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Happy Earth Day!

Which is the day we all pat ourselves on the back for doing our little bit to increase sustainability and protect the planet, right? Only the planet ain’t doing so well.

"I wonder if the next planet we destroy will also get its own holiday."

“I wonder if the next planet we destroy will also get its own holiday.”

Here’s a sobering thought: If you were born after March 1985, you have never experienced a colder-than-average month. Climate change isn’t “coming.” It’s here. And weather instability is the name of the game. It’s the new normal.  Human civilization was fortunate to emerge during a period of unusual stability in the earth’s climate–global mean temperatures are estimated not to have moved more than one degree Celsius in either direction in he past 10,000 years. (Click for nifty infographic!But that equilibrium has been ruptured, and even if greenhouse gas emissions stopped now, it could be hundreds if not thousands of years before the climate reaches a new stable state. 

When the US Congress failed to pass a cap-and-trade bill to reduce carbon emissions in 2009, I commented to friends that it would take a hurricane hitting New York City to get this country to focus seriously on climate change. Well, that actually happened last fall.

And as people give up on effective action from the US government or the United Nations, people are increasingly talking about adaptation. When people talk about climate change, they speak of “adaptation” and “mitigation.” Mitigation is the actions we take to reduce our emissions so as to lessen the severity of climate change. Adaptation is the task of adapting social and natural systems to a changed climate the increasingly common and severe natural disasters that will result.

But let’s be real.

I have seen the devastation that nature can wreak first-hand, working on the front lines of relief and rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina. And I’ve studied the topic extensively  in graduate school and reported on it from the floor of the UNFCC conference in Copenhagen. But the ugly truth is that, absent serious and near-term reduction of emissions, “adaptation” is triage at best. It is fundamentally insufficient to protect the billions who are most vulnerable to climate impacts—impacts that will fall disproportionately on women. The idea that we could just adapt to a changing climate is a cruel joke. But with climate change upon us, adaptation is also needed. Lessening suffering is important, and it is important to bring a gender analysis to this area.

Are We Beyond Adaptation?

Climate change is complicated, and millions of words have been written on the topic. And of course, you can’t tie any single event like Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Sandy to climate change. But it’s consistent with the predictions from all the climate models. And while the science is complex, the fundamental logic is extremely simple. The basic mechanism of climate change is that increased greenhouse gasses trap heat. Essentially, we are loading the atmosphere with more and more energy. Warmer air holds more moisture, and that moisture precipitates out more suddenly and intensely-in other words, more destructively and less usefully. Wet areas will be wetter, and drier areas are posed to get a lot drier.  Witness the drought in the breadbasket of America in 2012, followed more recently by intense flooding. Or in Australia for the past decade. How long before you admit it isn’t a drought, but the new normal? 

Environmentalists are often told they need to avoid “the sky is falling” catastrophic language, because it is not taken seriously and/or drives people into inaction. But catastrophe does increasingly seem like where we’re headed.

In 2009, the world’s leaders signed an agreement in Copenhagen committing to to a goal of not allowing global temperatures to rise more than 2 degrees C. Unfortunately: (a) that level of warming may well be too high to be safe, and (b) may well be out of reach…given that the emissions reduction targets they set at the same time would probably result in global mean temperature increasing by…close to 4 degrees C. More recently, the International Energy Agency said that current emissions trajectories–which are rising faster than anticipated–put us on track for a rise of 6 degrees C (or 11 degrees Fahrenheit), on average.

What would such a world look like? Kevin Anderson, climate scientist and director of the Tynell Center, sums it up:

A 4 degrees C future is incompatible with an organized global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems, and has a high probability of not being stable.

In other words, you get that much climate change and natural feedback effects take over, and the system spirals out of control.

This video clarifies things really well, and should be pretty much required viewing.

~David Roberts: Climate Change is Simple: We Do Something Or We’re Screwed.

Gender Trouble

So, if we do nothing else, “adaptation” is likely impossible. But even if we started aggressively rescuing emissions today, we’re in for a mighty bumpy ride. And the question then becomes who will be worst affected and what can be done to lessen that the suffering and loss of life. And when we start thinking about vulnerability and adaptive capacity, culture and gender inequalities start to become pretty important.

In doing research for this post, and reviewing the many articles I read (or was assigned but didn’t actually read) in college and graduate school on vulnerability and adaptation to climate change, I was dismayed to realize how little mention of gender there is in the academic and policy literature on climate change. Much of the research that has been done on the impacts of climate change on women focuses on their greater vulnerability of poor women—primarily in the global south—to environmental disruptions and natural disasters. But the findings are nonetheless pretty sobering.

In his excellent book, Facing Catastrophe: Environmental Action for a Post-Katrina World, Robert Verchick describes the differential gender impacts from the asian tsunami of 2004:

The Asian Tsunami claimed the lives of twice as many women than men in two-hard hit districts in the Indian state Tamil Nadu, and in one district of Sri Lanka, women and girls accounted for 80% of the of the fatalities…The disparity is attributable to many factors. As primary caregivers, women are more likely to be home during a disaster, and their homes are often poorly constructed or in vulnerable area. Women are usually the first ones to search for missing family members, exposing themselves to hammering rains, mud slides, and other perils. Sometimes women are constrained by social norms. During the Asian Tsunami, many women drowned because they were “ashamed” to run to shore after waves ripped away parts of their clothing. (Verchick 112)

Oxfam International estimated that overall, three times as many women as men perished in the Tsunami. Similar figures show up for other comparable disasters in Africa and Asia, such as earthquakes. Women and children also account for more than 75% of all persons displaced following natural disasters, according to the Global Fund for Women’s 2005 report, “Caught in the Storm: The Impact of Natural Disasters on Women,” by Lin Chew and Kavita Ramdas.

