable group’ but may become so through the context in which they live and move is crucial. Characterizing women consistently as vulnerable marginalizes their participation in climate-change mitigation and adaptation, and omits or diminishes the many strengths and solutions they bring.”
When climate disasters strike, studies show women are also the least likely to recover financially, often reliant on low-paying jobs and low-income housing, the latter often damaged in natural disasters. When the infrastructure is disrupted, as it was in New Orleans, coastal Mississippi, and Puerto Rico, women, who have less socioeconomic power than men, have less ability to recoup after climate disasters. “In New Orleans, there was much higher poverty among the African- American population before Katrina,” says Jacquelyn Litt, professor of women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University. “More than half the poor families in the city were headed by single mothers,” she told BBC News.”[They] are reliant on interdependent community networks for their everyday survival and resources. The displacement that happened after Katrina essentially eroded those networks. It places women and their children at much greater risk.”
In 2015, the Paris Accord made provisions for the empowerment of women specifically because of this disproportionate disruption of women’s lives. Trump, a climate-change denier, withdrew from that agreement in 2018, effective in 2020. But why is he—or anyone for that matter—a climate-change denier when there is so much evidence? The Yale study found a possible answer: “Compared with men, women will be more open to fact-based public education initiatives because they might be less threatened by the facts (as long as the information is consistent with their risk assessments).”
There can be no reversal of climate change, but continued damage can be stanched. Ocasio-Cortez as well as several women senators—notably Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren—are prioritizing the GND and other climate initiatives which address environmental racism and the economic impact of climate change on women, people of color, and the poor.
Jacqueline McGlade, chief scientist of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and professor of sustainable development at University College, London, discovered data on ways climate change is impacting the food supply and rendering it toxic. McGlade is working on programs to make sure agricultural yields are safe for consumption under the growing stresses of drought and other climate change.
Thunberg said at COP24, “Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope. We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis.”
The crisis is here. Kids are dying from asthma attacks. Women who have never smoked are getting environmental lung cancers. A 2015 report revealed climate change had moved mosquitos that carry tropical diseases north to Washington, D.C., and that climate change played a role in the spread of the Zika virus, which frightened many women into delaying pregnancy. The CDC issued new Zika warnings, updated in February. In March 2018, environmental scientist and IPCC report author Diana Liverman told the BBC’s “Science in Action, Women are half the world. It’s important they participate in all major decisions,” Liverman said.
When the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the United Nations which shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore in 2007) released its report this past October, citing a mere dozen years until climate Armageddon, Debra Roberts, a committee co-chair said, “It’s a line in the sand and what it says to our species is that this is the moment and we must act now. This is the largest clarion bell from the science community and I hope it mobilizes people and dents the mood of complacency.”
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