If someone were to ask me what the defining issue of our time was, I would answer the threat of climate change. Climate change undermines the full enjoyment of basic human rights. It is an issue that should have particular resonance for the global health community, given the potential scale of adverse impacts that the human population is facing, and the diffuse and unequal distribution of those impacts.
In assessing the impact of climate change I would like to introduce you to the concept of climate justice. That is the issue which is the focus of my foundation, the Mary Robinson Foundation–Climate Justice (MRFCJ). Climate justice puts people at the center: it looks at the causes, the impacts and the solutions to the problem from a human perspective. Climate justice is fully informed by science but it communicates and identifies solutions from the perspective of human needs and rights. Climate justice takes a human rights-based approach to combating climate change, while seeking equitable outcomes to protect the vulnerable and provide them with access to benefits arising from our transition to low carbon development. As such, it seeks equity in the way in which we deal with the negative impacts of climate equity in accessing benefits.
It is widely accepted that climate change will raise temperatures, change precipitation patterns and distribution of water, threaten biodiversity, raise the sea level, increase flooding and storm surges, threaten unique systems such as coral reefs, and cause large-scale ‘singularities’ such as the melting of ice shelves. These changes in the natural environment are increasingly causing human impacts: an increase in water insecurity and the time required to collect water; changes in agricultural productivity and food insecurity, with a loss of livelihoods, and effects on the wider economy. There are health risks, such as malnutrition, water-borne and vector-borne diseases and deaths from natural disasters.
Vulnerability to climate change impacts is not just a matter of geography. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change defines vulnerability as “the degree to which a system is susceptible to, and unable to cope with, adverse effects of climate change, including climate variability and extremes. Vulnerability is a function of the character, magnitude, and rate of climate change and variation to which a system is exposed, its sensitivity, and its adaptive capacity.”
That phrase, ‘adaptive capacity’ is critical to understanding how people cope with the impacts of climate change. Adaptive capacity is dependent on wealth, planning, access to resources and technology, skills and know-how, and it varies between communities and countries. In general those with least adaptive capacity are the poor, those reliant on climate affected livelihoods, those who are already socially vulnerable and at risk, and those whose coping strategies are exhausted.
Climate change disproportionately impacts poor women and children as socially vulnerable members of society. When communities living in poverty are impacted by weather shocks–drought or flooding–it is women who try to hold them together and cope. When subsistence farmers are affected, we must remember that the vast majority of them are women. They live in a food insecure environment and yet, the right to food is one of the most basic rights of humankind. However, hunger remains unacceptably widespread while many systems of food production in use are simply unsustainable. I witnessed the terrible impact this has on women when I travelled with several Irish aid agencies to Somalia to see the situation there. Conflict, high food prices and drought combined to cause the UN to declare a famine. As with the floods last year in Pakistan, this signalled what a world impacted by climate change will be like. I felt a sense of anger and outrage that famine was being declared anywhere in the world in the 21st century.
There are 925 million men, women and children who are already food insecure in our world and with the world’s population set to reach 9 billion by 2050, we must address the issue of agriculture, food and nutrition security as a matter of urgency.
Climate change affects food and nutrition security and undermines efforts to reduce hunger and protect and promote nutrition. Furthermore, malnutrition affects the coping mechanisms of vulnerable populations and reduces their capacity to resist and adapt to the consequences of climate change. While agriculture is responsible for 14 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, it also has the potential to be an important part of the solution—but only if it is examined in a holistic way.
Integrating the gender dimension into nutrition and agriculture policies is a critical step to ensuring improved food and nutrition security. It is also important to remember other interrelated issues such as water, energy, land use, biodiversity, health and education. Poor and vulnerable women smallholder farmers don’t think in silos. They struggle to achieve their basic human rights and we should bear this in mind when discussing these issues. Ignoring or undervaluing the contribution of women restricts our potential for innovation and our capacity to act.
The empowerment of women is a cornerstone to mitigating the impacts of climate change. To enable this empowerment, we need to provide women with access to education and credit, active participation at all levels of decision-making, and the chance to have their contribution valued.
MRFCJ has been working to harness the power of women’s leadership on gender and climate change. We are building on work done over many years by the Global Gender Climate Alliance, (GGCA), Gender CC and other international and local networks, and encouraging the women ministers in the forefront of climate negotiations to join forces to ensure that the gender dimensions of all aspects under discussion (mitigation, adaptation, financing and transfer of technologies) are fully recognized and addressed in fora such as COP at RIO+20 and beyond. Through the Troika+ of Women Leaders on Gender and Climate Change and the Women Leaders on Climate Justice Network we are helping to raise awareness of the need for gender sensitive responses to climate change.