Climate change is reshaping weather patterns, economies, and social structures and fundamentally altering the planet. The question is no longer why or if climate change is happening but how communities around the world will respond in order to safeguard human health, safety, and freedom.
While climate change affects both women and men, the way it is experienced differs significantly by gender. As a result, academic researchers, government agencies, and think tanks are making efforts to integrate a gender-specific lens into their climate research—an approach known as gender mainstreaming. While gender mainstreaming has led to more extensive research on the connection between climate change and women’s health and well-being, there is still more work to be done to capture these intersecting issues. Specifically, there is a dearth of research that uses a reproductive justice framework to better understand and respond to the inequitable effects that climate change has on women. Indeed, not all women experience climate change similarly, so simply applying a gender lens is oftentimes insufficient.
Coined by women of color activists in 1994, the term reproductive justice refers to a human rights framework that emphasizes a person’s right to have children or not and to parent the children they do have with dignity and in a safe environment. It links reproductive rights with social justice and demonstrates how the intersecting forms of oppression that some women—particularly Black, Latina, and Indigenous women—experience can affect their bodily autonomy and parenting decisions. These forms of oppression include facing discrimination in the health care system; being denied access to services based on income or immigration status; living in unsafe and unhealthy environments; or experiencing disparities in pay and overall economic security.
Climate change will only exacerbate current inequities. Its dramatic effects may also tempt countries down the path of population control—a coercive and punitive approach that does nothing to solve the root cause of the crisis. It is critical that policymakers and political leaders utilize a reproductive justice framework when recruiting stakeholders, crafting policies, and making funding decisions to stave off these negative impulses and effectively respond to a rapidly changing climate.
Current findings on the intersection of gender and climate change
Research on the connection between climate change and women’s health and well-being underscores the impact that climate change will have on the availability of resources such as food and clean water, access to health services, and physical and psychological health. This research typically falls into the categories outlined below.
Poor maternal health outcomes and delayed prenatal care:
- Extreme temperatures—and particularly extreme heat—can negatively affect maternal and fetal health outcomes because, among other reasons, pregnant women are at higher risk of overheating during pregnancy. A study in Nature Climate Change confirmed a correlation between heat exposure and preterm deliveries and concluded that, without adaptation, women in the United States will experience 250,000 fewer days of gestation each year by 2100.
- Following natural disasters, women are at greater risk of experiencing miscarriages, preterm birth and low birth weight deliveries, and intrauterine growth restrictions. Researchers at Tulane University found that after Hurricane Katrina, women who experienced at least three incidents of trauma related to hurricane exposure had higher rates of low birth weight and preterm deliveries.
- Other possible threats to maternal health as a result of climate change include vector-borne diseases (e.g., malaria and dengue fever); exposure to toxic chemicals; air pollution; water scarcity; and population displacement.
- After Hurricane Katrina, 14 counties and parishes in Louisiana experienced a significant increase in the percentage of women who received late or no prenatal care—from 2.3 percent before the hurricane to 3.9 percent after the hurricane.
Barriers to accessing family planning services and supplies:
- Climate change makes it more difficult for people to access family planning services and decide when or whether to have children.
- After Hurricane Ike, researchers found that non-Hispanic Black women and evacuees reported a reduction in access to birth control services.
Increases in gender-based violence:
- Following natural disasters and often as a result of displacement, women are at increased risk of experiencing domestic violence and sexual assault. The United Nations Refugee Agency has found that this may be due to a lack of access to safe shelter, overcrowded facilities, increased civil disorder, or the absence of support systems, including family.
- In the seven months after the Mount St. Helen’s eruption in 1980, police reports showed a 46 percent increase in cases of domestic violence. After a severe ice storm in 1997, a Montreal police chief reported that 1 in every 4 calls received during the storm were from women experiencing domestic abuse.
- There was a surge in gender-based violence in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria, with shelters reporting an increase in the number of women seeking protection—233 women between September 2017 and April 2018, compared with 187 women during the same time period the year before. Law enforcement also documented an increase in femicides compared with the year before.
