Feeling the heat: Women’s health in a changing climate

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For the first 20 years that climate change garnered international attention, gender issues were not even on the agenda—even though women and girls represent half of the world’s population and are likely to experience very different health impacts compared to men and boys. Women are generally poorer than men and more dependent than men on primary resources that are threatened by changes in climate.

When it comes to decision making about climate change, women in most parts of the world have remained almost invisible until just recently. At the Eighth Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2002, participants finally acknowledged that women are vulnerable to climate change, and that they may even bear a disproportionate share of the adaptation burden. More recently, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women addressed “Gender Perspectives on Climate Change” at the 52nd session of the Commission in New York in February 2008. And at the UN climate change conference in Bali, Indonesia in December 2007, the global network of activists and scholars, Gender CC–Women for Climate Justice, was established and issued a statement demanding more women’s participation in climate change decision making.

Future global climate and health

Humanity is currently undertaking a global scientific experiment by injecting enormous amounts of greenhouse gases (GHGs), such as carbon dioxide and methane, into Earth’s atmosphere. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that carbon dioxide (CO2) levels will double, or even triple, over pre-industrial levels by 2100. Canada is one of the largest producers and consumers of fossil fuels, and one of the largest per capita emitters of GHGs in the world.

Global mean temperature is projected to increase from 1° to over 6° C over the coming century relative to 1990 temperatures. This projected warming is greater than any experienced by humans in the past 10,000 years. At the Poles, warming will be much greater than for the Earth as a whole; northern Canada’s average winter temperature is expected to increase by 8° to 10° C over the same period. Inuit communities are already experiencing temperature increases that lead to decreasing sea-ice cover, which affects the ability to hunt and fish for traditional food. Also, the melting sea ice may open the Northwest Passage to international commercial shipping; increased traffic may result in more pollution, affecting the Arctic fisheries and the general health of people and wildlife living in the region.

Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization, characterizes climate change as “the fifth horseman,” and when she declared climate change as the theme for this year’s World Health Day, she referred to is as “the defining issue for public health during this century.” It is therefore imperative to address the impacts of climate change on human health, and to invest in future resilience. Gender-based analysis that examines how climate changes affect women and men differently must also be part of the process, including consideration of the role of poverty as a significant health determinant.

Statistics Canada’s most recent data (2003) show that almost 1.5 million adult women are living in poverty in Canada. Thirty-six per cent of Aboriginal women live in poverty, compared with 17% of non-Aboriginal women; and the poverty levels for lone-parent families led by women (51%), women of colour (29%), women with disabilities (26%) and senior women (41%) are also of great concern. An examination of some of the direct and indirect health impacts of climate change indicates that women who experience the highest levels of poverty in Canada are also among the most vulnerable to climate change impacts.

Direct health impacts

Thermal extremes

In a warmer world, heat waves are expected to become more frequent and severe. Particularly vulnerable are infants, elderly people and people living in poverty.

In 1936, Canadians suffered under temperatures of 38° to 41° C in Hamilton, Niagara Falls and Toronto. Some residents reversed the flow of their vacuums to try to keep cool, while others fled to the beaches where men flouted decency laws by brazenly sporting topless bathing suits. At night, thousands of citizens abandoned their homes to sleep in cool cemeteries and parks on blankets or mattresses, or in parked cars along the waterfront; Toronto’s Daily Star reported that the Canadian National Exhibition ground looked like a “vast dressing room.” Almost 1,200 Canadians died during the crisis (compared with 42 people the previous year), with Toronto experiencing 225 deaths. Heat exacerbated many underlying health conditions, such as cardiovascular and respiratory disease, which subsequently killed. More recently, heat waves in Europe killed 35,000 in 2003; in France, female mortality was 15 to 20% higher than male mortality for all age groups.

Men and women differ in their response to extreme heat. Women sweat less, have a higher metabolic rate and thicker subcutaneous fat that prevents them from cooling themselves as efficiently as men. Women are therefore less tolerant of an imposed heat stress.

Heat-related health impacts can be reduced through individual behaviour adaptations, such as drinking more fluids and the use of air conditioners—as long as people have access to these resources. Poverty among elderly women, for example, limits their access to resources and contributes to the higher risk of heat-associated death. On a structural or societal level, adaptation may include the development of community-wide heat emergency plans and improved heat warning systems; however, as with individuals, it cannot be assumed that the necessary resources are available.

Extreme events

With increased temperatures, extreme weather events, such as floods, hail, ice storms, and tornadoes, are also likely to increase. Gender significantly affects the daily lives of women and men, before, during and after an extreme event. Those likely to suffer most from a disaster include women living in poverty, those in violent relationships and others with limited access to resources.

Women generally endure more mental stress than men as the primary caregivers during and after extreme events. Women also suffer increased violence at these times. Police reports of domestic violence following the 1980 Mt. St. Helen’s volcanic eruption increased by 46%, and in 1998, a Montreal police chief reported that 25% of calls received during the 1997 ice storm were from women experiencing abuse. During the chaotic days and weeks following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center in the US recorded 47 sexual assaults, which according to the Center represents only a “small percentage of the informal anecdotal reports and accounts.”

Women must be included in disaster prevention, mitigation and recovery strategies. Specifically, women must be engaged in: family, household and workplace preparation for extreme weather events; response and recovery; emergency-site organization; physical and emotional care for children; and organizing support networks.

