Water issues are already emerging as a result of climate change. In the fragile and often dry climates of the American West, the potential impacts on fresh water as a result of a changing climate are profound. Meanwhile water rights remain politically complex and sensitive. The Center’s October 19th webinar, Charting the Rapids Ahead: Western Water, Climate Change and Public Health, brought national experts together to present current thinking and policy implications on this crucial issue. Visit Dialogue4Health to view the presentations and listen to the recorded webinar.
Healthy food. Sustainable farming. In addition to supporting the public’s health, did you know that these strategies also provide important solutions to climate change?
The agriculture sector produces approximately 6% of California’s greenhouse gas emissions, due to chemical farming inputs, emissions from livestock, and the long distance transporting of foods. At the same time, conventional food systems overproduce crops that are largely used to produce sugars and fats, which contribute directly to the obesity epidemic. Increasing access to healthy foods grown by a more environmentally sound agricultural system can play a significant role in both mitigating climate change and promoting human health, thus providing co-benefits for both health and the environment. Protecting community-based nutrition programs and promoting sustainable local farming practices through the Farm Bill is a key strategy in the effort to promote diet-related climate change co-benefits. Yet support for these programs may be at risk, as the 2012 Farm Bill is rushed through Congress during the current deficit reduction process.
On October 24, 2011, PHI participated in Food Day, a national dialogue about food, farms and the American food system that advocates for the transformation of the American diet. Calling for U.S. farm policies in favor of sustainable agriculture, small and mid-sized farms, and fair conditions for agricultural laborers, Food Day focused on the goal of making fresh, healthy food accessible for all people. In addition, PHI spearheaded a joint communication to Congress urging it to spare critical nutrition and sustainability programs. Join us in advocating for healthier communities, a healthier food system, and a healthy and sustainable climate.
I just watched Weathering Change, a powerful new documentary on climate change and women, produced by our colleagues at Population Action International (PAI). As someone who’s written and spoken about the linkages between climate change and population growth (see, for example, this piece for Global Change), I was eager to see how PAI communicated the very real impacts that climate change is having on women and families around the world.
The short film introduces us to women in Nepal, Peru and Ethiopia who share the impacts that a changing climate is already having on their daily lives. Shifting agricultural patterns, diminishing water supplies and, in two of three cases, migration from their homes challenge them to provide adequate nutrition and water for their families, even as they work harder every day to do so. These challenges lead them to realize, perhaps more than ever, that they must be able to control their fertility – to decide freely and responsibly whether to bring more children into the increasingly difficult situations they face.
As told through the heartfelt words of these women, their challenges – as well as their needs and desires - become very real. With apologies to deniers, climate change is not a hypothetical for them – it is a reality, and it is one that is making their already demanding lives even more so. As Aragash Ayele of Ethiopia says so eloquently, “A woman’s life is hard, and climate change is making it harder.”
Well said, Aragash, and well done, PAI.
Climate change affects everyone, but it does not affect everyone equally. A growing body of evidence shows that men and women suffer different negative health consequences and employ gender-differentiated coping mechanisms in the face of climate change. Men suffer psychological, economic and social strain. However, women remain disproportionately affected, and for poor women in less developed countries, climate change can impact nearly ever facet of their lives.
Climate change has been linked to an increase in extreme weather events, from droughts to floods. The World Health Organization’s report Gender, Climate Change and Health (2011) finds that vulnerability varies by sex. Due to a wide range of socioeconomic and cultural factors, including limited mobility and less access to information, women are on average 14 times more likely to die in a natural disaster than men. In the 2004 Asian Tsunami, 70-80% of those who died were women. Women and girls are also more likely to suffer food shortages following natural disasters than their male counterparts (World Food Programme, 2011). Among men, because of their traditional roles as economic providers for their families, weather events that result in loss of income or indebtedness can cause considerable stress. Prolonged drought has been linked with mental illness, depression, and even increased suicide rates among men (WHO, 2011).
Though these cataclysmic events may be more dramatic, the long-term but more gradual shifts due to climate change also have a severe impact on women and their day-to-day lives. Men are more likely to cope with loss of economic opportunities through migration, which can increase their social isolation. Men’s migration, in turn, increases the labor burden for women, particularly for those who are dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods (WHO, 2011). In many areas of the world, traditional sources of water and fuel are changing or disappearing. Women are tasked with traveling further and further to find these resources, often at great personal risk. Furthermore, with more time required to complete basic household chores, there is often less opportunity for girls to attend school. Less access to water also impacts sanitation and hygiene efforts, and may leave women and their families more vulnerable to disease.
