The Cassandra of Our Time: Climate Change and Women

Photo By: Neil Palmer (CIAT) (CC)

“Each one of us is impacting the environment, but not equally. Each one of us will be affected, but not equally.” – Weathering Change

Climate change not only affects temperatures but weather conditions, glaciers, water levels, crop yields, and species such as polar bears. Now, climate change has begun to affect women’s lives. The issue of climate change is now closer to home than ever before.

Environmentalists have been warning the public about the harmful effects of climate change for some time now. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report earlier this year, explicitly stating the various ways climate change will have an impact on our world.

The “Weathering Change” documentary sets out to raise awareness around the intersection of women and climate change by compiling the stories of four women from Ethiopia, Nepal and Peru. The documentary records the struggles the women face, enduring crop failures and water scarcity, consequential effects of climate change which pose threats to women, their families and their livelihoods. Each account helps the viewer gain a better understanding of the reality and urgency of the issue of climate change.  Despite the distance between each of the women, and how different and unique each story is from the next, the stories weave together to tell the same narrative about how women, especially those living in developing countries, disproportionately suffer the impacts of climate change.

These stories are not unusual. They are representative of a larger issue. According to Balgis Osman-Elasha, a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change’s Fourth Assessment Report, women comprise 70% of the 1.3 billion people living in poverty.  Fatma Denton, an expert in gender-related adaptive strategies for combating climate change within the agricultural sector, found that women also constitute the majority of the world’s small-scale farmers, accounting for almost 80% of the agricultural sector in Africa. Women living in poverty, particularly in developing countries, rely heavily on natural resources for their livelihood. Therefore, when natural resources are threatened, women are also threatened, making women one of the first to suffer the effects of climate change.

Different Lives, Same Burdens

In Canrey Chico, Peru, communities depend on the ice frosted over the mountain peaks as their source for water. As the ice caps melt, clean drinking water trickles down from the mountains. Aurea Edita, who grew up in Canrey Chico, recalled how the mountaintops were once white with plenty of ice. But now, since climate change caused temperatures to rise, the amount of ice on the mountain tops has diminished drastically. As a result, the supply of drinking water has been dwindling. And the cost is detrimental. As Edita said, "Without water, we cannot live - not plants, not animals, not us.”

In Ethiopia, unpredictable weather patterns have begun to affect crop yields. Aregash Ayele is a mother and smallholder farmer in Ethiopia. She drew from her toil associated to the banes of crop failures. "My father used to get 500-600 kilos per harvest,” said Ayele, “But now, we can barely get 100." She explained, "Even though the land is green, it's not fruitful. Because it used to rain seasonally, we had our usual harvest. But now, because of the erratic weather with the rain not following seasonal patterns, the harvest has decreased and it’s affecting our livelihood.” In addition to causing temperatures to fluctuate, climate change has also disrupted weather patterns and crop production, resulting in food insecurity.

Furthermore, when natural resources begin to deplete due to climate change-induced conditions such as flooding, drought or soil erosion, men are pressured to leave their families in search of work, leaving the women to take on all the responsibilities at home. Radhika Poudel, a mother from Nepal who is now also head of the household, shared her experience adjusting to this change in family dynamic. Since her husband left the village to find a means to make money and feed the family, she stated, “I have to look after the cattle, work on the fields and grow vegetables by myself.” As family structures are reconstructed, women are given more responsibilities. However, though they are entrusted with more, this does not necessarily mean they are being empowered. Rather, it is an increase in labor, workload and hardship.

Cassandra’s Warning

The issue of climate change and its impact on women is a complex issue. Intricate problems such as this desperately need the participation and contributions of an interconnected community that is not only interested in the issue but ready to act and willing to agree on binding agreements, in order to progress towards a solution.

Despite the need for the participation of the global community, it has been difficult to arrive at a consensus on how climate change should be addressed. Not enough people in the public, government or corporate sphere believe in the implications of climate change or are convinced enough to change their attitudes, behaviors and everyday decisions in a noticeable enough way to not only mitigate but effectively negate the effects of climate change in the present as well as the future.

I can’t help but be reminded of Cassandra, the prophetess from Greek mythology that warned others of the imminent peril and doom of Troy. Despite her warnings about the looming devastation, no one believed her. These women’s stories cry out to the world, advocating for the world to do something differently, and warning of what’s to come if the world continues indifferently down the path it is currently on. Will the international community in the same way as the Trojans ignore the women’s cries and leave the warnings unheeded? Or will the global community act to prevent self-destruction?

Walking the Talk

In light of the U.S. and China’s monumental climate change deal to cut carbon emissions, there is hope for a greater communal response. The agreement goes to show that it is possible to go beyond just talk, and that it is possible to do it together.

We need the efforts of not only the more capable countries or the ones responsible for most of the carbon emissions, but every member of the global community. We may not all be contributing to the effects of climate change equally, but the problem with climate change can be found everywhere as it threads itself into every region, every nation, every family – often times through women. It is equally, everyone’s burden.

The battle against climate change continues to be fraught with challenges. To overcome these challenges, we need big movement and big change. We need everyone’s participation.

Let’s weather climate change, together.