Indirect health impacts

Indirect risks of climate change include increased air pollution, decreased food production, reduced water quality and quantity, and increased vector-borne disease (disease usually transmitted to humans by an insect) such as malaria and Lyme disease. Mosquito-borne transmission of malaria in Canada is dependent on the interactions among the mosquito vector, human host, malaria parasite and environmental conditions—particularly climate conditions. Malaria may also be contracted by Canadians travelling to countries where the disease is present, but not known to be endemic.

The potential for the re-introduction of malaria into Canada and the United States has been demonstrated by recent outbreaks of the disease in densely populated areas of New Jersey and New York in the 1990s. However, continued and increased application of control measures—such as water management, disease surveillance and prompt treatment of cases—probably would counteract any increase.

A warmer climate and longer frost-free seasons in Canada may permit the spread of Lyme disease, a bacterium transmitted to humans by ticks. Lyme disease can usually be treated effectively with antibiotics, but if left untreated, it may lead to arthritis or neurological problems. In Canada, the disease is mainly found in southeastern parts of Ontario, Manitoba and Nova Scotia, and in southern British Columbia, but as temperatures rise, scientists are concerned that the ticks may move further north, carrying the disease with them.

Climate change is likely to increase acidic precipitation (“acid rain”) and smog. The sulphur dioxide in acidic precipitation is created mainly from the burning of sulphur-containing fuels, such as coal and oil; important sources include power plants, pulp and paper mills, refineries and smelters. Nitrogen dioxide, another component of acidic precipitation, comes from motor vehicle exhaust, electric utilities and industrial boilers, and is also associated with smog. Canada’s love affair with the automobile certainly contributes to the problem. In the past 20 years, while Canada’s population has increased 16%, the number of passenger cars on the roads has increased by over 60%.

Health effects of increased air pollution are likely to range from mild illness (e.g. eye, nose and throat irritation) to severe illness and even death. Air pollution is thought to be responsible for 1,700 premature deaths and 6,000 hospital admissions in Toronto each year. Studies have found that women have a greater deposition of inhaled particles in their lungs than men—an indication that women may be more affected by air pollution. Females also have fewer red blood cells than males, and thus may be more sensitive to the toxicological influences of air pollutants.

Voice of women critical

Even if greenhouse gas emissions were stopped immediately, the effects of human activities would still influence Earth’s climate for many years to come. People with limited access to resources, have the least capacity to adapt to climate change and are more vulnerable to its impacts. To effectively address the health impacts of climate change for women and men, gender-based analysis is a necessity, and women must be involved in adaptation and mitigation strategies to meet the changing climatic conditions. In the words of Nobel laureate, Amartya Sen, “The voice of women is critically important for the world’s future—not just for women’s future.”

Kirsty Duncan is an Associate Professor, Health Studies, University of Toronto (Scarborough), and was recognized as one of the Nobel Prize winning Canadians on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Women put gender on the climate change agenda

“When women’s rights are not protected, more women than men will die from disasters. The issue of climate change is too important to ignore the voice of half the world’s population.” – Lorena Aguilar, Senior Adviser to the World Conservation Union at the UN Commission on the Status of Women meeting in New York, February 2008.

At the 52nd Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York in February 2008, a panel discussion addressing “gender perspectives on climate change” brought together experts from around the world calling for women’s participation in all aspects of the climate change debate, including mitigation and adaptation. The panel, which was moderated by Commission Vice-Chairperson, Ara Margarian, also included Anastasia Pinto, adviser to the Centre for Organization, Research and Education and Woro B. Harijono, Director-General of the Meteorological and Geophysical Agency of Indonesia. Citing numerous studies, panelists showed that climate change is a gender issue and that when natural disasters strike or severe weather events occur, the different impacts on women and men must be considered.

Women, they said, are underrepresented in decision making about climate change and panelists called on governments—and the members of the Commission—to ensure women’s participation in planning and decision making, especially towards the development and implementation of gender-sensitive policies and programs. They called for broader support for the development of a gender strategy or plan of action within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and the establishment of “a system for governments to use gender-sensitive indicators and criteria” for reporting to the Convention’s Secretariat.  

As countries around the world prepare to draft the post-Kyoto Protocol strategy by the end of 2009, ensuring women’s voices are included in the process is of the utmost urgency, according to Minu Hemmati, from the global network, Gender CC–Women for Climate Justice. “This process will need a lot of awareness-building,” said Hemmati, citing the fact that neither the Framework Convention nor the Kyoto Protocol mentions women or gender. “Even though it appeared that attitudes were changing and gender equality is now considered by some as an important factor in mitigating climate change and adapting to its impacts, women’s participation in relevant negotiations must be consistent and continuous.”

In a letter to the plenary of the UNFCCC in Bali, Indonesia in December 2007, Gender CC stated: “We would like to express our grave concern at the marginalization of women’s views, voices and rights during this conference and the future climate change regime. We are here to help governments to recognize the vital urgency of gender equality in their policies and program at the growing climate crisis…We ask you to ensure that adaptation and mitigation strategies uphold basic human security and the right to sustainable development, and do not exacerbate the injustice, inequalities and inequities between women and men. Women have a strong body of traditional knowledge that can be used in climate change mitigation, disaster reduction and adaptation. Proper acknowledgement, protection and financial support should be available to sustain this knowledge…We look forward to a climate regime that is gender sensitive, respects nature as well as human rights.”

For more information, visit:
UN Commission on the Status of Women:  http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/csw/52sess.htm

Gender CC–Women for Climate Justice: http://www.gendercc.net/