From extreme weather events to water shortages, reduced harvests, and increased spread of infectious diseases, climate change can affect human life in countless ways. Climate change is not simply an environmental challenge. It is a human story, fundamentally about people.
However, climate change does not affect us equally. Compared to men, women are more vulnerable to its impacts, as women constitute 70% of the world’s impoverished population and are more dependent for their survival and livelihood on natural resources increasingly strained by climate change.
Given these disproportionate effects on women, one would expect them to have an equal, if not greater, say in public discussions on climate change. Yet, in fact, their side of these stories have been mostly ignored.
The silenced crowd
In media coverage of climate change issues, women are often a neglected group. A recent report published by Media Matters unearthed a stark imbalance between men’s and women’s likelihood of being quoted in media coverage of the U.N. climate reports in 2014. The findings suggest that less than 15% of those quoted or interviewed in major print, broadcast, and cable outlets in the United States were female.
The gender gap in media reporting on climate change is perhaps more striking in developing countries. A new article (Frontline farmers, backline sources) in this month’s Feminist Media Studies shows that in Uganda, where 56% of women are farmers, both female sources and bylines are completely left out of page one, two, or three of the prominent newspapers when covering climate change topics.
Another unpleasant truth is that female sources are not only far less preferable than male sources (61%), but even less utilized than anonymous sources (20%).
What happens when women actually speak? Well, they are hardly considered the experts.
Indonesian researcher Billy K. Sarwono studied the local coverage of the U.N. Framework Conventions on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and found that the longest-running Indonesian newspaper Kompas almost never cited women as climate change experts, but only featured them as celebrity spokespeople. In addition, when portraying the role of women in climate change, the media depicted them primarily as victims rather than active agents able to contribute to mitigating the negative effects of climate change.
Why should we hear from women?
There is an irony here. The media may have the intellect to recognize the severe, disproportionate effects of climate change on women, yet they don’t seem to care enough to hear their stories or opinions. Moreover, they are also oblivious to the fact that women are not just victims of climate change but perhaps more importantly also powerful agents of climate adaptation.
For instance, when coping with climate change, women around the world have demonstrated leadership in community revitalization and natural resource management (see UN report). For example, in Ghana, women developed a number of coping strategies, including selling the remaining livestock not washed away by the floods, collecting twigs for firewood from long distances, and cultivating long-term crops like oranges, cocoa, and palm oil to supplement their livelihoods.
Because women are predominately responsible for food production and household water supply in developing countries, they have first-hand knowledge and practical solutions to changing environmental realities. These solutions and contributions deserve to be shared and recognized more widely by the media.
“Women must make their voices heard in climate negotiations. The role of women as agents of change in their homes, places of work and communities is often underplayed. Yet their role is critical,” said Mary Robinson, UN special envoy on climate change and former president of Ireland.
Indeed. If women are at the front lines of climate change adaptation, why are they in the backgrounds of the conversation?
As a growing number of women are leading climate change research and policy decisions (e.g., Christiana Figueres, Ambassador Patricia Espinosa Cantellano, and researchers such as Susan Solomon and Kate Raworth), it is crucial that the media reflect the increased female leadership and amplify women’s voices through gender-balanced reporting.
Photograph of woman harvesting wheat by Meena Kadri via Flickr commons
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