23 June 2008

Feeling the Heat: Women and climate change

Informative article on women's health in a changing climate from the Canadian Women's Health Network. It highlights some surprising facts about gender differences in coping with atmospheric heat.

For the first 20 years that climate change garnered international attention, gender issues were not even on the agenda—even though women and girls represent half of the world’s population and are likely to experience very different health impacts compared to men and boys. Women are generally poorer than men and more dependent than men on primary resources that are threatened by changes in climate...

In a warmer world, heat waves are expected to become more frequent and severe. Particularly vulnerable are infants, elderly people and people living in poverty.

In 1936, Canadians suffered under temperatures of 38° to 41° C in Hamilton, Niagara Falls and Toronto... Almost 1,200 Canadians died during the crisis (compared with 42 people the previous year), with Toronto experiencing 225 deaths. More recently, heat waves in Europe killed 35,000 in 2003; in France, female mortality was 15 to 20% higher than male mortality for all age groups.

Men and women differ in their response to extreme heat. Women sweat less, have a higher metabolic rate and thicker subcutaneous fat that prevents them from cooling themselves as efficiently as men. Women are therefore less tolerant of an imposed heat stress.

Heat-related health impacts can be reduced through individual behaviour adaptations, such as drinking more fluids and the use of air conditioners — as long as people have access to these resources. Poverty among elderly women, for example, limits their access to resources...

The author summarizes that, to "effectively address the health impacts of climate change for women and men, gender-based analysis is a necessity," with women being involved in determining strategies for tackling, on the human level, our changing climate.

"In the words of Nobel laureate, Amartya Sen, 'The voice of women is critically important for the world’s future — not just for women’s future'.”

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