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Gender Empowerment Is Critical to Global Climate Initiatives

By Mauna Dasari, PhD, Bethany Moritz, and Andrea Apodaca

Gender empowerment must be built into sustainability initiatives if we want to avert further climate crises and build a sustainable future.

Over the past 50 years, extreme climate, weather, and water disasters have occurred once a day, on average, resulting in $202 million in economic damages and in the deaths of roughly 115 people each day. On top of an increased frequency of these extreme climate events, their intensity has also significantly risen due to anthropogenic climate change: from 2015  to 2017, 62 of 77 events had a significant human influence, a statistic recently reported by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). However, these events do not evenly affect the global population. People of minoritized genders—including women, as well as transgender, nonbinary, agender, and gender-fluid people— are disproportionately affected by climate change, and these impacts are compounded when other aspects of identity, such as race and class, are also included.

In fact, the United Nations Environment Programme estimates that 80% of people displaced by climate change are women, and this hard truth means that women experience higher rates of poverty globally. In countries with lower human development index (HDI) metrics, this may be due to women’s outsize roles in agriculture, water fetching, and fuel gathering. Countries with a higher HDI metric may see gender inequity caused by gender wage and wealth gaps and the devaluation of women-dominated occupations. To overcome a lack of public support, caregiving support, and reduced access to reproductive health care, women and people of minoritized genders are also more likely to rely on informal community networks that are disrupted by natural disasters. This further disempowers them and makes them especially vulnerable to the consequences of these disasters, as shown by surging rates of domestic violence when these crises occur.

Many of these disparities in health care and economic outcomes are typically as bad or worse for people of other minoritized genders, although these inequities have gotten less attention from researchers studying global climate change. In the United States, a report from the UCLA School of Law, states that transgender people and people of other minoritized sexual orientations and gender identities (LGBQ+) are more likely to experience housing insecurity when they seek accommodations, due not only to high costs but also to discrimination, even at homeless shelters. Furthermore, the National Center for Transgender Equality estimates that transgender and other LGBQ+-identified youth in America make up 20–40% of young people experiencing homelessness, with one in five transgender individuals facing this at some point.

Housing insecurity not only exposes people to the elements but also can lead to a compounding of inequity through negative feedback loops: people experiencing homelessness are more likely to have negative encounters with police, and, correspondingly, LGBTQ+ people are incarcerated at more than twice the rate of the general population. People in prison are disproportionately susceptible to rising temperatures and to other climate-related disasters that further imperil their health, with little to no chance for a reprieve due to understaffing more likely to leave prisoners in dangerous situations and extreme weather events impacting outdated facilities that leave incarcerated people in situations that amount to cruel and unusual punishment. While poverty among LGBTQ+ people has been dropping, the recent spate of anti-transgender and anti-LGBTQ+ legislation (340 bills as of February 15th, 2023) threatens to increase discrimination against LGBTQ+ people across the United States.

To mitigate and avert future climate-related disasters, governments are investing in sustainability initiatives, seeking to build greater climate resilience while meeting human developmental needs, but without further depleting natural resources. These efforts are important, yet the goals and scope of many sustainability initiatives may still be limited by a lack of gender-diverse representation. Indeed, of the 110 attendees at the 27th session of the UN’s Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27), only 7 were women. Diverse gender representation can have important results because countries with higher representations of women in government are more likely to set aside protected land areas, to ratify environmental treaties, and to reduce carbon emissions overall. Tellingly, countries with lower levels of gender equity are associated with poorer environmental wellbeing. Lack of representation and of gender equity results in the needs of minoritized genders being overlooked and could signal that other groups are also being excluded.

Sustainability initiatives that do not account for the disproportionate impact that climate change has on people of minoritized genders will not be effective mitigation tools. However, increasing the number of diverse voices in the environmental justice movement can be one step toward protecting the people most vulnerable to climate disasters. In positive news, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals clearly outline how governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) can incorporate many different aspects of human development into a sustainability-minded framework. Following suit, the U.S. government released its first-ever National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality in 2021. This strategy aims to integrate gender equity into all aspects of government, including federal environmental actions. Environmental justice initiatives will only be stronger in partnership with other social justice movements that include diverse perspectives working together to create a future for all peoples.

AWIS member Mauna Dasari, PhDDr. Mauna Dasari (she/her) is currently the Government Grants Officer at the California Academy of Sciences. Prior to working at the museum, she studied how the socio-environmental context of a wild animal impacts their gut microbiome while she was an NSF Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh and during her doctoral work in Biological Sciences at the University of Notre Dame.

Andrea Apodaca (she/her) is currently the Donor Relations Manager at the California Academy of Sciences. Prior to working at the museum, Andrea taught science informally and started her career in exotic animal care. She holds a BS in Animal Science from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.

Bethany Moritz (she/her) is currently a Leadership Gifts Officer at the California Academy of Sciences. She has worked in non-profit fundraising and administration for more than 10 years for a wide variety of organizations, including the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures and the Science Museum of Minnesota. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications from Concordia University, St. Paul, MN.

This article was originally published in AWIS Magazine. Join AWIS to access the full issue of AWIS Magazine and more member benefits.