This is a guest post from Jane West, mother of two boys, ages 3 and 2 and an environmental attorney based in St. Augustine, Florida.
We don’t usually think of climate change as being gender biased in how it impacts human life on Earth, but the vulnerability of women in major disasters is surprisingly higher than the mortality rate of men. Extreme weather conditions are widely accepted by the scientific community to be directly connected to global climate change. When women do not enjoy economic and social rights equal to men, more women than men die in disasters according to a 2006 study by the London School of Economics. This gender discrepancy came to light during the Asian Tsunami, Hurricane Mitch, Hurricane Katrina, the European heat waves and cyclones in South Asia. Why exactly is this the case? There are several reasons. First, post-disaster, women are usually at higher risk of being bustled off into unsafe, overcrowded shelters due to lack of assets such as savings, property or land.
Second, in the context of events that require mobility, cultural constraints on women’s movement hinders their timely escape. An exacerbating factor is that women often avoid shelters due to fear of domestic and sexual violence. The more poverty stricken the country, the higher the risk to women and their children.
Paradoxically, women are not as engaged as men in the critical area of renewable energy – a key climate change mitigation technology. In many parts of the world, energy is primarily thought of in terms of electricity to operate equipment and infrastructure, gasoline and diesel fuels for motors and vehicles, and the delivery of oil for natural gas. Dealing with mediums such as electricity and fuel is often considered mens work where women are not expected to be involved with power generation and fuel distribution. As a result, women are often absent from discussions about energy plans and policies. However, in many developing countries, most energy currently comes from traditional biomass fuels such as wood, charcoal and agricultural waste. The collection and management of these fuels is strictly within the purview of women in the poorest areas of the globe. It is estimated that close to two billion people in the developing world use traditional biomass fuel for their primary source of energy. Yet women are not engaged with the broad policy decisions on how to transition out of this high CO2 emitting fuel source. So naturally, there is a real disconnect between decisions being made at the highest levels on climate change and the practical application and implementation of those policies by women who are not engaged in the process.
The solution to this paradox sounds simple enough – women in developing countries should be actively engaged in national energy decision making. But translating that solution into reality will be challenging at best. At the very least, the funds that wealthier countries have earmarked for global climate change adaptation should be targeted in a way that recognizes that the situation of women in poverty stricken areas is different from men and as such, different approaches will be needed in order to remain relevant and useful.
The funny thing, you may have just read that whole bit and thought, yeah, well things are different here in the States. Uh, not really. Yes, of course, the vast majority of us are fortunate in that we don’t have to grapple with issues such as foraging for bits of wood to burn. But the truth is, Americans consume some crazy amounts of energy. We drive around running errands, dropping kids off, picking them up, running dishwashers, washing machines and dryers, doing all the stuff we do everyday to make our jobs and home run smoothly…all of which requires vasts amount of energy. In fact, the average American burns up 98,418kW hours per year whereas the worldwide average is only 21,213kW.
Considering that we are some heavy-weight contenders in the energy consumption arena, you would think American women would have a lot to say on the matter in both the public and private sector. Yet a quick glance at the make-up of our top policy leaders on energy, the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, reveals that there are only 5 women out of the 22 members on the Committee. The statistics get even worse when we look at who the CEOs are of the Fortune 500 companies (many of which derive profit from the energy sector) – currently only 12 are women. So even here in our own backyard, deep-impacting policy decisions about energy are being made at the highest levels with very little input from half the population that uses energy! The bottom line is: If you use it (and we all do), engage. Educate yourself on where your energy comes from and make the best decisions you can to lessen the impact of that energy source on our climate. All the cool ladies do it!
Thank you, Jane!