You Do Uterus: On Earth Day, recall environmental justice is a women’s rights issue

Kylie Cheung | Daily Trojan

This year, Earth Day falls on Sunday, and it comes amid mounting scandals in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, new studies linking polluted air to increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease and substantial evidence of a correlation between lead-infested water in Flint, Mich., and higher rates of miscarriage and poor prenatal and maternal health. Earth Day seems to grow more important by the year, and all the more so now that the president of a major global power has, at worst, denied the existence of climate change and, at best, questioned its existentially threatening nature.

The simple reality is that climate change and environmental protection are issues that affect all of us and future generations, but it’s also clear that this issue disproportionately and negatively affects various marginalized groups. In particular, the predominantly black community in Flint and the low-income, minority communities in areas like South L.A., where young people face increased risk of asthma and other health detriments due to pollution.

But in recent years — as demonstrated by the experiences of pregnant women and mothers in Flint — it’s become increasingly evident how climate change is also a global women’s rights issue. Our carbon footprints and other effects our lifestyles have on the climate impact not only the United States, but also developing countries around the world. Women comprise the majority of agricultural workers; growing numbers of women climate migrants and refugees face increased risk of sexual assault; and indigenous women lead fights in their communities to preserve sacred land from government-led oil ravaging.

Anywhere, air pollution can have detrimental effects on pregnancy ranging from preterm births to increased risk of fetal impairment, as well as reduced fertility and elevated blood pressure and decreased function of the liver and kidneys if a woman is pregnant. The connection between reproductive health and climate change exists beyond women’s health and fertility. Earth surpassed its carbon tipping point two years ago, permanently pushing atmospheric carbon levels higher than 400 parts per million. And with climate scientists in agreement that climate change stems from human action, many postulate that lack of population control and inadequate access to family planning resources in many parts of the world certainly aren’t helping.

In this sense, the election of President Donald Trump and his subsequent decisions to withdraw the United States from the historic Paris Climate Accords and gut the EPA aren’t the only ways he’s helped worsen an already bleak climate situation. The president’s executive order to defund global organizations providing information about contraception and abortion could also have an unsaid impact on countries in the developing world.

In addition to the inextricable link between environmental and reproductive justice, in Asia and Africa, the United Nations reports women are responsible for the vast majority of agricultural work and food production. In Sub-Saharan Africa, women are responsible for 60 to 80 percent of all food that is grown, and in Asia, for 50 to 90 percent of rice cultivation. Climate change has resulted in many women losing land ownership to companies experimenting with sustainable development, or being forced to shift their planting seasons or grow new, warm-weather food due to global warming. The United Nations has also reported that 63 percent of rural households in developing countries rely on women as water gatherers — an increasingly difficult task in an increasingly drought-ravaged world.

Over the course of 2015, Feministing reported on indigenous communities in Ecuador suffering displacement and loss of sacred land to the government’s oil pursuits, and the women protesters leading the way in the website’s Bearing Witness project on climate justice. The project similarly found that in Honduras, women have also taken the lead in the absence of their husbands who have migrated to the United States for work, as women lead communities wrecked by rising sea levels and the increasingly frequent and damaging natural disasters resulting from this.

At its core, environmental protection is more than the protection of the environment — it’s the protection of the people and groups that are the most vulnerable to polluted air, clean water shortages and natural disasters in their communities. It’s an issue that is deeply, almost inextricably connected to identity and social status. After all, it’s hardly a coincidence that Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe — the man notorious for holding up a snowball on the Senate floor as “proof” climate change is a hoax — is a wealthy white man. No individual who is actually, actively living through the hazards created or worsened by climate change can deny that it’s a reality.

Like nearly every politicized issue you could possibly name, environmental justice intersects with myriad identity-based issues: racial justice, economic justice and, yes, even women’s rights and reproductive justice. Every Earth Day should be a time to recognize this.

Kylie Cheung is a sophomore majoring in journalism and political science. She is also the associate managing editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column,“You Do Uterus,” runs Thursdays.