The images of climate change seem straight out of a Hollywood science-fiction movie: raging wildfires that eat a football field per second, floods that wipe out whole towns, skies so heavy with air pollution that children have to wear masks when they step outside. Except that it’s all true—and some of the images come directly from my own life. Last October, when the Tick Fire erupted in Los Angeles, I watched as ash drifted past my back deck. The air smelled like burning chaparral tinged with something chemical: charred plastic from our homes, our cars and whatever else the fire had engulfed. My son’s preschool, which takes place outdoors, had been cancelled due to poor air quality. It wasn’t the first time, and it likely won’t be the last: California experienced the deadliest and most destructive wildfires in its history in 2017 and 2018, and it’s getting worse. Analyzing environmental data from the past 30 years, scientists predict that over the next two decades, as many as 11 U.S. states will see the average annual area burned increase by 500 percent.
How did we get here? Via progress, ironically. Every marvel that industrialized life has given us—the ability to mass-produce clothing, fly from Australia to India in a day, get shampoo mailed to our house in 24 hours—has exacted a cruel price. The world is now one degree warmer than it was pre-industrialization. One degree may sound incremental, but the results are potentially catastrophic. Sea levels are rising, the temperature and acidity of the oceans are increasing and our ability to grow life-sustaining crops such as wheat, rice and corn is compromised. Globally, we are on track to raise the temperature at least two more degrees by the end of this century, and that’s only the best-case scenario if we follow the 2015 Paris Agreement to keep the rise “well below 2°C” while “pursuing efforts to limit [it] to 1.5°C.”
If those predictions seem abstract, extreme weather events—floods, fires and heat waves, to name but a few—are devastatingly concrete and here right now. According to U.K. scientists, wildfires around the world are on the rise due to carbon emissions and other planet-warming effects. Fires are now burning hotter and coming at a faster rate. Australia’s bushfires, which have burned 10 million hectares and counting at the time of this writing, are a particularly heartbreaking example. Siberia, Southern Europe, Canada and Scandinavia are also battling this new breed of megafire.
Other regions are battling the opposite problem. Tropical cyclones, hurricanes, floods and other dramatic storms are on the uptick. According to a 2018 study, flood risk in Europe is increasing and a greater swath of people will be affected. Roughly estimated, 500,000 to one million European people are expected to be affected by flooding in the future climate. Flood-prone Asia may be hit the hardest, economically speaking, and it has already suffered: Vietnam, Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand are among 10 countries in the world most affected by climate change in the past 20 years, according to the environmental group Germanwatch.
As ever, less-developed countries are generally more affected by climate change than industrialized countries. Heat waves gripped developed countries like Japan and Germany last summer, but they’re expected to become a critical problem in Africa. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, South Africa’s temperatures are rising at twice the global average. Research shows that only a few cities in Africa are currently dealing with extreme heat, but this is set to increase dramatically, particularly for southern, western and northern Africa. By 2050, many of the most at-risk cities with large urban populations in poverty will be in West Africa as well as Sudan and Egypt.
Though climate change will alter life for everyone, women in particular are uniquely vulnerable. In fact, the 2015 Paris Agreement made a specific provision for the empowerment of women, recog- nizing that they are disproportionately impacted. Natural disasters hit poor communities the hardest; an estimated 70 percent of those living below the poverty line are women. But that’s only one way to calculate why women suffer more. As Dr. Maria Neira, director of the department of Public Health, Environment and Social Determinants of Health of the World Health Organization (WHO), puts it, “Women are the last to leave, every time.”
“Women have the ability to become incredible agents of change and are already leading the charge. We’re very pragmatic and action-oriented.”
When natural disaster strikes, women are less likely to survive than men. Why? “Women are at the home,” says Neira. “They are less likely to leave if their children are in jeopardy. They’re even going back if their children are in jeopardy”—or their elders. In the 2004 tsunami, the man-to-woman survival ratio was 3 to 1 in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India. If they do survive, women are more likely to be displaced; UN figures indicate that 80 percent of people displaced by climate change are women. As it stands now, 21.5 million people flee their homes due to sudden-onset weather hazards every year. The numbers are growing: In 2018, the World Bank projected that three regions (Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia) will generate 143 million more displaced people by 2050. To complicate matters, persons displaced because of climate change are offered none of the protections set up for political refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Karuna Singh, the Kolkata-based regional director of the Earth Day Network in Asia, points out another harrowing aspect of displacement: “Women are more likely to be trafficked if they are away from their homes”—as well as exploited and sexually assaulted. Even a longer daily commute for resources can leave them exposed. In rural India (where 60 percent of the country resides), Singh notes, women are often the ones collecting water for the household, and when the closest source dries up, they have to walk farther to the next one.
There are many other ways in which women are exposed to pollution and its attendant risks on a daily basis. One of the critical issues that Neira is focused on is air pollution. Worldwide, Neira tells me, toxins in the air—including the insidious PM 2.5 (fine particles that, because of their minute size, have the ability to penetrate deeper into the lungs and subsequently the bloodstream)—kill seven million every year. That means that 25 percent of the world’s mortality rate can be tracked to air pollution. That may conjure images of factories chugging black smoke into the sky, but small-scale pollution damages our lungs too.
“Women are cooking with open fires and dangerous fuels, breathing in smoke,” says Neira. This also applies to their efforts to heat the home. Car traffic in European cities, along with brown- coal mining, particularly heavy in the Balkan countries, is damaging the air quality as well. The WHO has stated that if pollution in European cities was reduced to below air-quality guideline levels, people would live longer—in some cases, like in Bucharest, Romania, by almost two years. For London, the time subtracted from life due to pollution is estimated at 2.5 months, and a recent study of more than a half a million infants showed that mothers exposed to air pollution from the city’s busy motorways are more likely to give birth to underweight babies. Children around the world are one of the most at-risk populations—living near roads with heavy traffic doubles the incidence of respiratory problems.
