Heatwaves Are A Women’s Issue. Here’s Why.

The increase in global temperatures will disproportionately affect women. Women’s lives overall will become more difficult.

Heatwaves Are A Women’s Issue. Here’s Why.
Illustration by Alana Berger.

The year 2023 was the hottest on record. The year 2024 is shaping up to be worse. 

This month, more than 1,300 people died during the Islamic pilgrimage of Hajj in Saudi Arabia; they had been victims of temperatures which climbed above 125 degrees Fahrenheit (51.8 degrees Celsius). In the U.S., more than 100 million people were under heat warnings this past weekend; in Europe, a heatwave has caused wildfires in Turkey; authorities in Greece—a country so used to dealing with heat that we have it to thank for some of Europe’s earliest examples of the hand fan—were forced to close the Acropolis. Organizers of the Paris Olympics, due to take place in August, have warned about the safety of athletes because of anticipated high temperatures. 

Women are more likely than men to be the victims of this kind of extreme heat. A UN report shows that during extreme weather, women and children are 14 times more likely than men to die, because they have less mobility, and less access to information and resources, so they are the last to hear about dangerous heat waves and therefore don’t have the chance to take protective measures. As an example, during a 2003 heatwave in France, 15 percent more women over the age of 55 died than men in the same age group. 

A study by researchers at Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam sought to explain this disparity by looking at deaths among older people in the Netherlands during heatwaves. Women sweat less, they concluded, and experience more strain on the heart when it’s hot. Also, doing housework during a heatwave—which women are more likely than men to do—“puts females more at risk for overheating and cardiovascular strain.”

This study focused on the Netherlands, but its findings can be applied across other nations and cultures. The increase in global temperatures—which, in the next two years, will almost definitely become irreversible—will disproportionately affect women. It’s not just that more will lose their lives. It’s also that women’s lives will become profoundly more difficult.

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Heatwaves create more unpaid labor

So far, women and girls make up four in five people displaced by climate change, and across India, Nigeria and the U.S. alone, high temperatures are costing women $120 billion a year, mainly due to missed work hours. Higher temperatures have women, in particular, spending more time on unpaid labor—fetching water for children, for example—and less time on activities such as earning money or accessing prenatal care

This breakdown from the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, shows just how much rising heat can worsen women’s lives, from increased domestic labor which ticks up as temperatures rise, to economic losses when women can’t work (exacerbating an already yawning gender pay gap), to health concerns including harder-to-access care, including prenatal care, and a rise in domestic violence. 

A forecast by UN Women shows that by 2050, 158 million more women will be pushed into poverty by climate change as conflict and migration rise, which could push another 236 million into food insecurity. More than 200,000 women across India, Nigeria and the U.S. combined will die, making climate change about as dangerous to women as breast cancer in Nigeria, road injuries in India and cervical cancer in the U.S. That has a knock-on effect on the next generation: Stillbirths, preterm births and low birth rates will rise, as will pregnancy complications. In the U.S., pre-existing racial inequalities in maternal care—Black women are more than three times as likely to die as white women—will be exacerbated. 

How women help

Do women understand this at some innate level? Maybe, maybe not. But it does seem clear that women are likely to act more decisively than men—at least when it comes to climate. (Don’t believe me? Just look at the frustratingly weak outcomes of the male-dominated COP meetings to see indecision in action.) 

Besides, not only are countries with a higher percentage of women in parliament more likely to ratify environmental treaties, but they also have lower carbon dioxide emissions. Businesses with more women are better at climate governance, and more likely to invest in renewable energy. Even at the household level, women are more climate-focused: They tend to recycle more, buy more organic food, and are more likely to try to save water and energy.

Some argue that, in the battle to reverse climate change, women are an under-deployed weapon. “Female political representation may be an underutilized tool for addressing climate change,” economists at Curtin University in Australia have suggested

That’s a pretty powerful assertion, when you think about it: Faced with a potential global catastrophe—one that is entirely man-made—I don’t think it’s too extreme to suggest that women could be humanity’s last hope.

Read more:

When It Comes to the Gender Pay Gap, the Laws Are There. The Culture is Not.

The Missing Stories of Missing Women

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