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Man-made climate change is short-changing women

A blog about the impacts of climate change on women and the opportunities in tackling it

Chloe Musto

When asked about the economic inequalities faced by women, most will cast their minds (understandably) to the gender pay gap, which compares average hourly pay for men and women. But what about the women this statistic doesn’t capture, because they’re working for no pay at all? And how is climate change exacerbating this income imbalance? 

Unpaid care work

So undervalued is the job of raising the next generation of humanity – or in economic terms, the future labourforce – that we pay the primary providers of this service no wage or salary.

Decades of individualistic, laissez faire rhetoric have told us that having children is a choice, and you shouldn’t do it if you can’t afford it.

Leaving aside the heavy undertones of misogyny which suggest this is a choice made by women alone and the total failure to account for changes in circumstances, what this narrative ultimately neglects is that we need children to be born. Labour keeps the economy moving, and labourers’ contributions cover the pension payments of those no longer able to participate in the workforce. Someone has to ensure those children develop in safe and healthy environments, so that they can eventually keep the cogs of the economy turning. 

More often than not, that someone is a woman. Women and girls undertake more than three-quarters of unpaid care work in the world and make up two-thirds of the (grossly undercompensated) paid care workforce. In the UK, women carry out 50% more unpaid work than men on average. 

This begs the question: if you’re a single mother – as 90% of single-parents are – how do you afford the essentials without a full-time salary, which your caring responsibilities prohibit you from earning? How can you return to work when the exorbitant cost of childcare is actively pushing women already in employment out of it? And how can you be expected to weather economic shocks like those of the past few years? In this position, every inflationary percentage point marks the difference between survival and destitution, which one million children experienced in 2022. With benefits payments made increasingly hard to access, and their claimants relentlessly villainised by the government, women are increasingly being forced to rely on private debt to cover the soaring cost of essentials.

Climate costs

This is where the intersection with climate comes in, because it’s those very essentials whose price is most acutely impacted by the effects of climate change. This issue began gaining traction when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 sent the price of gas, and therefore energy bills, soaring. It became increasingly clear that as long as we rely on fossil fuels, whose prices are highly volatile and decided by international markets, we will always be vulnerable to price shocks (see: fossilflation). 

Then there’s the impact climate change itself is having on prices. The conversation thus far has been dominated by its influence on food costs, spanning everything from bananas to coffee, chocolate to tampons, plus rice, olive oil, and orange juice, to name just a few. It’s been called “sogflation” when pertaining to flooded crops and “heatflation” when applied to drought-stricken ones, but we use the umbrella term climateflation to encapsulate this phenomenon more holistically. The seriousness of this situation was illustrated by a recent study from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and the European Central Bank, which found that “weather and climate shockswill increase food prices from 1.5 – 1.8% every year within a decade or so.

But climate change disproportionately disadvantages women beyond bigger bills. If the pandemic showed us anything, it’s that mass school closures mean one parent has to stay home to fill the gap left by teachers, and more often than not, that parent is a woman. Last year’s heatwaves saw governments from France to Iran telling citizens to stay home, and this year extreme heat has already forced school closures in India, Greece, South Sudan and the Philippines.

Undoubtedly, it will be a mother staying home with children in the majority of cases, forcing countless more out of the workplace and into financial precarity or dependence on a spouse.

Such events shouldn’t be ruled out in the UK, where heat records are constantly being broken.

An opportunity

With 60% of women either uncertain which political party is most likely to improve gender equality or distrusting any of them to, politicians are clearly omitting vital issues from their campaigning. If they hope to bring this demographic on side, truly transformative policies must be brought to the fore.

First and foremost, shielding households from the erratic prices of global fossil fuel markets must be a priority. Homegrown renewables are not only the best way to achieve this, but also curb the severity of climate breakdown itself, so a commitment to them is paramount.

For more targeted policies that alleviate some of the financial strain on women, the next government should reform parental leave so that women and men share paid and unpaid work evenly, and so that the former don’t face discrimination in the workplace. Welfare payments must also be reframed so that they’re not seen as “handouts” but payments for essential care work. Removing the two-child benefit cap – a ‘key driver of child poverty’ – before a further 670,000 children are affected by it over the next parliament would demonstrate their commitment to this. So would a fully funded system of high-quality universal free early education and childcare, which would enable the 25.7% of working age women made economically inactive due to looking after their family or home to join the workforce, which has hundreds of thousands of vacancies, including in our NHS

To those who would say this is unaffordable, we would point them, in the short-term, to the £3.5 – £14 billion that could be raised from a windfall tax on the bumper profits banks have made from higher interest rates. In addition, the government could raise tens of billions from tax reforms, from the introduction of a digital pound, and simply by adapting the rules it uses to bind its own pursestrings.

There is no shortage of ideas. We must never accept the myth that there isn’t enough money for the things we need.