WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES
PHOTOGRAPH BY CELESTE ORTIZ
As Women’s History Month begins, The Frontline looks at how climate change is already affecting women—and exacerbating present-day vulnerabilities.
When I wrote last month that an anti-trans environmental group was infiltrating Native-led efforts to stop a lithium mine, I was surprised by some of our readers’ responses. “What’s this got to do with climate change?” commented someone on our Instagram page.
Well, women’s rights—including the rights of trans women—have everything to do with climate change. March is Women’s History Month, so I figured now is as good a time as any to break down how climate change is affecting women and exacerbating the vulnerabilities they already face regardless of a heating planet. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report Monday on the impacts of climate change, and it’s even more clear that women have the most to lose.
“The climate change and gender literature has come a long way demonstrating concrete examples of how structural inequalities operate,” reads the report, which 195 nations and 270 independent authors approved.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we care about all women. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. Science doesn’t only tell us that humans are changing the climate. It also tells us that some humans are impacted more than others. The social sciences are perhaps the most important research area for us to understand as we confront the climate crisis. Addressing climate change also involves assessing how we’ve constructed our societies—and to whom we turn a blind eye.
In 2017, the Tubbs Fire killed at least 22 people in California while leveling more than 5,600 structures. Esperanza Santos, however, survived. The air outside the 30-year-old’s apartment complex was heavy with smoke. The housing manager came knocking on her door, informing Santos and her roommates that they needed to evacuate. The situation was becoming dangerous, so Santos headed to a shelter.
At the shelter, the bathrooms were gendered, complicating what should be a simple bodily function for any trans or non-binary person. Santos, who is trans, was not yet out at the time, but she remembers how another trans woman went to use the women’s restroom when a cis woman challenged her about it. Luckily, there were some LGBTQIA+ youth who rose to her defense.
“A part of climate change relief during disasters may not always consider the realities of, number one, women who need safety and, number two, trans women who need access to basic resources,” Santos said. “It’s common for me to have friends or for me to experience people thinking that we’re sexual predators when we’re just looking for safety.”
This is but one example of how climate change affects trans women, in particular, but all women are disproportionately harmed when the climate becomes unstable. That’s because we live in a patriarchal society run by white cis men. The IPCC report makes clear that “historical marginality and exclusion” have everything to do with the vulnerabilities women face. If we’re going to seriously prepare for climate change, we must also take steps to protect women, especially women of color who face compound risks due to their race and ethnicity. If we’re going to cut greenhouse gas emissions, why not do so in ways that will also pull women out of poverty and increase their political power?
“At the end of the day, the histories, the systems that have created the climate change crisis that we’re in are patriarchal systems,” said Vanessa Raditz, a Ph.D. student at the University of Georgia who co-authored a policy brief on the inequities disaster response presents to queer people. “They’re the same systems that have created the kinds of social vulnerabilities among queer and trans people and women and femme folks on a day-to-day basis.”
These systems have resulted in an unequal reality where about 10 million more women experienced poverty last year than men. A reality where women also earn 24% less than men, globally, according to a 2017 issue brief from the United Nations. That same issue brief notes that women and children are 14 times more likely than men to die during a disaster. Why? Well, for several reasons.
“All those things that are already true on a day-to-day basis become exacerbated during a time of disaster.”
For one, many women and girls across the planet don’t have access to the same education and, thus, information as men. If they did, they might be able to read about an impending disaster or react accordingly to warnings. Instead, they’re left powerless and stripped of their autonomy. In many countries, women are the main caretakers in the household, but that dedication to taking care of others can wind up killing women who refuse to evacuate when an emergency unfolds.
“These are all issues trans women face, as well,” Raditz said. “All those things that are already true on a day-to-day basis become exacerbated during a time of disaster.”
The women who survive disaster may be forced into shelters like the one in which Santos stayed after the Tubbs Fire. Violence is always a risk women face, but this is especially true if they lose their home and must remain in crowded or temporary housing after a flood or fire. Trans women can face arrest and criminalization at shelters if they use women’s restrooms or showers. In the U.S., one in every two Black transgender people has been incarcerated, where they’re subject to even more climate vulnerabilities. Sometimes, trans women at shelters are forced to take clothing donations meant for men, which can lead to body dysmorphia and negative mental health impacts. Important medicine, such as HIV medication or estrogen, isn’t made readily available at shelters, either.
“Maybe I’m fleeing a disaster, or I’m relocating after a disaster, or I’m trying to rebuild after a disaster,” said Mika Tosca, an assistant professor of climate sciences at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago who is trans. “I also have to worry about, Are the people who are supposedly going to help me going to be transphobic? Are they going to be sexist?—and the answer is probably yeah, a little bit.”
Women who are able to stay home can experience violence there, too—through partners or family members whose attacks may grow worse by their heightened post-disaster stress. Unfortunately, violence is a theme in how climate change threatens women. Women become more at-risk of sexual or physical assault when they’re forced to travel longer distances to access basic resources like food, water, or firewood as part of their caretaking duties. Climate change is making it harder for women to successfully carry out their responsibilities for the home as droughts increase water scarcity and food insecurity.
Climate disaster isn’t the only time women are in danger. When women speak out in defense of the land, they also become vulnerable to attacks—and not just physically. Online attacks can also target their womanhood through crude and inappropriate comments, explained Rachel Cox, a campaigner for human rights group Global Witness, which works closely with environmental and land defenders around the globe.
“These are threats not just saying to somebody, Oh, we’ll kill you,” Cox said. “It’s, We’ll kill you, but we’ll rape you first. Insults come through that tend to have gender dimensions, so women will often be called ‘whores’ or ‘sluts,’ these kinds of attacks on their sexuality.”
“If you’re not intentionally imagining a future where all of the rest of us exist, what really are you doing?”
However, the existence of women activists who are committed to protecting the planet and their lands underlines the importance of women in climate work. Their safety and well-being are critical to solving the climate crisis. This is an all hands on deck situation, but the climate movement has historically pushed women to the sidelines to make room for the opinions and perspectives of white cis men. Those days must come to a close as we work to build a better world.
“When we think about environmental disaster and how we can solve that together, I like to think of it as a form of environmental liberation—which is not all that different than queer liberation, women’s liberation, Black liberation,” Tosca said. “I like to think of the climate crisis as just another thing that’s disproportionately affecting people who are vulnerable, so in order to eliminate that vulnerability, we have to address it the way we would any other liberating movement.”
And that requires concrete policy change. Federal, state, and local disaster response agencies need cultural competency training, said Leo Goldsmith, a climate and health specialist at environmental consulting firm ICF who co-authored the policy brief alongside Raditz. Governments and partner organizations need to provide trans women affirming services when disaster strikes. The government should also diversify the groups it partners with during disaster beyond faith-based organizations, which may not feel safe to trans women or queer women at large.
What good is a habitable planet if it’s one where women are still not free? What good is a planet saved from climate change if sexism and transphobia are still killing women? For whom are we building a future if we ignore the way women have suffered in the past?
I asked Raditz what they might say to someone who wants to keep climate conversations focused on science and emissions. Their response was perfect.
“When you think of the future, who do you imagine being there?” Raditz said. “If you’re not imagining women, if you’re not imagining trans people, if you’re not imagining queer people, then you’re perpetuating the same problem… If you’re not intentionally imagining a future where all of the rest of us exist, what really are you doing?”