Point of View

Warming woes and the world's women

December 7, 2009 

There are a number of debates dominating Washington at the moment, but a perfect storm is brewing to put climate change at the center of our public debate over the next few months.

Legislation to cap greenhouse gas emissions is moving through the Senate, while nations will gather in Copenhagen this month to debate solutions to global warming. As our leaders ponder climate legislation and work to construct a meaningful global agreement abroad, they must not lose sight of those most affected by global warming: women.

Seventy percent of people living below the poverty line are women. Not surprisingly, the adverse effects of climate change increasingly affect the world's poorest communities, due to their reliance on natural resources and inability to protect themselves. Although everyone is affected when a flood or a drought hits, women tend to bear a disproportionate burden.

In the poorest countries, women typically collect water and fuel, grow and prepare food, and care for their families. When natural disasters affect their communities, women must provide for the basic needs of their families and often must do so without the education, opportunities and resources available to men. In the wake of such disasters, women find themselves at increased risk for physical abuse and sexual violence. Additionally, women are less able to migrate to look for shelter or work.

Women are also statistically more likely to die than men as a result of natural disasters. Take the brutal cyclone and floods that hit Bangladesh in 1991. Over 140,000 people perished. Because the culture prevented women from learning to swim and forbade them from leaving their homes without male accompaniment, more than four times as many women died than men. The effects of global climate change tend to magnify gender inequalities in the developing world.

But women around the world are fighting back. And every day, more American women are joining their fight. From elected officials to opinion leaders, from private sector leaders to grass-roots activists, women around the country are joining to highlight the disproportionate effect that global climate change is having on poor women worldwide.

Sisters on the Planet, part of a national project by international humanitarian organization Oxfam, is a program designed to invest in the resilience of the world's poorest communities to cope with the negative consequences that climate change brings. CLEAR, the Center for Law, Environment, Adaptation and Resources at UNC Law School, will be providing analytical and legal support for this program and similar ones.

Oxfam's work around the world has confirmed that climate change is happening and that the poor are on the front lines. Their work has also shown that investing early in coping mechanisms can save both money and lives down the road. From drought-resistant seeds to food banks in times of shortage, from coastal tree barriers and raised homes to mitigate the effects of floods to mosquito nets and health surveillance to prevent the spread of climate-related disease, there are a number of ways communities can fight back. But without planning and assistance, they do not stand a chance as climate changes mount.

While the debate in the Senate and in Copenhagen will focus a great deal on the economic costs of global warming, let us not forget the cost of doing nothing - the human toll climate change brings. In the coming years, many developing countries and the women who live there could find their very existence threatened without the tools to deal with the harsh realities of a warmer climate. When women get involved in the decision-making process and are given the resources to plan for and mitigate the effects of natural disasters, survival rates go up.

We must give our sisters the means to take control of their own futures and help them adapt to the growing menace of global climate change.

Victor B. Flatt is the Taft Professor of Environmental Law and director of the Center for Law, Environment, Adaptation and Resources at the UNC law school. Donna Surge is an associate professor in the UNC Department of Geological Sciences.

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