Climate change: How it will put women's health at risk globally | Women's Agenda

Climate change: How it will put women’s health at risk globally

The recent vigorous discussions around women, sexism, misogyny and now ‘women of calibre‘ in the media have brought a welcome spotlight to a topic too long overlooked: the role of women in leadership in this country and the implications of failing to ensure women are represented in political, corporate and civic leadership roles.

The arguments about the implications for societal cohesion, equity, social justice, and wellbeing from gender inequity are well established. But what are the implications of gender inequity when it comes to climate change?

The effects of climate on human society, and our ability to mitigate and adapt to them, are mediated by social factors, including gender. Women and girls are much more at risk from climate change. Globally, natural disasters such as droughts, floods and storms kill more women than men, and tend to kill women at a younger age than men.This is especially true of places where the socioeconomic status of women is particularly low.

Studies have shown that women are more at risk, in both relative and absolute terms, of dying in heatwaves. Heatwaves also tend to precipitate violence – to which women are more vulnerable.

In both developed and developing nations, women face greater risks from climate change because of the social construction of women’s roles, their lower economic participation and poverty, a lack of access to power, and their longer life expectancy.

In disasters, women are at higher risk in due to lack of assets, such as savings, property or land. Women’s status in some cultures may impact their ability to escape from natural disasters due to their roles as carers, or limited access to transport. Access to healthcare for women is often limited even further in disasters, especially in countries where there is high gender inequality. Women are at risk of sexualized violence at times of conflict over land, water and food disputes that are being intensified by climate change.

Women face increased risk of mental health issues due to cumulative stress associated with climate change; and lower economic participation and lower incomes make women more vulnerable to food and energy price increases. All of this points to climate change as a significant social justice and health issue for women worldwide.

So that’s how climate change affects women. What do women think about climate change?

Women are more inclined to accept the science of climate change than men — a greater percentage of women than men worry about global warming a great deal, believe global warming will threaten their way of life during their lifetime, and believe the seriousness of global warming is underestimated in the media.

A recent Australian study found women are more knowledgeable about climate change than men, but while men’s objective knowledge is lower, they are inclined to assess their own knowledge levels as higher than females.

A recent study published in the journal Social Science Research suggests that female empowerment globally is key to effective action on climate change. This stems from the finding that CO2 emissions per capita are lower in nations where women have higher political status. Women are also more likely than men to support environmental protection.

This research suggests if we want better decisions on climate change, women need to hold about one-third of decision-making positions in society. Less than that, and women may be ignored, may feel too intimidated to comment, or may not be representative of women in general.

In Australia, women hold just 15.7% of boardroom positions in Australian companies. Only five CEOs of our top 200 companies are women and a quarter of our top 200 companies have no women on their boards at all. In parliament, we might have a female Prime Minister, but women comprise less than one-third of all parliamentarians in Australia, and occupy less than one-quarter of all Cabinet positions.

So what is happening globally to address the issue of women and climate change?

The promotion of women’s participation in global climate talks is starting to happen, with a landmark decision adopted at the last global climate change negotiations in Doha on ‘Promoting gender balance and improving the participation of women in UNFCCC negotiations and in the representation of Parties to the Convention’.

Dubbed the ‘Doha Miracle’, this decision will help ensure women’s voices are represented in the global climate negotiations, and gender issues given consideration in the agenda of the COP.

But beyond the global climate negotiations, there is much more to be done both internationally and at home.

An initiative by the Victorian Women’s Trust by Mary Crooks called “A Switch in Time” points the way. A collection of ideas, evidence and arguments, this community initiative seeks to combine the quest for gender equality, the need to increase political participation to strengthen democracy, and the urgent need to care for the Earth. It calls for a ‘switch in time’ to restore respect in and to the parliament; to respect women and girls and give them a fair go in public life; and respect for the scientific evidence that our planet, our only home, is in peril.

The ‘Destroy the Joint’ initiative, sparked by Alan Jones comment that “women are destroying the joint” has led to a massive Twitter following, over 30,000 likes on a Facebook page, and now a book, providing valuable commentary and insights into the issues of sexism and misogyny in Australia.

Another contribution to empowering women has been that of the Sexism: See It. Say It. Stop It. campaign. This campaign argues sexism and misogyny are affecting the ability and willingness of women and girls to assume leadership positions in this country; that this is adversely affecting our whole society (as well as impacting women’s health); and that the identification and naming of sexist behaviour, when it happens, is key to eliminating it.

But much more is needed.

If female empowerment is key to societal health and wellbeing, and vital for effective action on climate change, what more can be done in this country — to ensure women occupy enough civil, corporate and political leadership positions — to get the sort of action we need?

This is an edited extract of Fiona Armstrong’s Keynote Address ‘Implications of Climate Change for Women’s Health’ to the 7th Australian Women’s Health Conference: ‘Gender Matters: Determining Women’s Health’ on 9 May 2013.

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