THE VINE NOVEMBER 18, 2009
Is climate change gender-neutral? Not according to the U.N. Population Fund, which earlier today released a report arguing that women suffer disproportionately from the impacts of global warming. Especially in developing countries, they can't flee changes like desertification and sea-level rise as easily as young men, who aren’t as tied to children and households. They're often caught up in civil conflicts ignited by scarce resources. And they're more likely to fall victim to diseases caused by wetter weather patterns.
But on the flipside, the report argues, women are also in the best position to help mitigate both the causes and effects of rising temperatures—which is why policies to empower women, like targeted microloans and reproductive healthcare, shouldn't be treated as separate from climate policy.
The first part of this involves population: Letting women control their own reproductive destines is essential not only for their own well-being, but also to head off future emissions. Population growth, the UNFPA notes, has been responsible for between 40 percent to 60 percent of past emissions growth—and getting people to change their consumption habits has proven harder than simply helping women to make their own decisions on how many kids to have, through better education or access to birth control. (Surveys suggest that, in countries like Brazil or Ghana, women have an average of one more child than they originally planned on having.) This tends to be a sensitive topic in climate policy—Obama administration officials are too squeamish to even discuss it—but the UNFPA report tries to frame it as giving women what they want rather than as some nefarious attempt by rich countries to prevent poor women from having babies.
Beyond that, though, women are crucial to environmental management for things they can do, rather than things they can chose not to do. For example, women produce 60 percent to 80 percent of the food in developing countries, and often know agricultural techniques that sequester carbon and also keep fields in better shape. Women are more likely than men to use small loans to develop sustainable businesses—and tend to pay back the money at higher rates. And women in the developing world have been central to projects like Wangari Maathai's Green Belt movement, which has planted millions of trees against Kenya. Think of it as Nick Kristof meets Tom Friedman: keeping “women’s issues” separate from “climate issues” is a huge missed opportunity.