Even the “S” in ESG comes down to an “E”
There is a widespread, persistent myth in investing circles that investing in solutions to the climate crisis and resource degradation is not, in itself, a gender-lens strategy. Nevertheless, women bear the heaviest burdens of the impacts of the climate crisis, including drought, flooding, and other natural disasters. When natural resources are insufficient to meet a community’s needs, women are the primary demographic who go without their share for the benefit of others. Women also suffer the worst consequences of negative changes to resource levels. Consequently, climate change mitigation will meaningfully affect the wellbeing of women, and other vulnerable demographic groups, worldwide.
From a broader perspective, the social parameter of mitigating inequality is crucial to addressing climate: a society divided by inequality is less likely to have the wherewithal to implement and manage things like emissions reductions, carbon capture, and better agricultural practices. Equality between genders then, is likely to accelerate our collective climate response.
Investing in solutions to mitigate the climate crisis and resource degradation disproportionately benefits women to the equal and opposite extent that failing to address the crisis disproportionally harms women.
Increasingly Displaced Communities
Let’s look at a case study. When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast of the United States in August of 2005, it had devastating effects. It triggered massive flooding in New Orleans, and caused catastrophic damage across Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. As a result, “Katrina caused one of the largest and most abrupt relocations of people in U.S. history: approximately 1.5 million people aged 16 years and older.” Fifteen years later, an estimated 400,000 of those 1.5 million remain permanently displaced, with the lowest-income residents having the most difficulty with both the initial relocation and attempts at returning home. Women are among the most affected: more than 83% of New Orleans’ poor, single mothers were displaced by the storm. Years later, many women and girls still share accommodations with extended family members and acquaintances.
“Globally, women and girls are disproportionately affected by climate displacement because of already existing inequalities in society. The poorest tend to be very vulnerable and that’s women and girls,” reports Linnea Engstrom, formerly a Swedish member of the European Parliament.
Besides the obvious impacts on poor, single mothers and their children, females experiencing displacement are especially vulnerable to deprivation, domestic violence, sexually transmitted diseases, and trafficking for prostitution when migration increases. There are many reasons for this, including such factors as girls and women becoming separated from family and communities that otherwise would protect them, and the presence of armed men near temporary shelter areas.
Furthermore, females suffer from limited access to general and reproductive health services in displacement scenarios, not to mention the heightened risks during displacement regarding both protection and healthcare needs that transgender, intersex, and non-binary people experience.
The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (“the Center”) reports that every year, more than 20 million people are forced to leave their homes and migrate elsewhere to escape the ravages of an ever-more-extreme climate. This colossal number doesn’t begin to factor into how many are displaced by conflict and violence, which is often caused – in part or in whole – by increasing resource scarcity and degradation, as people are forced to move to seek sustenance. Director of the Center, Alexandra Bilak, reports “Often it is women and girls who suffer the most from such displacement.”
In 2019, the Center monitored and recorded the largest ever number of both disaster-related and conflict-related displacement events ever – 2,000 – up significantly from 600 displacement events in 2016. As climate change dramatically increases the frequency and scale of storms globally, the World Bank predicts that by 2050, more than 143 million people will be displaced due to climate events. Sources from the United Nations, to the IPCC, to the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change often cite Oxford University Professor Normal Myers’ estimate of “as many as 200 million people overtaken by disruptions of monsoon systems and other rainfall regimes, by droughts of unprecedented severity and duration, and by sea-level rise and coastal flooding.”
Knowing that the poorest and most vulnerable groups are disproportionately impacted by climate-related displacement, and that females form the majority of these groups, it is clear that an additional 143 to 200 million people – or more – displaced within a few decades is a gender issue worthy of solving.
Rapidly Depleting Resources
Natural and agricultural resource scarcity, which is increasingly exacerbated by the climate crisis, is a gender-lens issue related to and apart from displacement of populations.
Our society’s current – and completely outdated – methods of mining many types of resources; extracting fossil fuels; producing petrochemicals; using harmful fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides; failing to maintain leaky water infrastructure; and carrying out other harmful practices, has led many global communities to experience significant levels of resource scarcity.
In the U.S. alone, soil needed to grow critical crops is eroding 10 times faster than it can be replenished. Because of chemical-heavy farming techniques, deforestation, and global warming, experts agree that by 2075, all of the world’s top soil will be gone. Female farmers account for 45-80% of all food production in developing countries, depending on the region. About two-thirds of the female labor force in developing countries, and more than 90% in many African countries, are engaged in agricultural work. This means that as food sources become scarcer, not only will women and their communities experience immediate food shortages, they will also lose their only secure means of earning income.
Women and girls disproportionately suffer from food insecurity as well, including female farmers. A 2019 report published by Oxfam states, “Patriarchal norms create disadvantages for women farmers, specifically in land rights (small plots, difficulties attaining ownership, discriminatory inheritance rights), productive resources (no access to credit, extension services or inputs), unpaid work, insecure employment and exclusion from decision making and political representation. Within the household, because of weaker bargaining position they frequently eat least, last and least well.”
Another critical natural resource that receives very little protection is water. In the U.S., 17% (1 in 6 gallons) of the water we treat is wasted every day due to aging pipes and other leaky infrastructure—that’s 6 billion gallons a day, enough to support 15 million households.
Sadly, we all know about the distressing realities of water pollution in Flint, Michigan. However, these realities are not limited to Flint; a significant number of U.S residents are unaware of how poor their water quality is. Statewide, Texas has the country’s most irradiated drinking water. Numerous other states have shockingly high levels of chemicals like perfluorocarbons, in addition to other dangerous substances that do not exist in nature.
Why is water a gender-lens issue? Clearly, it’s an “everyone” issue. But when considered with the fact that lower income groups cannot afford the bottled water or house-wide filters that wealthier Americans can afford, water is a racial equity issue, as well as an income equality issue. Further, since women’s bodies often are tasked with supporting unborn, newborn, and other infant lives along with their own, low-income women are the hardest hit when water sources are polluted and dangerous to one’s health.
University of Arizona Professor Stephanie Buechler studied water scarcity and women’s rights along the U.S.-Mexico border, and found that decreasing water availability impaired women’s ability to invest in their careers. For example, as livestock owners replaced cows that need a lot of water with cows that need less, the new cows produced materially less milk. With less milk available, women were having a harder time acquiring enough to make the cheese they sell to provide for their families.
Since water and agricultural gender inequalities remain strong, women are often excluded from decision making and political representation that affect these types of scenarios. They often do not have a voice or a vote in economic decisions, and they and those they provide for are left suffering the consequences.
Unfortunately, case studies abound on the direct, indirect, and exacerbating effects of resource scarcity and the climate crisis on women and those who rely on their care giving. “The magnitude and impact of these risks is daunting, but they are not inevitable, nor insurmountable.”
Having explored how deeply disproportionate the effects of the climate crisis and resource scarcity are for women and children, how can we protect these most vulnerable groups? In part 2 of this blog, I cover how investing in innovative climate crisis solutions helps relieve the societal and environmental burdens placed on women – and improves quality of life for all.
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