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March 29, 2022

Climate justice for women is central to effective adaptation efforts

As illustrated in the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, extreme droughts, storms and temperatures continue to have daily impacts around the world. These impacts are disproportionately endured by women, in addition to people of colour, low-income communities and others on the front lines. Our recent analysis assessed the latest IPCC report’s implications for effectively leveraging climate data to increase resilience. Today’s post,  against the backdrop of Women’s History Month, assesses the report’s findings related to gendered impacts of climate change and the need for equity in adaptation.

Addressing disproportionate climate impacts promotes broad systemic resilience

Various studies referenced in the latest IPCC report show that women are disproportionately impacted by climate change globally, driven by traditional roles and responsibilities that create higher vulnerability to both chronic stresses like food and water insecurity and to immediate impacts from events such as natural disasters.

Studies following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 showed that when natural disasters occur, women, who often face higher risk of poverty and limited resources, have fewer opportunities to escape. As primary caregivers, women can find it challenging to urgently evacuate while looking after children and relatives. And once the immediate threat of a natural disaster has passed, women must navigate  poorly designed emergency shelters, increased rates of domestic violence and assault, and other potentially long-term factors that cause them greater difficulty in recovering.  

The IPCC report’s findings demonstrate that addressing the vulnerability of frontline populations, including women, helps to promote systemic resilience that has benefits for all. For example, in agriculture, women comprise 43% of the labor force but only 15% of landholders worldwide, representing a significant imbalance in formal protection to land management rights. This makes women more vulnerable to increasing competition for land, energy and water, which in turn exacerbates the impact of climate change on food security, since women are a significant portion of the labor force.

In the Global South, systemic inequities stemming from historical socioeconomic and political marginalisation continue to exacerbate climate change’s impact on women. Climate-induced water scarcity means that women and girls – who are often tasked with water collection duties – must travel further to access safe water. This takes more time away from income-generating activities, child care, and education, and thus creates a negative feedback loop in which it is harder for girls to advance toward economic independence as they are kept from education.

The vulnerability of women to climate change demonstrates how inequalities can act as a risk multiplier. Moody’s recent Breaking the Bias report found that gender equality positively transforms economies, finance and business through improved GDP and positive credit impacts. Improving women’s resilience, then, can be a powerful tool for managing systemic climate risk and unlocking broader economic opportunity.

Adaptation without a gendered lens can exacerbate vulnerability

The IPCC report finds that globally women are systemically underrepresented in decision-making around adaptation methods and implementation, despite being left behind to face the brunt of increasingly extreme weather events and chronic stresses. A number of studies have demonstrated a male bias in decision-making about water-related adaptation measures. When climate adaptation does not factor in gender-sensitive analysis it can lead to unintended consequences and worsen the negative impacts of climate change on women. For example, selecting adaptation interventions such as drip irrigation and adoption of more labor-intensive crops increase women’s burdens, which is further exacerbated by livelihood diversification through predominately male migration out of water-stressed areas which  leaves women to care for family and livestock.

Effective adaptation is inclusive and based on local context

Adaptation that factors in the local context, including the unique impacts on women, can truly contribute to systemic resilience. For example, activities such as water harvesting, crop diversification, cash transfer programs and food subsidies promote gender equity because they provide benefits to women in the form of economic and health-related well-being.

The IPCC report notes that various studies show that adaptation efforts being implemented in different local contexts can have both positive and negative impacts with SDG5: Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment. Participation in climate action increases where it is inclusive and fair, and so it is important that adaptation activities are grounded in local reality and do not worsen existing gender inequities.

In many cases women are proactive and effective agents of climate change adaptation. Women in many locations have historically developed local knowledge and skills related to water harvesting and storage, food preservation, and early disaster warnings. Harnessing this local wisdom in conjunction with location-specific analysis can result in effective, and well-adopted, adaptation measures.

As temperatures rise, attention to gender equity will be central to achieving climate justice. Applying a gender lens to decision-making can help to achieve this, which will in turn foster broader systemic resilience.