Opinion: Women and climate change

In the climate change era, women are more vulnerable but also powerful promoters of adaptation and mitigation.

How climate change will affect women the most

A recent review presented a truly worrying scenario on the effects of climate change. Due to human activities, greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere have increased dramatically, leading to an increase in the global average surface temperature of 1.1° Celsius. Unless there is a significant reduction in emissions, the global average surface temperature will continue to rise to more dangerous levels. 

The negative outcomes of this will include extreme weather events, a deterioration in food, water, and air quality, food security issues, and an increase in vector-borne infectious diseases. Political and economic instability and mass migrations will result in reduced access to health resources.

Women will be more affected by climate change than men, and pregnant women will be particularly vulnerable. Specific differential impacts on women include increased morbidity and mortality related to heat, pregnancy risks including preterm delivery and fetal growth retardation, hypertensive disorders, and mental health impacts. In the review text, each assertion bears references to studies and reports.

To prepare for the climate crisis, according to the authors, it is imperative for health professionals to:

The review authors, who work in obstetrics and gynaecology departments, argue that, as care providers, their efforts can dovetail with those directed at combating climate change, but admit that they have failed to fully realise the power that providers and patients collectively possess to influence any outcomes.

The researchers reflected on how important it is to foster patients' empowerment over their reproductive health, healthy diet and lifestyles to reduce the risk of diseases (e.g. cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer), implement interventions to reduce complications in pregnancy, inform women about the impact of their daily decisions, educate them to advocate for equal pay and career opportunities to be self-sufficient and resilient.

"We can give women more opportunities with contraception and elevate their leadership roles within families and communities," the authors conclude. Through these efforts, women can become powerful agents in climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Many risks also to women's mental health

The review was published in the International Journal of Gynaecology and Obstetrics. In the same volume, physicians Rothschild J. and Haase E highlight the effects of climate change on women's mental health in two studies. The first study outlines direct neuropsychiatric impacts and associated psychological concerns. In recent years, both the International Federation of Gynaecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) and the World Psychiatric Organisation have recognised the impacts of the climate crisis on human health for their relevant patients, but less attention has been given in the literature to the unique and overlapping area of women's mental health.

In the article, an overview of the current literature on climate change-related neurobiological and psychological impacts on women's individual mental health is provided. Detailed literature reviews are provided on:

Women as promoters of adaptation and mitigation

Although women are more likely to face the physical and emotional consequences of climate disruption, they are also the most promising sources of resilience in climate change response. At multiple levels, women are more informed about the global and personal threats of climate change than their male counterparts; and have repeatedly demonstrated individual and collective power and action for protecting future generations, and responding to change, moreso than men.

Through multiple roles in the family and in society, women have the potential to lead climate mitigation efforts to protect themselves, their children, and the community.

The effects of global warming can be mitigated by the installation of tree canopies, cool roofs and other modifications to the built environment. Air pollution can be significantly reduced by shifting from biomass fuels to solar and electric cooking methods. Food insecurity and nutrition can be addressed through community-supported agriculture and neighbourhood care programmes, activities currently done more often by women.

Women, socio-economic stress and eco-anxiety

The second study addresses issues related to socio-economic stress due to climate change and eco-anxiety (the fear of environmental ruin) for women and their children. The review provides an overview of the impacts of climate change on women's mental health that are mediated through social and psychological forces: social determinants of health, changes in social and natural systems influenced by global climate change, and how existential fears may influence women's psychological concerns.

The detailed literature review highlights key studies in the areas of:

By remaining aware of and informed about these stressors and all the issues related to climate change, health workers providing care to women can help them prevent and mitigate adverse outcomes and improve their long-term well-being despite unstable conditions.