There’s also the problem of women’s empowerment—or lack thereof. Women are not only bound by social convention to have less decision-making power than their husbands or other men in the community but also under-represented in government. The average representation of women in national and global climate negotiating bodies is below 30 percent. Fortunately, the need to correct this imbalance has been recognized by such groups as the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which releases an annual gender-composition report. (The latest one states that after a 2018 high point for representation, it backslid in 2019.)
For all of the ways that women are especially battered by climate change, those same ways position women to be the leaders in the fight against it. Women are the linchpins of their communities, and this is evidenced in how they respond to rebuilding post-disaster. As a UN report states: “Women often play the largest role at family and community levels in building back after disasters. They look after children, shoulder the largest burden of unpaid care for the sick or injured and typically make decisions about resource use and investments in the interest and welfare of their children, families and communities.”
“Natural disasters hit poor communities the hardest; an estimated 70 percent of those living below the poverty line are women.”
In many developing countries, women are the primary agricultural producers, feeding their families and communities and, when necessary, rebuilding the land. “Women are the repositories of knowledge about indigenous farming practices, seeds and organic farming,” says Singh. Sometimes that very knowledge and protective instinct put women in peril: In Brazil, women are working to defend the rainforest from further deforestation, sometimes to the detriment of their own security. When small farmer Maria Marcia de Melo reported criminal loggers in her area, she got no response from authorities—rather, she received death threats from (presumably) the men she reported. “I am now waiting to be murdered,” she says in a video for Human Rights Watch.
Yet women everywhere persevere, despite all that stands in their way. “Women have the ability to become incredible agents of change and are already leading the charge,” says Neira. “We’re very pragmatic and action-oriented.” She cites how citizens and environmental groups around the world have pressed their governments to act by filing climate lawsuits. Last December, the Supreme Court of the Netherlands ordered the government to cut the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent from 1990 levels by the end of 2020. It was the first time a nation has been required by its courts to take action against climate change. The Dutch case has already inspired similar suits against national governments in Europe—including Belgium, France, Ireland, Germany, New Zealand, Britain, Switzerland and Norway—and, even one, the People’s Climate Case, being waged against the European Union by citizens from 10 different countries.
More than ever, says Singh, infamously recalcitrant governments are listening to its citizens, who are more aware than ever of climate change, and implementing innovative ideas. In India, where half of the 1.2 billion people are younger than 25 years old, “something tremendous has happened” in terms of climate change awareness: They are marching every Friday, just like their European peers. In China, Shenzhen has the world’s biggest and first fully electric fleet of 16,000 buses, and Beijing will have 20,000 electric taxis on the road by the end of 2020. A Pakistani group of concerned mothers known as the Scary Moms are applying pressure in smog-choked Lahore to get busing back in effect for ferrying kids to and from school.
One of the brightest signs of hope is the mobilization of city mayors around the world. There is no way forward without them: Cities produce an estimated 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and 70 percent of the global population reside there. C40 is a network of more than 90 major cities that have agreed to implement the most ambitious goals of the Paris Agreement, independent of what their home nations may be doing (or not doing) on the governmental level.
“In many developing countries, women are the primary agricultural producers, feeding their families and communities and, when necessary, rebuilding the land.”
“Mayors are very close to their citizens,” says Neira, pointing out that in October, 35 cities agreed to reduce PM 2.5 in order to deliver clean air for the more than 140 million people who call those cities home. Copenhagen is on track to become the world’s first carbon-neutral city in the world by 2025. Oslo is the first city in the world to integrate a “climate budget” into its financial budget; it will lower emissions every year until it becomes a zero-emitting city by 2030. European cities such as London, Paris, Berlin, Stockholm, Milan and Barcelona have low or ultra-low emission zones to tackle air pollution and reduce transport emissions.
Collectively, the individual can compete with the muscle of a city. We have the power to make choices in our daily lives that will slow down climate change. One of them is our diet: More people than ever are eating vegan (at least some of the time) to reduce their dependence on the meat industry, one of the leading polluters in the world. Iceland reported that sales of its plant-based food have risen by 10 percent over the past year, and in a move that would have seemed unthinkable 20 years ago, several fast-food companies, from McDonalds to Burger King, have launched, or announced, vegan options.
Renewable energy, particularly cheap solar power, is on the rise around the world. Solar-, wind- and hydro-power projects are rolling out at their fastest rate in four years. Factories and businesses are driving a solar-power boom, but homes are playing a role too. The number of home solar panels is expected to more than double. By 2024, there will be a predicted 100 million solar rooftops, with the strongest per capita growth in Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria and California. A new state law mandates that by 2045, California will rely solely on clean electricity.
No matter where we are, there are reasons to worry that climate change, if it hasn’t already, will come straight for our homes. I think of my brother, who had 15 minutes to evacuate his apartment when the Thomas Fire in 2017 closed in around him. When the next fire erupts, will I have to leave with my husband, my son and my nervous chihuahua? I can only summon strength from what has always been true, in every corner of the world, before and after and beyond me. “I have seen extraordinary women everywhere, independent of their economic power, showing an incredible capacity to cope and to protect others and to make a lot of sacrifice,” says Neira. “There’s nothing we can’t do.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of ELLE Canada. Subscribe here.
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