These same climate shifts that affect access to water or fuel can also adversely affect crop production, leading to a decrease in the quantity and quality of nutritious food available to women and their families. This can be particularly harmful to pregnant women. Around half of all pregnant women in developing countries are anemic, and iron deficiency causes nearly 20 percent of all global maternal mortality. Malnourished mothers are also at a higher risk of giving birth to underweight babies, who are more than 20 percent more likely to die before the age of five. Those that survive are often more susceptible to compromised cognitive function and physical development. Female babies who were born underweight are more likely to grow up to be undernourished women who then give birth to their own low birth weight children. Anemia and vitamin A deficiencies can also be entirely treatable if only women have access to more diverse and nutritious diets (Tirado, 2010).
In developing long-term, effective adaptation and mitigation strategies it will be crucial to consider the different ways men and women cope with climate change. Though women can be powerful actors of positive change, their contributions are often undervalued. There is great need for holistic and gendered approaches to climate change adaptation and mitigation that incorporate both men’s and women’s expertise and utilize their unique roles in agriculture and family life. Climate change affects everyone. Everyone should be part of the solution.
Tirado, M.C., Cohen, M.J., Aberman, N., Meerman, J., Thompson, B. (2010). Addressing the challenges of climate change and biofuel production for food and nutrition security. Food Research International 43 (2010) 1729-1744
World Food Programme (2011). “Women and Hunger, 10 Facts.”
World Health Organization (2011). Gender, Climate Change and Health.
Strong synergies exist between addressing climate change and promoting public health, yet climate change mitigation and adaption policies do not always harness these opportunities to achieve win-win solutions. The atmosphere in California is ripe for synergistic efforts and knowledge sharing focused on climate change and public health. Work continues throughout the state to reduce emissions from transportation, building energy use, waste, and land use patterns. We must ensure that important public health impacts are considered when climate change policies at the state level are developed and implemented. At the same time, priority consideration must be given to the most vulnerable communities in California through efforts to address both physical and social determinants of vulnerability.
The Center for Public Health and Climate Change will be hosting two regional convenings, in Oakland (October 11th) and Fresno (TBD). Key stakeholders from multiple sectors will discuss public health and climate change public policy and advocacy priorities in California, and will explore opportunities for closer alignment and coordination. Through these convenings, PHI will gather input for a California Public Policy Action Plan for Climate Change that will serve as a roadmap for the Center for Public Health and Climate Change. The plan will guide the Center’s work to advocate for institutionalizing public health safeguards and for maximizing public health co-benefits in state climate policies.
Reprinted with permission from RH Reality Check.
Who's afraid of climate change? Well, I am but not necessarily for the reasons you may think. I’m afraid that the recent, much-deserved attention to climate change will revive some of the old alarmist debates on population. And with those debates, I’m worried that the specter of population control will rear its ugly head again.
You see, as a woman of color, I am particularly sensitive to population control arguments. After all, claims of “overpopulation” usually target women who look like me.
Throughout the 20th century, coercive welfare policies led to thousands of African-American women in the United States being sterilized without their consent in a procedure that came to be known as the “Mississippi Appendectomy.” In the 1950s, Puerto Rican women’s bodies were used as the testing grounds for controversial and experimental contraceptive trials, in part due to government perceptions that these experiments could help solve the island’s “population problem.” Around the same time, population control became enshrined within development programs in India and Bangladesh, where use of contraceptives and permanent sterilization were attached to food aid programs and the allocation of land and medical care. And, as recently as the late 1990s, hundreds of thousands of poor and indigenous women were sterilized against their will by the government of Peru under the banner of fighting poverty and overpopulation.
What does all of this have to do with the environment? Well, a lot. In the United States, fears of a “population crisis” exploded onto the scene back in the 1960s and 1970s with the rise of the environmental movement, with environmentalists blaming population growth for everything from deforestation and desertification to global food shortages. Neo-Malthusian scholars and activists called for reducing food aid to starving populations in developing countries, and one well-known biologist famously suggested that sterilizing agents be placed into the American water supply.
Population alarmism gained quite a bit of support at the time, both among the general American public and among some members of the international development sector, who felt that controlling and reducing population growth would be beneficial to the global environment and the security of U.S. borders.
