Focus on research: Does climate change affect genders differently?

By Nancy Tuana

There is increasing agreement that human activities are resulting in significant changes in the global climate. The NASA website on climate change provides a snapshot of these changes.

Global temperatures have gone up an average of 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880. The 10 warmest years on record have all occurred since 1998, with last year, 2015, ranked as the warmest on record. These temperatures have contributed to rising sea levels due both to increasing ocean temperatures and the accelerated melting of glaciers and ice sheets. These changes are fueling altered weather patterns such as precipitation changes resulting in droughts in some regions and flooding in others, as well as increasing the intensity of extreme weather events such as hurricanes.

If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise unchecked, the effects could result in serious disruptions to agriculture, flooding of the world’s coastal cities, changes in species migrations, and even extinction of some plants and animals. 

Climate change and ethics

The ethical dimensions of climate change have received attention in the past decade as scholars and policymakers have come to understand that the countries most exposed and vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change — raising issues of distributive justice — are often those least developed and thus also least responsible for the emissions of greenhouse gases that are the cause of climate change.

As documented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, climatic changes from slow onset changes in temperatures or precipitation patterns to extreme events have a higher likelihood of negatively affecting both poor communities and the livelihoods of families living in poverty.

Furthermore, while we are already experiencing some effects of climate change, the problems will very likely increase for future generations thus raising issues of intergenerational justice.

Some also point to the negative effects on species and ecosystems, thus raising questions of ecological justice.

Climate change and gender

There is far less understanding of the relationships between gender and climate change or an appreciation of the related ethical issues resulting from differences in social roles or positions between men and women.

For example, due to gender roles women are more responsible for tasks that may become increasingly difficult due to climatic changes. In rural Saharan Africa, women are largely responsible for collecting and carrying the family’s water. Precipitation changes can greatly affect their life, particularly if droughts make water harder to locate.

Social structures can also put women at higher risks of harm from climate change. For instance, women are often the last to leave a town during a tsunami or cyclone because of their greater responsibility for caring for children and the elderly.

However, it would be a mistake to think that only women are vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Studies of farmers in Canada and Australia have shown that both men and women are affected by climate extremes, but often in different ways, due to gender roles and gendered expectations.

When a family farm is negatively affected by floods or droughts, men often bear a heavier psychological burden, potentially exasperated by ideals of masculinity that discourage men from talking about their emotions. In India, crop losses due to weather changes often result in an increase in men’s migration away from the farm to obtain wage labor, while women often consume less food as a response to food shortages.

But it is also important to recognize that effects can be positive as well as negative. Men’s migration to other locations to locate wage labor can result in women facing unsafe working conditions, exploitation and loss of respect. But it can also provide opportunities for women to move beyond traditionally constrained roles, explore new livelihood options, and access public decision-making space.

Hence, in order for policymakers to design ethically responsible responses to climate change, they must appreciate the ways in which women and men are differentially affected.

However, to best understand how men and women are affected by climate change, as well as to see the various ways in which they can productively respond to climate change, it is important to bring an “intersectional lens” to climate change effects. That means being attentive to gender when and how it matters, as well as being attentive to other dimensions such as class, age, ethnicity, disability and race when and how they matter.

Climate change effects present profound ethical challenges as individuals, groups and governments attempt to determine how best to respond. The complexities of the challenge require that ethical analyses be wedded to scientific understanding and technological responses.

This is one of the signatures of the National Science Foundation funded Sustainable Climate Risk Management network. It is also one of the reasons for the Rock Ethics Institute’s commitment to promoting ethical literacy and catalyzing ethical leadership throughout the Penn State community. This fostering of interdisciplinary ethics research is designed to address significant social issues and pressing world problems.

Ethical literacy is essential to all aspects of our lives and a key element of a just response to climate change.

Nancy Tuana is the founding director of Penn State’s Rock Ethics Institute. She is part of an interdisciplinary research team at Penn State that has developed a more robust model of research ethics to more adequately reflect the impacts of ethical issues in scientific practice.

Members of the news media interested in talking to Tuana should contact Rob Peeler at 814-863-5911 or

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in The Centre Daily Times as an installment of the paper’s Focus on Research column. Focus on Research highlights research projects and topics being explored across all disciplines at Penn State. Each column features the work of a different researcher.


Distributive justice* concerns the fair, just or equitable distribution of benefits and burdens, responsibilities and entitlements between groups of people or between nations.

Intergenerational justice* concerns the fair, just or equitable distribution of benefits and burdens, responsibilities and entitlements between generations.

*Both of these conceptions of justice focus on the rights people have and what they owe to those whom they have harmed or could harm.

Ecological justice concerns the protection of the natural world or doing justice to species and to ecosystems.

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