Copenhagen should not ignore gender divide

Research suggests that women will bear the greatest burden of the changing climate but have received little attention from negotiators working towards a new deal at Copenhagen.

This is the finding of a report for the United Nations Population Fund published this month.

The State of the World Population 2009 highlights this issue and lead author, the Worldwatch Institute, is calling for the December talks to take steps to address it.

Robert Engelman, Worldwatch Institute’s Vice President for Programs, was lead author of the report, which argues that women’s issues, and especially women’s health issues, have been largely overlooked in discussions leading up to the UN climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, this December.

“This is the first report in which a United Nations agency has connected climate change to human population and the status of women,” Engelman said.

“Its main finding-that investing in women and erasing the constraints on their achievement will slow climate change and build social resilience-is powerful and hopeful.”

In addition to exploring the inherent connections between population and climate change, the report examines the climate issue as it pertains to multiple aspects of health, development, and the global environment.

These connections have long remained at the forefront of Worldwatch’s research.

State of World Population 2009 shows that investments that empower women and girls particularly investments in education and health-also bolster economic development and reduce poverty.

But these investments have an additional beneficial impact on climate. Girls with higher levels of education, for example, tend to have smaller families as adults, and the ensuing lower fertility rates contribute to slower growth in greenhouse gas emissions and improved adaptation to the impacts of climate change.

A recent report published by Worldwatch and the United Nations Foundation, Global Environmental Change: The Threat to Human Health, notes that 200 million women worldwide currently lack access to the family planning services they want or need, ranging from contraception to reproductive health counseling.

The report’s author, Dr Samuel Myers of Harvard University, asserts that providing these services and allowing women to decide for themselves whether, when, and how often to give birth is an adaptive strategy against many of the predicted impacts of climate change-all of which will be exacerbated by larger populations needing access to resources, secure homes, and productive lands.

“No other intervention would provide more benefits across the health and environmental sectors than providing global access to family planning services,” says Dr Myers.

According to State of the World Population 2009, the poor are especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and the majority of the 1.5 billion people living on $1 a day or less are women.

The poor are more likely to depend on agriculture for a living and therefore risk going hungry or losing their livelihoods when droughts strike, rains become unpredictable and hurricanes move with unprecedented force.

The poor also tend to live in marginal areas that are vulnerable to floods, rising seas, and storms.

Research cited in the report shows that women are more likely than men to die in natural disasters including those related to extreme weather-with this gap most pronounced where incomes are low and status differences between men and women are high.

“We can’t successfully confront climate change if we neglect the needs, challenges, and potential of half the people on this planet,” said UNFPA executive director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid in a UNFPA release announcing the State of the World Population report.

“If we are really serious about halting climate change, then we must get serious about eliminating inequalities between the sexes and empowering women to persevere in our warming world.”

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie