Women Ignored in Climate Change at Copenhagen

Women hold up half the sky, claims an old saying, coined long before the world’s skies were filled with global warming gases. My sense is that from now on, they will have to hold up a lot more.

The absence of debate on this gendered slant to global warming is a silence piled upon silences in the warm-up to the December Copenhagen conference, where the world’s leaders will, with some fanfare, agree to do nothing positive of substance.

Women, especially women in the Global South (aka the developing world), do almost nothing to cause global warming. They keep the homefires burning in India, for example, the country with the highest percentage of the world’s poor; produces about the same amount of global warming gases as does affluent Canada, which has about a billion fewer people.

Women are not causing the delays in scientists getting their act together, nor the logjam in government inability to coordinate anti-warming initiatives. The much-heralded IPCC report of 2007 presented the consensus of some 2,500 scientists around the world. They agreed global warming had human causes and would cause planetary havoc, and spent half a page on special problems women would face, perhaps not surprising given that only 15 per cent of the included scientists were women. Asfor governments, less than a quarter of the negotiators working on a Copenhagen deal right now are women.

Yet women will pay most dearly for business and political notion-of-motion inaction, a reality which the world’s mainstream feminists and environmentalists, even such organizations as Moms Against Climate Change, have all but ignored.

The silence about women is help up by many silences that lead many people to think that global warming is some future threat or that it may disrupt Nature, but not people. According to the May, 2009 Lancet, Britain’s most respected medical journal, global warming is the “biggest global health threat of the 21st century” and also “one of the most inequitable health risks of our time” since the poorest billion people in the world will lose 500 times more years of healthy life than the rich who caused their problems. This is the century when colonialism loses all pretence of being a white man’s burden and becomes, especially in southern Africa and Asia where the harm will be worst, a brown woman’s burden. And it’s already happening; indeed, it’s ten year-old news.

Global warming’s impact is a future or distant reality only in the Global North. In the South, global warming-related or man-made “natural disasters,” such as hurricanes, typhoons, floods and mudslides, are already on the rise. Small disasters are silent tsunamis, since they lack the drama of a big one, but they have doubled from 200 to 400 in the last 20 years, according to reports by the UN’s Division for the Advancement of Women. These mini-disasters led to the death or maiming of 211 million people, seven times more than were wounded or killed in wars over that time. Women and children are 14 times more likely to die during disasters than men, according to the UN’s because they’re more likely to be trapped in a home, or were never taught to swim or climb trees, or wear clothes that make vigorous movement difficult, according to the UN’s recent publication, Gender in Agriculture Sourcebook.

Just as there is silence about natural disasters, many provoked by climate chaos, there is silence about women’s role as hewers of wood and water, whose work will never be done in a heated- and dried-up world.

The fuel for about a third of the world’s homes — two-thirds in India or Indonesia — is wood or dung gathered and carried by women. Women also find and carry home cooking and cleaning water. In Africa, already suffering from deforestation and desertification induced by climate chaos, women and children now spend 40 billion hours a year gathering water, which commonly requires them to carry a 20 to 40 kilogram load on their heads, leading to spinal injuries as they age, according to a report to the UN General Assembly last spring.

As the time and distances go up under the impact of increased desertification – almost two billion people are liable to suffer from water stress by 2025 as a result of expected levels of climate chaos – the sheer time required to carry out these essential tasks will make it almost impossible for girls to attend school or women to engage in part-time jobs that might ease the way out of extreme poverty.

Time required to search for essentials such as fuel and water also competes for time needed to maintain subsistence farms, the women’s work that provides most of the food eaten in the Global South. Just when that food production becomes more time-demanding as adaptations become necessary to ward off drought, desertification and deforestation; crop failures and famine are almost inevitable in such circumstances. Extreme poverty, farmland degradation, hunger and malnutrition, sexist discrimination and global warming will form points on an enclosed and vicious circle from which escape will be difficult.

Nobel Peace prize winner Wangari Maathai, honored for building a women’s army of tree planters who grew greenbelts throughout Kenya, has warned that the world is unlikely to achieve climate equity until it achieves gender equity.

If ever there was a cause to form a new non-profit or Non Government Organization, this is it. As Copenhagen will surely confirm, when the most vulnerable and are without voice, there is no-one to challenge the political and corporate bullies now imposing an additional historic burden on the health, well-being and rights of over a billion women.

(adapted from NOW Magazine, December 3-9, 2009; Wayne Roberts is the author of the No-Nonsense Guide to World Food)

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