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How Women Are Affected By, and Can Shape, Climate Policy

<p>Even as the U.N. climate summit is underway, a discussion is happening in the United States about how women worldwide are disproportionately affected by climate change, and how they can be instrumental in shaping policy.</p>

Introducing a U.N. report on women and climate change earlier this week at COP 17 in Durban, South Africa, U.N. Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said: "Women often play a stronger role than men in the management of ecosystem services and food security. Hence, sustainable adaptation must focus on gender and the role of women if it is to become successful."

It's a view that has also been echoed in the U.S. recently: In Washington, D.C., a coalition of civic leaders last week launched a climate ethics campaign, where the first woman to head the U.S. Senate committee on environment and public works, Senator Barbara Boxer of California, called for increased public pressure to revitalize climate change action, noting that "the cure for the problem is so good for everybody."

Suffering Climate Effects

It's (somewhat) notable that Boxer, the only Senator to speak at the public event, is a woman. It's not news that women are disproportionately affected by climate change -- though it's hardly been front and center in U.S. climate change discourse.

Women have been known for years to suffer more from the problems of food scarcity, water pollution, disease, conflict and displacement that can result from climate change and its effects, like natural disasters.

U.S. Bill on Women, Climate

What is news, though, at least in the U.S., is that a member of Congress -- Barbara Lee of California -- introduced a bill on this topic last month. The bill recognizes what it calls "disparate" effects of climate change on women and calls for efforts to empower women in the process of designing and evaluating strategies to mitigate climate change and its impact.

Especially in recent years, on the U.S. policy front the climate change discourse has largely focused on the economic impact of climate change, how to involve business in mitigating -- or even profiting by mitigating -- its effects, as well as how to stimulate a carbon market, both to boost the economy and to reduce negative environmental impacts.

One noteworthy point about this new bill, is that, in the same policy arena, it very publicly recognizes the impact of climate change on women -- while pointing out how they may be part of the solution.

Women as a Socio-Economic Antidote

Just as noteworthy: the bill makes an economic argument for engaging women more directly in efforts to solve the problem -- namely by acknowledging both their relative economic vulnerability, while at the same time applauding their essential economic value and contributions.

The bill notes that women are "the linchpin of families and communities" and have a positive "multiplier effect ... using their income and resources, when given the necessary tools, to increase the well-being of their children and families, and thus play a critical role in reducing food insecurity, poverty and socio-economic effects of climate change."

How Climate Change Impacts Women

How are women adversely and disproportionately affected by climate change? First, women are more vulnerable to climate-related disease epidemics, like malaria. They're also, along with children, 14 times more likely to die during natural disasters, which are likely to become more frequent as the climate continues to change.

That's true not just in the developing world but also in the U.S.: Hurricane Katrina, for instance, displaced more than 80 percent of low-income single mothers.

Women as a Solution

And how can women help solve the problem of climate change, mitigate its effects and help society to prepare for and adapt to changes? One key way to boost solutions, as the bill notes, is by involving and including women more in policy making, strategy and planning on climate change -- especially since, with the disproportionate effects they suffer, they have a vested interest in mitigation.

It will also be critical to better empower women economically so that they can take advantage of opportunities to avoid negative effects of climate change, while helping communities mitigate and adapt to climate change, the bill notes.

Shop, Manage, Change the Climate

Importantly, women around the globe account for some 80 percent of purchases, suggesting that -- even by shopping -- they have the potential to make a huge difference. Since women are also especially concerned about the health and welfare of their children, families and communities, they have the potential and interest as consumers to make so-called socially responsible or green choices.

What's more, once they gain the access to education that allows them to participate more fully in business, women can and do influence companies in a highly responsible fashion, including socially, environmentally and economically -- as recognized in numerous studies.

Catalyst, the organization that tracks women in business, has observed that, overall, companies with women on boards perform better than those without women.

Again, if women are more vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change, both in the U.S. and elsewhere, they are likely to be more passionate about rallying to solve the problem. There may be both an ethical and economic responsibility to help -- or let -- them do so.

Photo by Tim McKulka for the United Nations.

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