Who Has the Most to Lose If We Do Nothing on Climate Change?

Who Has the Most to Lose If We Do Nothing on Climate Change?
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Climate change solutions are usually discussed in terms of what's best for business and the economy. But what about what's best for those who have the most to lose as climate change worsens? Namely, women.

"Women are disproportionately vulnerable to environmental changes," reported the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Women's Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), citing statistics that speak for themselves:

•Women and children are 14 times more likely to die than men during natural disasters (like heat waves, droughts, and hurricanes -- all of which are direct consequences of climate change).
•Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans in 2005, predominantly affected African-American women, who were already the region's poorest, most disadvantaged community.
•An estimated 87% of unmarried women and almost 100% of married women lost their livelihoods when a cyclone hit the Ayerwaddy Delta in Myanmar in 2008.

But notable natural disasters like these aren't the only ways climate change takes its toll on women's lives.

Lifestyle: In areas of spreading drought, women must spend more time looking for firewood and trying to coax reluctant crops out of the ground. As a result, they have less time to get an education or take care of their kids. Some turn to early and undesirable marriages as a survival strategy.

Health: Pregnant and lactating women are more vulnerable to diseases like malaria and dengue fever, both of which are extending their reach into new regions of the world as temperatures rise. Women also suffer more heart attacks than men in cities where the air is heavily polluted from emissions related to burning fossil fuels.

Children: Kids are spending more time in medical clinics and hospitals as they suffer more cases of climate change-related asthma and poison ivy. Women, who remain the primary caregivers for children, thus lose more time at work because they're tending to sick kids at home and taking them to the doctor.

Economics: Women find it harder to make ends meet as food prices rise to compensate for agricultural shortages due to drought or natural disaster. In developing countries, women may be forced to migrate if their lands become uninhabitable. Yet moving off their land to relocation camps or crowded urban areas makes many women homeless and unable to support themselves and their children.

Security: While men are more likely to be killed or injured in fighting, women suffer greatly from other consequences of climate change-related conflict, including rape, beating, anxiety and depression.

The UN was unequivocal, saying "Unless climate policies take people into account, they will fail to mitigate climate change or to shield vulnerable populations from the potentially disastrous impacts." The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has concurred, declaring in a report the same day the Copenhagen climate talks began that a "thorough examination of the scientific evidence" led it to conclude that "greenhouse gases threaten the health and welfare of the American people," and, presumably, people of other nations as well.

Various captains of industry, religious organizations, doctors and nurses, and most of the scientific community agree: climate change is one of the biggest threats our world faces. President Obama has called climate change "the most important and consequential issue of the 21st Century. The science is undeniable, as are the signs of rising danger all around us."

Still, the conversation around climate change solutions remains slogged down in economic debate over whose responsibility it is and how much we should all be willing to pay to stop it. That's why bloggers like Harriet Shugarman of Climate Mama and organizations like Moms Clean Air Force are so critical. Both played a key role in helping to mobilize the 400,000 people who participated in the groundbreaking People's Climate March September 21 in New York City. Moms Clean Air Force has built a community of 360,000 mostly women who are writing letters to the politicians who represent them, descending on Washington, D.C. to lobby, and meeting with officials at EPA. Climate Mama and others like her are using their social media networks to help educate women about the links between climate change and human health.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Foundation's Clean Cookstoves initiative aims to replace the dirty stoves that release black carbon smoke and cause severe respiratory disease for millions of women and children with 20 million cleaner burning stoves by 2020.

Obviously, it's important to figure out what it will cost to curtail the emissions that cause climate change. But we already can see what NOT curtailing those emissions is costing women in terms of potential unmet and lives lost.

NOTE: A version of this post originally appeared on BlogHer.Com.

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