Health, gender and climate change
Climate change has significant impacts on human health. Global warming, rising sea levels and extreme weather events, alongside increasing rainfall in some regions and higher frequency and intensity of droughts in other parts of the world, cause a multitude of effects on public health. These include the threats posed by coastal flooding, malnutrition and reduced drinking water availability, as well as the occurrence of heat stress and the spreading of water-borne and vector-borne diseases. Adverse health effects related to air pollution, such as respiratory diseases, are also increasing.
On the other hand, it is important to note that actions to mitigate climate change have the potential to deliver a range of health co-benefits. For example, the physical activity generated by low-carbon modes of transport such as walking and cycling is likely to lead to a range of health benefits, such as the prevention of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer (Cf. WHO-Brief). As a further example, more energy-efficient heating and energy-efficient biomass and gas cooking stoves in developing countries can help reduce adverse health effects linked to indoor air pollution.
Women and men can be harmed in different ways. Because male and female bodies are differently vulnerable, the resulting needs for health services and health care can be gender-specific. For example, men and women differ in their response to extreme heat. Women generally sweat less, have a higher metabolic rate and have thicker subcutaneous fat that prevents them from cooling themselves as efficiently as men. Therefore, women are generally less able to tolerate heat stress.
Changes in temperature and rainfall patterns can alter the distribution of disease vectors. Children and pregnant women are particularly susceptible to vector-borne diseases such as malaria and water-borne diseases such as cholera.
These physiological differences are increased and accompanied by social factors and gender-specific exposure patterns. Due to the reported correlation between women’s status in society and the probability of them getting access to public healthcare, it can be assumed that in periods of increasing pressure on societies, negative consequences on women’s health will be aggravated.
In some developing countries, women are more exposed to indoor air pollution due to their household role. More than one million people die each year of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease as a result of exposure to indoor cookstove smoke, and most of these people are women. Poor women are also at greater risk of lung cancer caused by coal smoke from cookstoves (Cf. WHO-brochure). Therefore, switching to low-emission climate-friendly cookstoves and fuel sources could present health benefits for many women.
There are also potential health implications for women as a result of family planning and population growth policies, which may be linked with climate change policies.
Cultural restrictions on the mobility of women and girls and their responsibilities as caregivers often hinder them to seek appropriate healthcare for themselves. The role as primary caregivers, responsible for the mental, emotional and physical wellbeing of their families, can cause mental stress for women in the events of disasters.
There is an urgent need to invest in health information and education programmes relating to climate change, and to ensure that a gender perspective is central to their design. Departments of health, environment and family should collaborate to identify country-specific health impacts of climate change, the related stress put on women, children and the elderly, and associated financial burdens. Further research on health and climate change needs to deliver gender-disaggregated data; otherwise, the appropriate preventative actions and provision of health care services cannot be ensured.