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Commentary Environment

The Threat That Climate Change Poses to Women’s Health Is Real

Osub Ahmed

The intersection of climate change, women’s health and safety, and current federal and state restrictions on reproductive rights is a perfect storm that will put the lives and well-being of women, disproportionately women of color, at risk.

It isn’t hard to take stock of the damage climate change has already inflicted.

Widespread flooding in the Midwestern United States; the hottest March on record in Alaska; tornadoes and other extreme weather across the Deep South. According to leading environmental advocacy groups, about one-third of U.S. counties (excluding Alaska and Hawaii) are at risk of experiencing water shortages by 2050, and multiple states are expected to face more frequent floods and severe droughts.

As we celebrate Earth Day, we should take a moment and consider what our planet is trying to tell us: Extreme weather events and natural disasters are becoming the norm. But less discussed is the impact of climate change on certain communities, particularly women and people of color. The intersection of climate change, women’s health and safety, and current federal and state restrictions on reproductive rights is a perfect storm that will put the lives and well-being of women, disproportionately women of color, at risk.

We are starting to better understand how climate change and extreme weather events both in the United States and around the world uniquely impact women and girls. During and after a natural disaster, women often have trouble accessing medical care, face increased threats of sexual violence, have slower economic recovery compared to men, and generally experience poorer reproductive and maternal health outcomes.

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One need only to visit Texas or Puerto Rico to see how climate change has affected women’s health. Following Hurricane Harvey in 2017, many of Houston’s abortion clinics were forced to close, leaving hundreds of women without access to abortion care. While providers stepped in to offer no-cost abortion care, the state’s aggressive legal restrictions of the service, compounded by financial and logistical barriers posed by the storm, meant many people most likely went without abortion care and other vital health services.

And in Puerto Rico, which was hit by devastating hurricanes in 2017, there was a surge in gender-based violence last year, with at least 23 women reportedly being murdered by an intimate partner in 2018. What is frightening is that this is almost certainly a vast underestimate of the real toll of sexual violence following the storm, given poor systems for data collection and low rates of reporting.

The impact of climate change will not be felt equally across the United States. According to many studies, states in the South, including Florida, Mississippi, Georgia, and Texas, will feel the effects of climate change most acutely—an irony amplified by the fact that the most vociferous climate deniers in Congress hail from these states. But these states also have large communities of color and a greater proportion of low-income households than the rest of the country, and it is clear that people of colorlow-income people, and people with disabilities fare worse during and following natural disasters and extreme weather events.

At the same time, these same states have enacted a multitude of restrictive abortion bills that make access to comprehensive health care virtually unattainable. Since 2010, states that traditionally vote Republican have enacted or introduced well over 400 extreme and ideological abortion restrictions, ranging from bans at early points in a pregnancy to mandatory waiting periods. As a result, many abortion clinics have been forced to close their doors and, 90 percent of counties in the country do not have an abortion clinic, according to 2014 data from the Guttmacher Institute. When the effects of climate change compound these harmful restrictions, even more people will be forced to either go without care or resort to measures that can lead to morbidity or even mortality.

As we contend with a new climate landscape, it is vital that federal, state, and local governments develop comprehensive resiliency and adaptation plans that safeguard reproductive health care. This could mean investing in telemedicine to overcome transportation and other logistical barriers in post-disaster settings; creating emergency funds dedicated to women’s relocation given the increased risk to women’s safety directly following disasters; increasing funding to improve data collection, including disaggregation by gender and race; and even developing emergency response toolkits to help authorities respond in a way that is inclusive of reproductive health needs.

It is also paramount that state legislators work to strengthen reproductive health networks in their states by undoing harmful restrictions on abortion access and increasing funding to important reproductive health programs. Likewise, federal and state policymakers must continue to build off of legislative proposals, like the Women and Climate Change Act, while strengthening state coalitions such as the U.S. Climate Alliance, which now boasts 23 governors leading the way toward a safer, healthier America.

Women of color, in particular, must be part of developing a comprehensive plan to tackle climate change. From Black women who mobilized in Flint, Michigan, to ensure their families received clean water free from lead poisoning, to Native women who fought against the Dakota Access pipeline, women of color have led the way in responding to climate and environmental threats. They must be key stakeholders as federal and state policymakers think about resiliency and adaptation solutions.

Now is the time to act. Climate change is real and is a threat to human health and well-being. We must be bold, innovative, and decisive as we take on one of the greatest challenges we have ever seen. And as we are doing that, women’s health should be a central component of that effort.

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