When the much-ballyhooed Green New Deal came before the Senate — shortly before its anticlimactic demise — Democratic Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono waxed poetic about climate change as an agent of women’s oppression.
“While the negative impacts of climate change often impact women the most, they too often don’t have a seat at the table when it comes to developing policy,” she said. “We need to empower women to tackle climate change. They need seats at the table.”
We should certainly welcome and encourage more women to the public policy sphere, but the senator is wrong about the cause of the unequal suffering she describes.
The key to liberating women from oppression isn’t quixotic combat against a climate that has always changed and will always change. The real key is access to reliable, affordable, and abundant energy.
Without electricity, daily tasks necessary for living such as cooking, gathering water, and caring for children require tedious, hard labor — labor that falls almost exclusively to wives, mothers, and daughters.
Access to electricity is the most powerful catalyst for prosperity known to womankind. The overwhelmingly positive influence of energy to the human condition has been proven time and time again by radical advancements in life expectancy, child mortality, maternal mortality, public health, nutrition, economic growth, poverty, income, environmental quality, and nearly every other metric of human flourishing.
According to UNICEF, women and girls around the world spend 200 million hours a day walking to collect water. This is time-consuming and physically taxing work, requiring women to walk more than three miles on average carrying immensely heavy loads while also putting themselves at risk for physical and sexual assault. If a woman was able to fetch the World Health Organization’s recommended supply of daily water for drinking, cooking, and washing, she’d carry 44 pounds of water every day — per family member.
That burden could be lifted with access to electricity to pump the water where it is needed.
And without electricity, that life-sustaining water is a source of danger itself. More than 500,000 people die every year from preventable diseases caused by contaminated water like diarrhea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid, and polio. These needless deaths, nearly unheard of in the developed world, could be prevented with clean water made possible by access to electricity.
To make matters worse, three billion people worldwide lack access to safe cooking and heating fuels and are instead forced to burn wood, animal dung, kerosene, or coal. Girls in these households spend more than an hour every day collecting fuel, only to put themselves in more danger when they return home. Sadly, 3.8 million people die prematurely every year as a result of toxic pollutants released when these fuels are burned in closed quarters. Naturally, most are women and girls.
We are privileged that electricity is an everyday commodity in the United States, and one we often don’t think twice about as long as the lights turn on when we flick the switch. But electricity could offer so much more than light to women in impoverished countries. It offers the unprecedented opportunity to escape not just physical and financial poverty, but also the poverty of time that too often prevents women from improving their lives.
A study in Guatemala found that electrification reduced the amount of time women spent cooking by 34 percent, allowing them to invest more time in education, pursuing meaningful work, and civic engagement — activities that are critical to women’s political and social equality. With better education and meaningful, life-giving work, women in any community have the opportunity to truly shape their futures and their daughters’ futures.
In 21st century America, vilifying the oil, natural gas, and coal industries is the politically easy and culturally sophisticated route — but not the correct route. These women can’t afford to wait for the advances in storage that will make wind and solar viable. Until battery technology achieves unprecedented improvement, renewable energy will remain too unreliable and expensive to make real change in the developing world.
If every community around the globe had the same affordable, reliable, and abundant energy as we enjoy in the United States, the untapped potential of millions of women in developing nations would be unleashed. Women would be liberated from the time-consuming drudgery of maintaining a third-world household. No longer oppressed by energy poverty, women would have the time and ability to become active participants in leading their communities.
Energy offers more than light and warmth to women in need. It offers freedom.