It should be noted, however, that the gender breakdown in fatalities due to natural disasters is not universal. Hurricane Mitch, for example, killed more men than women in Honduras and Nicaragua. Some scholars attribute this difference in part to social factors, arguing that the “cult of machismo” makes men in Latino cultures more likely to take risky, ‘heroic’ actions during disasters that can lead to their deaths. But even in this case, “women endured a disproportionate amount of the burden immediately following the storm and in later rehabilitation, because of their triple roles in maintaining the household, engaging in community organizing, and productive work in the informal economy.” (Nelson et al 55)

The disproportionate impact of natural disasters on women is not confined to the global south. In the US, after Katrina, women were also particularly hard hit. “Of the 180,000 Louisianans who lost their jobs after the storm,”  writes Verchick, “103,000, or 57%, were women. Of the thousands of households that lost public housing…after the storm, 88% were headed by women.” (Verchick 139)

In the weeks (and months) after Katrina, reports of domestic violence, rape and other crimes against women also increased, yet were unable to be dealt with, due to the fact that the rape crisis and domestic violence shelters have been temporarily shuttered by the storm. (Chew and Ramndas) This is sadly not unexpected, as “research shows that evacuations and disasters are often accompanied by increases in violence against women and girls.” (Verchick 139)

Women are also less likely to get adequate health care, may be denied adequate relief aid or compensation, and are often excluded from a say in rebuilding and reconstruction efforts. (Chew and Ramdas)

But it is also true that this whole discourse around increased female vulnerability as the main way gender is relevant to climate change adaptation is itself problematic. Seeme Arora-Jonson argues that:

In discourses around climate change, that have hardly any attention to gender, the few mentions that policymakers have chosen to take up are about vulnerability or virtuousness. That helps to put the problem out there, mainly with poor and geographically distant vulnerable woman. The crux of the matter that marginalization or vulnerability is due to inequalities in power is ignored.

Clearly, a comprehensive approach is needed to address these problems, as acknowledged by United Nations in the “Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015” that came out of the World Conference on Disaster Reduction in 2005, which has as a top priority that:

A gender perspective should be integrated into all disaster risk management policies, plans and decision-making processes, including those related to risk assessment, early warning, information management, and education and training. (Hyogo 4)

As is often the case, implementation is a challenge, as is articulated by a new report out from the Brookings Institution:

It is also important to recognize that women play significant roles in all stages of disaster and climate risk management; they are often at the frontline as responders and bring valuable resources to risk reduction and recovery efforts. Yet, in practice, disaster risk management policies and processes throughout the world largely exclude the important work already being done by women. We argue that the effective and meaningful participation of women in policy-making, programming and implementation is crucial to increasing the success of disaster risk management in all phases. This participation, combined with timely and adequate attention to the gendered aspects of disasters and climate change, can in turn lead to greater gender equality and strengthen the resilience of entire communities.

Today, from 2 to 3:30 pm EDT at their DC headquarters, the Brooking Institution is sponsoring an in-person and online discussion on the topic, which you can follow on twitter.

What Can I Do?

Look, it’s pretty normal, I think, to feel somewhat despondent when contemplating climate change and disaster risk reduction. But there are things we call can do:

  1. Get real about the seriousness of the challenge. Remember that video from David Roberts above? Watch it. (Perhaps with a stiff drink close at hand.)
  2. But really, don’t get depressed. Get angry, and work to change our energy system!
  3. Support adaptation and relief efforts with a feminist lens.
    • When disasters happen, support aid organizations that include women and members of affected communities in their priority setting. Grassroots movements are often the most effective–look at Occupy Sandy in NYC, or the group I worked with in New Orleans in 2005/06, Common Ground Relief (whoa, they still exist!).
    • Get organized around efforts to build resilience in your own community. More and more municipalities and states are planning their adaptation strategies. See if your jurisdiction has one and whether a feminist angle has been brought to the planning efforts. Or get involved in more autonomous grassroots efforts.

Let’s find a way forward, together.

The Way Forward

Happy Earth Day?


Works Cited Include:

Arora-Jonsson, S. Virtue and vulnerability (2011): Discourses on women, gender and climate change, Global Environmental Change 21 ) 744–751.

Chew, L. and K.N. Ramdas (2005): ‘Caught in the storm: impact of natural disasters on women’. San Fransisco, CA: Global Fund for Women.

Hansen, J. and M. Sato, (2011): “Paleoclimate Implications for Human-Made Climate Change” http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/mailings/2011/20110118_MilankovicPaper.pdf

Hyogo Framework for Action (2005): http://www.unisdr.org/files/1037_hyogoframeworkforactionenglish.pdf

Nelson, S., K. Meadows, T. Cannon, J. Morton, & A. Martin (2002): Uncertain predictions, invisible impacts, and the need to mainstream gender in climate change adaptations, Gender & Development, 10:2, 51-59.

Verchick, R. R. M. (2010): Facing Catastrophe: Environmental Action for a Post Katrina World. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.