Gender in climate change adaptation as a social justice issue

Melanie Böckmann
University of Bremen, Germany

Climate change affects countries and populations to varying degrees, and the output of research into the social effects of global change that has been produced is extensive. It has been stated that social vulnerability is not a fixed concept, but instead strongly place-based and domain-specific (Cutter et al., 2014). Within the social domain, gender as a category is frequently discussed in relation to climate change impacts on the Global South (Denton, 2002; Dupont, 2012; World Health Organization, 2014a). Research results suggest that due to climate change stressors, women with limited livelihood opportunities may be at greater risk of poverty if extreme events or loss of biodiversity continue to threaten income opportunities or agricultural practices (World Health Organization, 2014a). Additionally, women may be impacted by higher burdens of care work for their families after extreme weather events, which may limit their opportunities to engage in paid work (United Nations Development Program, 2009). They may also be at greater risk of violence in unstable situations after extreme weather events (World Health Organization, 2014a). Further gendered risks to health include a higher susceptibility of pregnant women to malaria infections and malaria mortality (Schantz-Dunn and Nour, 2009), which will be exacerbated by the increased distribution of malaria vectors caused by climate change (McMichael and Lindgren, 2011; World Health Organization, 2014b). Thus, indirect effects of climate change are likely unequally distributed in populations. These links between structural inequities and greater vulnerability makes gender a social justice issue in climate change (Clarke, 2011).

At first glance, these connections between gender, social vulnerability and climate change are less obvious in high-income contexts. The risks from poverty, for instance, are alleviated in welfare states, although women still face significant pay gaps and traps of lower paying part-time positions in high-income nations such as European countries, Japan, or the United States (Bardasi and Gornick, 2008; Tijdens, 2002). Infrastructure and health systems also tend to be stronger in these countries and are less likely to collapse completely during extreme events. However, the effects of climate changes and of societal responses to global change are likely to impact men and women differently. For instance, care work is often the responsibility of women in high-income countries as well (Whittock et al., 2002), and the burden of unpaid (or underpaid) care work might increase with more frequent extreme weather events. Gender has been framed in different ways in the climate change context. Often, women are assigned roles of “better climate mitigators,” stemming from a higher percentage of women eating plant-based diets (Korkala et al., 2014a), preferring public transport (Korkala et al., 2014b), and expressing higher concerns over global environmental change (Joireman and Liu, 2014). Positioning women in this way has led to an image of women as the more ‘virtuous’ gender in the climate change discourse (Arora-Jonsson, 2011). While acknowledging different motivations opens opportunities for targeted adaptation and mitigation strategies, these descriptions of women as either particularly vulnerable or particularly virtuous assign them a static role as part of homogenous group and discourage agency in its own right (Arora-Jonsson, 2011). Researchers and policymakers face a philosophical dilemma with practical implications: framing certain groups as particularly vulnerable can ensure adequate measures to protect people and reduce inequalities. However, it is precisely this framing that carries the risk of taking away agency and may fail to acknowledge multifaceted aspects of human actions and relationships.

As an aside, it is worth noting that generally speaking, a focus on differences between men and women inherently strengthens a binary understanding of gender and gender roles, which bears its own dangers of discrimination and silencing. Due to lack of standardized data collection procedures that would allow respondents to choose to identify as a gender other than male or female, every identity beyond these categories remains invisible in the climate change literature.

One prominent issue that persists in high- and low-income countries is a gender bias in high-level decision-making, as illustrated by lack of equal representation in elected bodies (Ciplet, 2014). This is not surprising as it reflects the status quo in other policy fields. To include more gender-sensitive decision-making at the international level, women’s rights groups have long been lobbying for increased presence of women as heads of delegations (Terry, 2009), and for continuous engagement with social components of environmental and climate policymaking in the knowledge that representation alone is insufficient (Ciplet, 2014; Magnusdottir and Kronsell, 2015).

At the local level, raising awareness among managers of climate change mitigation and governmental representatives is a first step to increase uptake of gender-sensitive policies in the climate and environment sector. Beyond acknowledgement that unequal gender relations or structural discrimination patterns can be exacerbated by policies that fail to assess these patterns beforehand, concrete integration approaches are needed. Looking to gender mainstreaming processes (Alston, 2014; Reeves, 2014; World Health Organization, 2012) might give insights into how to achieve a continuous integration, and synergies with adaptation mainstreaming (Halsnaes and Traerup, 2009; Hjerpe and Glaas, 2011) might be examined.

More importantly, adaptation at all levels should not be perceived merely as a technological solution but as a strategy for integrating sectors as well as social, cultural, environmental, institutional, and economic determinants. This has been advocated by proponents of transformational adaptation as well (Kates et al., 2012; O’Brien, 2011). This is not an easy task. Common barriers to including gender into adaptation practice are:

  • That climate change is seen as an external agent that affects all societal developments similarly and thus does not need to be tailored, despite knowledge on mediation through social and natural determinants (Friel et al., 2011; Kaijser and Kronsell, 2013);
  • The lack of studies that link gender to climate beyond the vulnerability and virtue themes, especially in the realm of human health (Kukarenko, 2011; Preet et al., 2010), and;
  • The lack of data stratified by gender for many research questions (Magnusdottir and Kronsell, 2015), which is even more pronounced when looking for data on different groups of women and men.

Despite these barriers, it is worth considering gender a key component in our thinking about climate and environmental change. First, gender shapes many aspects of one’s life. These include: behavior, one’s chances of becoming ill, and the availability of socio-economic opportunities (Adamson et al., 2003; Bolte and Lahn, 2015; Hammarström et al., 2014). Gender is linked to discrimination, the availability of educational opportunities, and even to the likelihood of working in climate change related professions (Ciplet, 2014; Korkala et al., 2014b; McCright and Dunlap, 2011). Ignoring gender does not make it or its very real effects on the lived experiences of humans go away.

Second, living in unequal societies translates into unequal adverse effects of climate-related outcomes, such as in extreme events (Vasseur et al., 2015) or the results of rapid urbanization (Tacoli and Satterthwaite, 2013). More research is needed on these mechanisms, but conducting said research depends upon seeing the need for such analyses. The first step is making these usually invisible issues of gender and equality visible to decision-makers, policymakers, and the larger research community. This should include sensitivity towards the multifaceted identities and socio-cultural determinants of behavior to avoid a static understanding of gender roles. A major question for adaptation and environmental change research is thus how to explicitly position gender and intersectionality within the social sciences perspective. The conceptualization should not end with a focus on vulnerability, but rather acknowledge the complexities of structural and individual categorization along gender lines, among others. This is a task that will influence our thinking about and acting on equity in climate change-related strategies.


Dr. Melanie Böckmann is a public health researcher working on gender and climate change, and on European health policy at the University of Bremen.

Header image: Valparaiso, Chile.  Credit: Hugo Brizard /


One thought on “Gender in climate change adaptation as a social justice issue

  1. I appreciate the fact that you are researching an area that is often overlooked. Throughout my research of climate change, this is the first blog I have seen linking it’s effects to gender, and I found the information very interesting. My wonder still lies in the relation of climate change to men, as you mentioned that men and women are very different regarding this issue, but men would likely face similar challenges. I have been intrigued by the effects that climate change has on pregnant women and infants, which is something that you touch upon as well. Check out this link if you are interested in going deeper into the maternal and pregnancy effects of climate change!

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