Women and Global Catastrophic Risks: Nuclear, Climate Change and Pandemic


Part 1

By the year 2100 we humans face a 19 percent chance we’ll have wiped ourselves off the face of the planet. 

That was the opinion reached in 2008 by a University of Oxford conference organized by its Future of Humanity Institute. The conclusion of the conference couldn’t have been clearer.

The risks to our existence were from nuclear weapons, climate change and a pandemic. 

Whatever the odds today in the time of a pandemic, also part of the equation, the key existential risks factored into the claim were nuclear weapons and climate disruption.

Subsequently, the late Stephen Hawking, speaking of the threats humanity is facing, said that “nuclear war remains the greatest danger to the survival of the human race.” And he warned that human aggression could lead to irrational actions, sparking a nuclear war.

The Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 has shown us how ill-prepared we are in the face of one of the existential threats identified at that Oxford conference. And public policy barely addresses the other two risks.

Nor are solutions straightforward

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. For example, while it’s valid to consider the peaceful use of nuclear power as a means to help lower our planet’s temperature – it produces electricity without emitting any carbon – fission of nuclear material can also be turned to use for weapons.

So the idea of powering the planet with nuclear energy also makes it easier for countries to obtain plutonium or enrich uranium to manufacture nuclear weapons.

As well, we cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that the risk of nuclear war is heightened by climate change because it contributes to competition over dwindling resources. 

Climate change is accelerating earth’s water shortage crisis, , a resource, by the way, that is vital to the operation of a nuclear power reactor, which requires millions of liters per day to cool it. 

But let’s turn to a group whose vulnerability is even more acute in the face of the trio of existential risks stalking humanity – women.

We cannot overlook that findings show women are more vulnerable to climate change – and some studies suggest, exposure to ionising radiation.

Women comprise about half the human population while only a quarter of the world’s leaders are women. Thus, it’s sometimes challenging for their voice to be delivered. It is also notable that the majority of the world’s poor are women– and in the face of the Covid-19 menace they comprise the majority of frontline healthcare workers globally, according to WEF.

In this respect it is vital  to shed light on women’s untapped resources. Not only the scientific contribution they are making to solving global catastrophic risks they’re the most vulnerable to, but the incredible leadership they’ve demonstrated in the corona pandemic.

Women Are More Vulnerable to These Risks

Climate change is slowly emerging on top of the current global agenda addressing risks to our future and organizations and individuals alike are beginning to act at all levels to mitigate it.

A pivotal role in helping us understand the issue of climate change and finding solutions to deal with it are scientists. Some of them work, for instance, with the CTBTO and provide valuable data on climate change, utilizing the advanced global monitoring system technologies.

Climate change is impacting everyone, but the findings show that this is not on an equal basis. For instance, gender-wise, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) reports that 80 percent of people displaced by climate change are women, and finds that women are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, given their different roles and responsibilities within the family. 

Although cultural norms may vary from one place to another, women often handle daily chores that are directly affected by climate change. For instance, in Africa, women now have to walk longer distances to get water from Lake Chad because up to 90 percent of the lake has disappeared.

Similar to climate change, some studies suggest that gender is a factor in radiation harm. Ionising  radiation poses  a higher risk for females. Two of the vulnerabilities claimed are spontaneous abortion/stillbirth and gender-specific cancers such as female breast cancer.

According to a paper published by UNIDIR in 2014, a life span study of survivors of the 1945 nuclear weapon attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan found that the risk of developing and dying from solid cancer due to ionizing radiation exposure was nearly twice as high for women as for men.

This is the first part of Shereen Nanish’s article. Read the second part here.