Luckily, population controllers were stopped in their tracks by a coalition of women’s health and rights reformers in the mid-1990s. At the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) meetings in Cairo, world leaders agreed that universal access to reproductive health services, within a broader focus on women’s rights and empowerment, would replace population control as the leading paradigm for the international family planning movement. Focused on meeting women’s reproductive health needs, as opposed to controlling and reducing their fertility, this new paradigm was enshrined in a document known as the Cairo Consensus, which was ratified by 179 countries.
At around the same time, the population bubble burst. According to the Population Reference Bureau, nowadays the average woman in a developing country gives birth to 2.5 children, compared to 6 children in 1950. In the industrialized world, this figure is even lower, with women having an average of 1.64 kids. Although in some regions like sub-Saharan Africa, rapid population growth continues to be carried along by demographic momentum, the trend toward the average woman giving birth to fewer children is a long-term, global phenomenon.
But is this enough to keep population controllers at bay? I’m not sure. Climate change has received much well-deserved attention lately in the news. And along with it comes the old, familiar population debate.
In 2009, the Vice Minister of China’s National Population and Family Planning Commission told an international audience that the Chinese one-child policy had proved to be an environmental success, adding that the 400 million births that have been prevented since the introduction of the policy have resulted in 1.8 billion fewer tons of carbon dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere. At the same time, several professors in the United States and Australia have proposed carbon taxes for every child born beyond the replacement fertility level of two children per couple.
In addition, the British charity Optimum Population Trust published a report arguing that spending just $7 on international family planning projects could reduce carbon emissions by one ton, concluding that family planning as a method of reducing future emissions of carbon dioxide is significantly cheaper than many low-carbon technologies. The organization created a website which offers consumers the opportunity to offset their carbon footprint by investing in family planning in developing countries. The site argues that investing in family planning is a “cost-effective and permanent way of reducing CO2 emissions and climate change” with “no downsides,” and offers wealthy Westerners the opportunity to consume their way into reducing their carbon footprints through reducing the childbearing of other women, rather than changing their own greenhouse gas emitting behaviors.
Not only do these approaches get into an ethical gray zone, they are based on faulty logic. We have to remember that the United States is the leading global emitter of greenhouse gases, producing 25 percent of the world’s emissions every year, even though our population accounts for just 4.5 percent of the world total. Many global South countries with rapidly growing populations, like Kenya, emit far fewer greenhouse gases than we do; the average Kenyan produces 0.3 tons of emissions every year, compared with the average American’s average 20 tons of emissions. Clearly, it is what we do, rather than how many of us there are, that drives the climate bus.
As Lisa Hymas argued in her recent article, not all Americans consume the same volume of resources in the same way. Middle and upper class Americans who drive multiple vehicles, build vacation homes, and race to buy every new technological gizmo that comes on the market have a significantly higher carbon footprint than the working class and poor. At the same time, we have to think about the bigger actors that dwarf all of us in their climate-changing behaviors. Mega oil corporations, for example, earn billions of dollars in profits when they extract, burn, refine, and sell fossil fuel products. And, how could we ever forget the role of the military in this conversation. Its atmosphere-polluting activities are often hidden in the debates over climate change and population growth—a shocking fact, considering that the U.S. military is the single largest consumer of oil in the world.
Despite the fact that they consumer fewer environmental resources, women, communities of color, and the poor suffer more of the impacts of climate change. Climate-related natural disasters, which are on the rise, disproportionately impact women around the world, who are much more likely to drown or die in accidents. Those who survive are more likely to experience domestic violence, sexual abuse, and poor reproductive health outcomes.
Climate change does, however, offers us opportunities to address women’s human and reproductive rights, but the connections must be made in the right way. Ensuring universal access to comprehensive reproductive health services, including emergency obstetric care, both hormonal and barrier methods of contraception, diagnosis and treatment of sexually transmitted infections, HIV testing, counseling and treatment, and referrals for services for gender-based violence, promotes basic human rights--all women have the right to control their reproductive and sexual lives--and are important components of a gender-sensitive approach to adapting to the effects of climate change. Supporting coercive population interventions among the poor as a means of mitigating or preventing climate change, on the other hand, is not a defensible approach.
We must be ever vigilant, keeping the principles of reproductive health, reproductive rights, and reproductive justice for women at the heart of the approach. Through this framework, and the protection of women’s rights to have children, not to have children, and to parent the children that they do have, we can remain on the right side of both the climate justice and reproductive justice debates.