Engendering Responses to Climate Change

7 Apr

This week PisaSPEAK is pleased to present a special correspondence from PISA director Linda Yarr

In his interview with the BBC,  James Lovelock, who formulated the  ”Gaia Hypothesis” in the 1960’s and whose most recent book is The Vanishing Face of Gaia, used a particularly masculine metaphor, stating  that “we’ve pulled the trigger.” Gaia, the earth-as-organism, named after the Greek goddess of the earth, has been wounded. There will be no recovery, but massive consequences to the human population that Gaia will no longer be able to nourish.  He envisages a sharp decline in the world’s population as wars, disease, and starvation take their toll. The wealthy will build their redoubts in the northern latitudes, where agriculture will continue to thrive, but will have to fend off migrants from less fortunate climes.  What is Lovelock’s advice to us? “…enjoy it while you can.”

The motif of the earth as mother, and nature as female, has been amply traced by Carolyn Merchant and others who conjoined feminism and the growing concern for the environment in the 1970’s. Today, such images warrant interrogation as climate change forces recognition that humans, male and female, have altered nature to such an extent as to threaten the earth’s capacity to sustain future generations.  Yet whereas both genders contributed to the causes of climate change, they are likely to weather the effects differently.

Natural disasters, such as the recent earthquake in Haiti, even if they are not caused by climate change, open a window into how societies behave in conditions of acute stress. Media images showed women and children being pushed aside by men at food distribution sites, but they also demonstrated women mobilizing their relationships to help each other survive. The news clips attest to both the vulnerabilities and strengths of women in such dire circumstances.

The differential burdens of climate change on women and men, as well as differences in their respective responses to climate change are insufficiently studied.  Whereas advocacy groups and international organizations acknowledge that climate change will affect the poor “first and worst,” it is also true that because women have a dearth of assets, education and political power, they will be even less able to marshal the resources necessary to adapt and thrive.

In addition to such measures as improving energy efficiency, switching to alternative clean sources of energy, and reducing deforestation, slowing population growth has been proposed as a factor in mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions.  Anthony Giddens, the British social theorist, in The Politics of Climate Change (2009) notes, “Many of the mechanisms for changes needed for the developing countries to become richer are also important for adaptation to climate change. Population growth is a major influence on both, suggesting the vital importance of a renewed drive on the part of international agencies to help bring that rate down. The main means of doing so is well established—empowering women and assisting their incorporation into the labour force.”

Women’s empowerment may indeed be the key to finding creative and effective responses to climate change, but it would have to consist of more than access to birth control. Only 30% of the official delegates to the Conference of Parties in Copenhagen were women, mechanisms for ensuring that women receive the fair share of forthcoming adaptation funds are not in place, and basic rights to education, credit, owning land, nutrition and health are missing for women and girls in many parts of the world. An adequate and timely response to the challenge of climate change will require mobilization of the talents and energies of men and women the world over.

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