Climate Change

Climate change impacts women more. We must legislate to protect their health

Climate change has a disproportionate impact on women's health.

Climate change has a disproportionate impact on women's health. Image: Reuters/Akhtar Soomro

Matthias Berninger
Global Head of Public Affairs, Science, Sustainability, Health, Safety & Environment, Bayer AG
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Climate Change

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • Health was at last put formally on the climate agenda at COP28.
  • Women should be given special consideration under the new onus on health in climate policy.
  • Both climate-induced crises and rising temperatures have a disproportionate impact on women's health.

Climate change is having a profound impact on global health: Extreme weather events, heat, water stress and air pollution are already exacerbating health issues and putting stress on overstretched healthcare systems. While in the past climate discussions focused mainly on energy, transportation or agriculture, health has remained a footnote for far too long.

It was therefore high time that health was put formally on the agenda at COP28 and that for the first time, health ministers attended the annual UN climate conference alongside their peers from agriculture, foreign and environment ministries. The COP28 presidency, in partnership with the World Health Organization and the UAE Ministry of Health and Prevention, announced the COP28 UAE Declaration on Climate and Health, which was signed by over 120 countries.

It sends a strong signal: That climate policies need to shift towards a stronger focus on the social implications and government decisions. The declaration acknowledges the need for governments to prepare healthcare systems to cope with climate change and covers a range of areas, including reduction of emissions, increased financing for climate and health solutions, and the building of more climate-resilient health systems.

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While the COP28 health declaration includes close partnerships with women and girls, it does not specifically address the disproportionate impacts of climate change on women. According to the WHO document Protecting Maternal, Newborn and Child Health from the Impacts of Climate Change, the effects of climate change on women’s health are still under-reported and underestimated.

A report launched at COP28 by UN Women suggests that by 2050 climate change may push up to 158 million more women and girls into poverty, and cause 232 million to face food insecurity. Extreme weather conditions such as storms, floods or heat are on the rise, forcing thousands of people to leave their homes worldwide. According to UN Environment, 80% of the people displaced by climate change are women or girls facing heightened risks of poverty, violence or unintended pregnancies as they migrate to safer locations.

Additionally, women are unequally affected by compromised access to clean water and sanitation facilities after disasters. The heavy drought in Kenya in 2022 is just one of many examples where women were hit the hardest by the crisis through malnutrition and dehydration; at the same time, female genital mutilation, child marriage and gender-based violence rose.

Beyond immediate crises, women’s health is affected by rising temperatures: Air pollution and heat exposure are associated with preterm birth, low birth weight and poorer maternal health and complications during pregnancy, such as gestational diabetes. At the same time, it affects menopausal systems and increases prenatal maternal stress, while heavy metals in breast milk have been associated with abnormal immune function in newborns and allergy, neurodevelopment delay and neuropsychiatric disorders later in life.

The nature of the impact on women’s health from climate change may vary, even within the same country. We therefore call to include women’s reproductive health in countries’ climate plans, as well as into climate disaster relief.

As an example, last year Bayer supported the German Red Cross and the Colombian Red Cross in co-creating and piloting a family planning programme in Colombia, thereby addressing reproductive health needs in an ongoing crisis, as part of our commitment to help provide access to modern contraception to 100 million women in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) yearly by 2030. Access to family planning is one of the cornerstones of gender equality as it has a positive impact not only on individuals, but also in the development of societies.

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As we head towards a warming trajectory beyond 1.5°C, it becomes clear that women have a pivotal role to play in climate change mitigation and adaptation. It is crucial to accelerate our efforts to protect human health, especially for those most susceptible to the effects of rising temperatures – a tremendous challenge that will require new approaches and accelerated collective action.

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Related topics:
Climate ChangeDavos AgendaHealth and HealthcareGender Inequality
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