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“An Inconvenient Truth”—Seizing the Moment

August 28, 2006

Global warming is—pardon the expression—hotter than ever. Recent developments, from rising oil prices to extreme weather patterns and rampant natural disaster, have raised reluctant awareness in the public sphere, even among some of environmentalism’s staunches critics. Opening at an opportune time, Al Gore’s recent movie, An Inconvenient Truth, has brought climate change to a new level of visibility. From a media perspective, part of the appeal is the global scope of such topics and their vast implications for young and old, rich and poor. Among other dire warnings, the Gore movie’s website tells us that deaths from global warming will double in 25 years to 300,000 people a year and global sea levels could rise by more than 20 feet. Yet emphasis on the panoptic reach of environmental catastrophe hides important distinctions among the stakeholders. A more complete public dialogue on climate change, one that highlighted women’s perspectives, could greatly improve the chances of seizing this moment to create policies for truly sustainable development. The statistics regarding the environmental effects of climate change are stark. And the consequences run deep. As Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai pointed out, environmental responsibility is inextricably intertwined with social responsibility: How people treat the environment is no different from how they treat each other. In this sense, a healthy environment and the feminist goal of social and economic justice are linked. “Change is not about simply mainstreaming women,” said Bella Abzug, former U.S. congresswoman and cofounder of the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO). “It is about transforming the stream—cleaning it up, changing stagnant pools into fresh, flowing waters—to reach our common goal of a healthy and peaceful planet and human rights for all.” “We’re at the beginning of a big surge in which people are increasingly thinking about climate change,” says WEDO’s Rebecca Pearl. “If we can find a way to bring a gender perspective into this discussion, now is the time to do it.” WEDO, based in New York, and genanet, a project of Germany-based LIFE, are two of a handful of organizations worldwide looking to forge a link between environmental and feminist policies. Although they have made inroads in ongoing policy discussions, genanet director Ulrike Roehr says she has yet to see any media coverage of the gender-specific issues surrounding climate change. Because women are over-represented among the poor and in communities highly dependent on local natural resources, they disproportionately bear the burden of the negative effects of climate change. “Environmental degradation and especially the impacts of climate change generally lead to more time-consuming activities—longer ways to find water, longer and unsecured ways to find fire wood for household energy,” Roehr says. “Increasing desertification affects women’s activities in agriculture because they often use the poorest land and don’t have the money to adapt their agricultural activities to the changing climate.” Likewise, women are disproportionately affected by increasingly frequent natural disasters, another byproduct of climate change. According to a UN discussion paper submitted by WEDO, LIFE and other international women’s organizations, the majority of people killed in the 2005 tsunami in Asia were women, and women surviving the initial devastation were less able to recover than their male counterparts. This outcome is due in part to inherent vulnerabilities but reflects too women’s social roles as they are tied to ensuring the survival and health of the family. Also, in traditional societies women are less likely to—or simply not allowed to—participate in the public sphere. Therefore they may not have the information they need when disaster strikes. “Those who care for future generations as well as for the elderly are much more aware of environmental degradation and do have a higher risk perception,” Roehr says. “Women and men use environmental resources differently, in different amounts, and for different purposes—but women are not adequately involved in decision-making.” According to the UN discussion paper, women’s expertise in maintaining biodiversity through conservation and domestication of wild edible plant seeds and food crop management are key elements in adapting to climate change, particularly in developing nations. The paper also cites case studies indicating that communities that incorporate women’s input into disaster planning have experienced far less loss of life than surrounding areas when catastrophes have struck. Environmental protection efforts so far are focused mostly on technical measures. Programs to change behavior—an area in which women can contribute valuable perspective—have yet to receive similar support. “Women are agents of change,” WEDO’s Pearl says. “Sustainable development in general cannot be achieved without women’s leadership.” Roehr agrees. “Climate change policy cannot be successful without taking into account gender,” she says. She adds that media coverage of these issues is critical to informing the public and sensitizing climate experts to important links between gender and the environment.