By Eleni Mann
Climate change affects everyone – but some more than others. Its reach is far-spreading, its actions deadly, and although climate change itself isn’t discriminatory, the systems it exploits are. Exacerbating pre-existing prejudices, climate change targets the defenceless, capitalising on years of inequality to harm the most vulnerable groups in our society.
Many may argue that past and present societal structures have failed the most vulnerable. Now with the growing concerns surrounding climate change, these groups are disproportionately at risk. Historically, women, minority ethnic groups, and members of the LGBTQ+ community have been marginalised by the dominant ruling majority, and as a result of this, the climate vulnerability of these groups is escalating.
Vulnerability entails many different types of threat. For indigenous peoples, climate change imperils their traditional practices and knowledge. Many indigenous populations hold a unique relationship with the natural environment. For the Shuar people in Ecuador, waterfalls act as places of worship, and in Taiwan, people of the Paiwan community refuse to speak negatively in mountain valleys, as the words are echoed across the environment.
Climate change attacks the dwelling places of indigenous ancestors, such as in Hawaii, where many communities bury their dead by the sea, believing that their forefathers are watching over them as they fish. The rise in sea levels desecrates these burial sites, and spiritually disunites communities from their ancestors, disrupting indigenous traditions.
LGBTQ+ people are vulnerable to discrimination as a result of the social stigmas surrounding their community, often experiencing reduced social mobility, increased risk of homelessness, and inaccessible infrastructure due to a lack of acceptance. One in five LGBTQ+ Americans live in poverty, and this proportion is expected to increase with the growing risks of climate change. In countries where same-sex couples are not recognised as legitimate, relief support after climate disasters is often limited, intensifying the high levels of deprivation the community is often subjected to.
Overt discrimination in this way has also resulted in the neglect of minorities. After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, tests were undertaken to show how housing complexes responded to different prospective home seekers.
The results? White home seekers were more likely to be told about apartment availability, rent, and discounts, compared to their African American counterparts, highlighting a disturbing bias in this system that furthers the economic vulnerability of minorities.
Economic vulnerability is a common result of marginalisation, experienced both by LGBTQ+ communities, and minority and indigenous communities. Environmental deprivation theory explains that increased exposure to environmental hazards results in greater concern about environmental issues. In 2014, national probability surveys showed that 71% of Hispanic Americans and 57% of Black Americans were concerned about climate change, compared to 43% of White Americans. Hispanic and Black Americans are more likely to live near hazardous and highly-polluting industrial sites – it therefore follows that these communities are more aware and concerned by climate change.
Studies into the gendered impacts of climate change have shown how societal standards and hierarchical structures have intensified the impact of climate change on women. 65% of excess deaths in the 2003 European heatwaves were women, and, as a result of the 2007 Indian floods, women experienced higher psychosocial effects as their social networks were disconnected and lost.
Access is a huge issue differentiating between the male and female ability to cope with climate disasters. After Cyclone Idai in 2019, nearly 75,000 pregnant women were left without access to clean water and reproductive health care, and experienced sexual assault and harassment in rescue and support camps.
The ‘gendered’ nature of early warning information, where access to such information is almost entirely exclusive to men, also increases female vulnerability.
Climate change also threatens established gender roles and responsibilities. The Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice found that in Ugandan households, where predominantly the women grow crops for the men to sell, tensions develop around crop prioritisation. Irregular rainfall affects the reliability of crop production, reducing the ability to sell produce and maintain a steady household income. These tensions can boil over and result in domestic violence – the devastating impact of climate change behind closed doors.
As the consequences of climate change become more severe, climate vulnerability grows; for everyone, but especially minority groups. The intersections between these vulnerabilities – between access, social stigmas, and lack of representation to name but a few – worsen the isolation of these groups, and unless liberation becomes at the forefront of climate activism, inequalities will escalate.
So, what’s the solution? Events like Durham University’s ‘Women, Climate and Conflict: Towards Meaningful Global Commitments’ provoke significant conversations between academics, policy makers, and practitioners about how nonpartisan identities and climate change are interconnected. Ultimately, the education, awareness, and liberation of women and minority groups needs to be prioritised, or else the exacerbation of inequalities will continue to endure as climate change intensifies.
Illustration: Verity Laycock