How climate change disproportionately affects women of color around the globe

President Obama kicked off his last Labor Day in office handing women around the world an important victory: the signing of the United Nations’ Paris climate accord alongside Chinese President Xi Jinping. Responsible action taken on climate change is a victory for current and future generations, but research indicates climate change disproportionately affects global women of color.

Following the Paris climate accord, the United States has pledged to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 26 percent from 2005 levels over the next 15 years. Meanwhile, China has pledged to curtail the rise of its emissions by the year 2030. The historic agreement requires at least 55 countries to ratify it, and these 55 countries must cumulatively produce at least 55 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.

For some perspective on why the U.S. and China ratifying the accord matters so much, note that prior to Saturday, only 24 countries had ratified it, and these countries produced only 1 percent of the world’s emissions, according to The Guardian. The U.S. and China together produce a staggering 38 percent of carbon dioxide emissions.

The Paris climate accord notes that global warming is a human rights issue starting to limit access to crucial resources like water and farmland and even rendering some land uninhabitable. But in many parts of the world, like Africa, particularly Sub-Saharan Africa, and many parts of Asia, women are disproportionately shouldering the burden of climate change, forming the majority of agricultural workers and water-gatherers, now struggling to provide for themselves and their families.

Women of color involved with agricultural work that relies on access to water have far less access to alternative income-earning opportunities, according to the United Nations Population Fund’s 2009 report. Another U.N. report notes that 63 percent of rural households in “poor and developing countries” rely on women to gather water, while men are responsible for gathering water in only 11 percent of rural households. And according to a 2015 report by Vice News, women in parts of the world more subjected to global warming have literally been forced to shift their planting seasons and learn to grow warm-weather foods.

For Native American women spread throughout North and South America, climate change has also directly resulted in an assault on not only their resources and agricultural pursuits, but also their culture and sacred lands. Feministing reported in its “Bearing Witness” series last year how it was predominantly Indigenous women leading protests against the Ecuadorian government ravaging their sacred territory for oil. Feministing additionally followed Garifuna women in Honduras, left behind by husbands migrating to the United States, confronting the loss of their communities to rising sea levels and increasingly frequent and severe storms and natural disasters.

climate change women of color
CREDIT: Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

To add salt to wound, around the world, efforts to help women victimized by climate change have only worsened their situations. Climate Progress reported in 2015 how global warming sparked well-meaning corporate interest in sustainable development in rural nations. Their research projects often lead to women being driven from the land they use to grow food for their families, and their means of living, to develop sustainability projects.

Arguably the most fucked up aspect of the situation is that in many ways, for all the admirable effort women of color put into protests and marches to raise awareness about climate change and their direct experiences with it, their fates rest in the hands of the politicians of major industrialized countries who would rather play political games than look at the world around them.

It’s easy for a white man on the floor of the Senate to hold up a snowball and deny that climate change is happening, or to laugh in the faces of those who try to explain to him how global warming is destroying people’s — namely women’s — lives. Just as it’s easier for men to deny that sexism still exists, as it’s something they’re far less likely to be subjected to, it’s also easier for men in privileged countries to deny that climate change is real or worth fighting: its detriments are far less felt in the United States, so why does it matter that somewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa a woman is struggling to find drinking water?

The reality of the situation is pretty bleak, but that’s exactly why the U.S. and China, the world’s major producers of carbon dioxide emissions, signing the Paris climate change accord is a big deal. It’s a step in the right direction for mankind, and one that will frankly benefit no group more than women of color.