Columnist Carrie Baker: The climate crisis is a feminist issue

  • A local resident uses scrap lumber to build a gate where homes stood, Friday, Nov. 15, 2013, in Taclaban, Leyte province, central Philippines. A week after the typhoon struck the Philippines, sounds of hammers and saws hitting nails and cutting wood start to echo through destroyed neighborhoods, giving a sense of home for those who have nowhere to go. AP FILE PHOTO

  • In this photo taken Thursday Oct.19, 2017, Moroccan women push trolleys with empty containers on their way to a fountain, in Zagora, southeastern Morocco. Experts blame poor choices in agriculture, growing populations and climate change for the water shortages in towns like Zagora, which has seen repeated protests for access to clean water in recent weeks. Since the summer, taps ran dry in Zagora. AP FILE PHOTO

  • Two Indian women from the Andes rest with their bags with messages in Spanish that read, “To defend the Earth is to defend life” during a march in “Defense of Mother Earth” in Lima, Peru, Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2014. Thousands marched in support of Mother Earth as they chanted slogans against illegal mining, and logging operations, as well as oil drilling. They asked that the exploitation of resources in their ancestral lands be stopped immediately. AP FILE PHOTO

  • Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is professor and chair of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • A woman and her child plead from the frantic crowd to be prioritized on an evacuation flight in Tacloban, central Philippines, Nov. 14, 2013. Typhoon Haiyan, one of the most powerful storms on record, hit the country’s eastern seaboard on Friday, destroying tens of thousands of buildings and displacing hundreds of thousands of people.  AP PHOTO/WALLY SANTANA

Published: 9/17/2019 2:48:49 PM

In November of 2013, a “super typhoon” hit the Philippines, nearly destroying the coastal city of Taclaban and leaving more than 4 million people displaced. In the days that followed, thousands took shelter at a sports arena in town.

We’ve heard this kind of story time and time again as global warming has increased the intensity of typhoons and hurricanes, resulting in more “worst-ever weather events.” But we are less likely to hear what happens next.

In the aftermath of Taclaban’s super typhoon, with police and security forces focused on search and rescue, women and girls became targets of sexual assault and sex trafficking. One young girl said she was sold to men every night, some of them foreign-aid workers. Others took graphic photos and videos. The girl was 13. As a report on her case put it, “climate change has created a new generation of sex-trafficking victims.”

Educator and environmentalist Bill McKibben warns that extreme weather is shrinking the planet, as wildfires, heat waves and rising sea levels are making large areas of the earth uninhabitable and forcing people to migrate. The resulting dislocation, instability and increased poverty make women and girls particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation and abuse. According to a report by the United Nations Environment program, human trafficking increases significantly during natural disasters.

But increased sexual exploitation is just one of many reasons that climate change is a feminist issue. Across the world, women are primary caregivers for children and are responsible for feeding their families, tasks made much harder when flooding and drought occur.

UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka argues that climate change amplifies existing gender inequalities in the world. “Women and girls are the last to eat or be rescued. They face greater health and safety risks as water and sanitation systems become compromised. And they take on increased domestic and care work as resources dwindle. Poverty, meanwhile, leads to earlier marriages, lost education and diminished opportunities,” says Mlambo-Ngcuka.

For example, women and girls across the world are responsible for collecting water in 80 percent of households without access to piped water. According to Mlambo-Ngcuka, “climate-induced drought and scarcity affects the time and effort required to collect, secure, distribute and store water, fuel and other resources.”

Climate change also harms pregnant and parenting women. Increasing heat and air pollution is associated with adverse pregnancy outcomes, including premature birth, low birth weight babies, and stillbirth. As primary caregivers for children, women are more likely than men to shoulder the burden of caring for children with health problems aggravated by climate change, such as asthma and allergies.

While climate change impacts us all, its effects fall particularly hard on women and girls because of inequalities based not only on gender, but also on race, class and nationality. Globally, women and girls represent 70 percent of the total population living in poverty. People living in poverty are more exposed to the harmful effects of climate change, as are people of color. The combined effects of inequalities based on gender, race, national origin and economic class make the harmful effects of climate change fall most harshly on women and girls of color, especially in the global south. 

In a recently published book, “Climate Hazards, Disasters, and Gender Ramifications,” Catarina Kinnvall and Helle Rydstrom examine the gendered politics of disaster and climate change. They argue that gender hierarchies, patriarchal structures and masculinity are closely related to the denial of environmental crisis and to female vulnerability to climate-aggravated disasters.

This may be why women are more concerned and active on the issue of climate change. A 2017 survey of U.S. adults by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication on gender differences in public understanding of climate change found that women are more likely than men to believe that climate change will be harmful, to be concerned about climate change and to support climate change mitigation policies. Like Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg, women and girls are leading the campaign to address global climate change.

Climate change is a human rights issue. We all have the right to a healthy environment, including clean drinking water, breathable air and a safe and sustainable place to live. Climate change threatens these rights.

Voracious consumption in the global North is the engine of climate change. Climate justice spotlights how the people least responsible for climate change — the poor people of color, especially in the global South — suffer its gravest consequences. When we do not step up and demand divestment from fossil fuels and investment in sustainable energy sources, we are contributing to the oppression of marginalized people around the world, particularly women.

While there are many reasons to be concerned about the climate crisis, the disproportionate impact of climate change on women and girls is an often-overlooked reason. On our current path, we face full-scale, climate-induced calamity that will harm us all, but will subject women and girls to particularly acute forms of gendered violence and deprivation. To change course, we need social revolution and female empowerment.

Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is professor and chair of the Program for the Study   of Women and Gender at Smith College.
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