27 May 2006

Women will pay a high price for climate chaos

By Rupert Read

The BBC is screening a major season of programmes on what it calls the 'hottest topic of the day' - climate change. The season includes the replacement this past Wednesday of the flagship children's programme 'Blue Peter' by 'Green Peter', and a much-trailed two-part documentary on Climate Chaos with David Attenborough narrating. Attenborough, the voice of BBC wildlife programmes, was once something of a climate-change-sceptic, but he has now seen the error of his ways: he sat down and looked at the scientific evidence, including that assembled by UEA's finest, and realised that catastrophic human-induced climate-change is set to devastate the world's living systems - unless humans put a stop to it. He then signed up to narrate the 'Climate Chaos' programmes.

At last, the media seems to be taking the issue of climate change seriously - although still not seriously enough. As well as melting polar ice-caps, rising sea-levels, droughts and famines, experts are predicting that global warming will lead to an increase in 'extreme climate events' such as Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005. Apart from George Bush’s tame scientists, the world's scientific community now accepts that these changes are mainly due to greenhouse gas emissions, caused by the industrialized countries burning fossil fuels as if there were no tomorrow.

As our climate becomes more unstable, who will suffer the most from the resulting 'natural' disasters? In general, it will be the world's poorest people, especially in regions like South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. In a mass emergency, they have few resources to call on. Christian Aid has just released the results of a study indicating that up to 180 million people in Africa alone are likely to die unnecessary deaths as a result of the impacts of unmitigated climate change, before the 21st century comes to an end. If we do not stop that horrific prediction from coming true, that will be the equivalent of one man-made climate-change ‘Hiroshima’ every fortnight. No wonder it is said that climate change is the real weapon of mass destruction.

The majority of the world's poor people are women, so they will take the brunt of such impacts. Also, when it comes to extreme climate events, poor women tend to be more vulnerable than poor men, for various reasons, including having less geographical mobility, and greater caring responsibilities. Although the evidence is mounting up that poor women will suffer disproportionately from 'climate chaos', the issue has had little or no attention.

Yet, some of the worst catastrophes in recent years, such as Hurricane Katrina, the 2004 tsunami or the devastating 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh, have already demonstrated how extreme climate events can impact differently on women and men. The TV pictures of displaced people crowded into the New Orleans Superdome last year showed mainly African-American mothers and their children, and we also saw frail elderly white women stranded in their care homes. When the 1991 cyclone hit the Bangladesh coast, thousands of women stayed put in their flimsy houses, waiting for their men folk to escort them to the cyclone shelters rather than making a run for it themselves. Their fear of the punishment they might face if they broke 'purdah' was greater than their fear of the cyclone, with the result that the death toll was five times higher for women than for men.

The 2004 tsunami, of course, was caused by an undersea earthquake and so was nothing to do with climate change, but we can still learn from it. According to Oxfam, in tsunami-affected Aceh, India and Sri Lanka, many more women and children died than men. Among the explanations Oxfam gives are that few women in these parts of the world can swim, and that many died trying to protect or rescue their children.

The world environment is our life-support system. Without it, we, and our non-human-animal cousins, are nothing. We in the North have a special responsibility in putting a stop to climate change – because we started it. For several years now, the United Nations has overseen international negotiations on cutting emissions and reducing the warming effect of humans burning fossil fuels. Of course, the world's poorest women have no voice at these meetings. When it comes to softening the impact of climate chaos, the principle of 'the polluter pays' should apply. After all, it was not poor women in Africa and Asia who brought about what is now almost upon us all: climate chaos.

Many thanks to Geraldine Terry for research without which this article would not have been possible.