Ask an Ethicist: Does climate change affect genders differently?

In partnership with the Rock Ethics Institute, Penn State Todays feature column, "Ask an Ethicist," aims to shed light on ethical questions from our readers. Each article in this column will feature a different ethical question answered by a Penn State ethicist. We invite you to ask a question by filling out and submitting this form. An archive of the columns can be found on the Rock Ethics Institute website.

Question: Climate change is a global concern and media outlets tend to focus on certain issues such as ice sheet melt, sea level rise, government policies concerning climate change, and greenhouse gas emissions. These are all important issues and, until recently, I didn’t realize there were other concerns that we should be talking about, specifically regarding gender and climate change. So, what ethical concerns exist around gender and climate change?

An ethicist responds: There is growing agreement that human activities are resulting in significant changes in the global climate.  The NASA website on climate change provides a snapshot of these changes.

  • Global temperatures have gone up an average of 1.4ᵒF since 1880.
  • The 10 warmest years on record have all occurred since 1998, with last year, 2015, ranked as the warmest on record.
  • These rising temperatures have contributed to rising sea levels due both to rising ocean temperatures and accelerating melting of glaciers and ice sheets.
  • These changes are fueling changes in weather patterns such as precipitation changes resulting in droughts in some regions and flooding in others, as well as increasing the intensity of extreme weather events such as hurricanes.

If emissions continue to rise unchecked or there are abrupt changes, the impacts could result in serious disruptions to agriculture, changes in species migrations and even extinction of some plants and animals, and flooding of the world’s coastal cities. 

The ethical dimensions of climate change have received attention in the last decade as scholars and policymakers have come to understand that some countries, often those least developed and thus also least responsible for the emissions of greenhouse gases that are the cause of climate change, are also those most exposed and vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change, raising issues of distributive justice.  As documented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, climatic changes from slow onset changes in temperatures or precipitation patterns to extreme events have a higher likelihood of negatively impacting the livelihoods of families living in poverty and those in poor communities.  Furthermore, while we are already experiencing some impacts from climate change, the problems will very likely increase for future generations, thus raising issues of intergenerational justice. Some also point to the negative impacts on species and ecosystems, thus raising questions of ecological justice

There is far less understanding of the relationships between gender and climate change or an appreciation of the related ethical issues resulting from differences in social roles or positions between men and women.  Due to gender roles, women, for example, are more responsible for tasks that may become increasingly more difficult due to climatic changes. In rural Saharan Africa, for example, women are largely responsible for collecting and carrying the family’s water. Precipitation changes can greatly impact their life, particularly if droughts make water harder to locate. Social structures can also put women at higher risks of harm from climate change. For example, women are often the last to leave a town during a tsunami or cyclone because of their greater responsibility for caring for children and the elderly.

However, it would be a mistake to think that only women are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Studies of farmers in Canada and Australia have shown that both men and women are impacted by climate extremes, but often in different ways. Again, because of gender roles and gendered expectations, women and men are often differently affected. When a family farm, for example, is negatively impacted by floods or droughts, men often bear a heavier psychological burden, often exasperated by ideals of masculinity that discourage men from talking about their emotions. In India, crop losses due to weather changes often result in an increase in men’s migration away from the farm to obtain wage labor, while women often consume less food as a response to food shortages. But it is also important to recognize that impacts can be positive as well as negative.  For example, men’s migration to other locations to locate wage labor can result in women facing unsafe working conditions, exploitation and loss of respect. But it can also provide opportunities for women to move beyond traditionally constrained roles, explore new livelihood options, and access public decision-making space. 

Hence, in order for policymakers to design ethically responsible responses to climate change, they must appreciate the ways in which women and men are differentially impacted. However, to best understand how men and women are impacted by climate change, as well as to see the various ways in which they can productively respond to climate change, it is important to bring an “intersectional lens” to climate change impacts. That means being attentive to gender when and how it matters as well as being attentive to other dimensions such as class, age, ethnicity, disability, and race when and how they matter. The complexity of these intersections can be seen in the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s representation of the intersecting dimensions of inequality, socioeconomic development pathways and climate change.

Climate change impacts present profound ethical challenges as individuals, groups and governments attempt to determine how best to respond. The complexities of the challenge require that ethical analyses be wedded to scientific understanding and technological responses. This is one of the signatures of the National Science Foundation funded Sustainable Climate Risk Management network and one of the reasons for the Rock Ethics Institute’s commitment to promoting ethical literacy and catalyzing ethical leadership throughout the Penn State community and to fostering interdisciplinary ethics research designed to address significant social issues and pressing world problems. Ethical literacy is essential to all aspects of our lives and a key element of a just response to climate change.

Nancy Tuana is the founding director of Penn State’s Rock Ethics Institute. She is a philosopher of science and feminist science studies theorist who specializes in issues of ethics and science. Tuana is part of an interdisciplinary research team at Penn State that has developed a more robust model of research ethics to more adequately reflect the impacts of ethical issues in scientific practice. 

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Note: The "Ask an Ethicist" column is a forum to promote ethical awareness and inquiry across the Penn State community. These articles represent the interests and judgments of each author as an individual scholar and are neither official positions of the Rock Ethics Institute nor Penn State University. They are designed to offer a possible approach to a subject and are not intended as definitive statements on what is or is not ethical in any given situation. Read the full disclaimer.

Last Updated August 25, 2016