Worsened mental health outcomes:
- Climate disasters contribute to poor mental health outcomes among both men and women. However, women are more likely than men to experience depression, anxiety, and other stress-related conditions.
- Pregnant women who survived Hurricane Katrina were more likely to experience post-traumatic stress disorder, and women who faced the 2010 Mount Merapi eruption in Indonesia also had higher rates of negative psychosocial outcomes.
Poor menstrual health and hygiene:
- After a disaster, women and girls typically face difficulties in accessing hygienic menstrual products.
- A 2011 study of floods in northern Bangladesh over the prior five years found that women and girls reported increases in gynecological infections, irregular menstruation, and other reproductive health issues due to a lack of access to clean water, hygienic supplies, and sanitation.
Lack of economic security and resources:
- Globally, women tend to possess fewer assets, including land and other materials, and have relatively less access to cash and credit. Indeed, denial of land rights contributes to their reduced wealth and access to credit. As a result, women have less capacity to respond to climate change and often experience stunted economic recovery in the months and years that follow a climate disaster.
Increased food insecurity and nutritional deficits:
- Women are more likely to experience nutritional deficits, particularly when pregnant or breastfeeding. This is only exacerbated by climate-induced food scarcity and the resultant deprioritization of their nutritional needs in the household food hierarchy.
Gender-specific climate research does not consider reproductive justice
While some of the above research explores the social determinants of health that undergird reproductive justice, there is a clear lack of attention or interest in rigorously applying a reproductive justice lens to climate research. This is an oversight on the part of the research community.
Vulnerability and exposure to climate effects vary by race, income, geography, and other factors and are shaped by women’s lived experiences. In addition, low-income women and women of color are more likely to work in low-paying jobs with few or no benefits and fewer opportunities for advancement, increasing their vulnerability to climate change and undermining their autonomy. Applying a reproductive justice framework to climate work will allow researchers, policymakers, and leaders to be inclusive and effective in their ideas as well as ensure human rights and social justice are at the center of any agenda or proposal.
Restrictive reproductive health policies in the United States and abroad also make it difficult—if not impossible—for women to exercise their rights and safeguard their bodily autonomy. When policies and laws are put in place that politically interfere with public family planning funding, abortion services, and access to safety net programs, it is necessary that research on the impacts of climate change take into account the barriers to bodily autonomy that women already face and how these obstacles will be exacerbated by climate change.
Population control is dangerous and ineffective
For years, fears about an overpopulated planet and overstretched resources have driven policymakers and conservative advocates to promote population control, including coercive family planning and limits on childbearing, as a reasonable and logical scheme. However, countries with the highest fertility rates—predominantly in the global south—also have the world’s lowest greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, countries such as the United States and China—both of which have shrinking fertility rates—produce an outsize share of global emissions (16 percent and 29 percent, respectively, in 2019). A focus on population growth itself as a driver of climate change distracts from the comprehensive economic and energy transformations the world must undertake to achieve the target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 as well as the need to build a 100 percent clean energy future. In addition, population control is oftentimes used as a cover for anti-immigrant, misogynistic, or racist sentiments that will only increase as climate change drives large-scale migration and other societal changes. Population control tactics must be repudiated in all climate research.
Finally, as discussions about climate change and women’s health and well-being continue, it is essential that lawmakers and other elected officials take a holistic approach that is focused on women’s empowerment. This can be achieved by, among other things, improving access to education; strengthening women’s economic security through quality jobs and high wages; and increasing leadership and governance opportunities—in addition to mainstreaming reproductive justice in climate research.
Climate change poses one of the gravest threats to human health and safety and will require countries to rethink the way they consume energy, grow food, safeguard health, and protect their residents. While women will face distinct threats as a result of climate change, they also have the power—as community organizers, caregivers, and political leaders—to develop solutions that promote equity, resilience, and sustainability. Women, therefore, must be included as key stakeholders at decision-making tables. Climate research must also continue to expand beyond gender equality in order to collect and analyze data on the crisis through a reproductive justice lens. Achieving equity and autonomy must be the ultimate goal in any discussion or research about climate change and women.
Osub Ahmed is a senior policy analyst for women’s health and rights at the Center for American Progress.