Climate Change

Should We Be Talking About Population and Climate Change?

Karen Hardee is PAI’s Vice President of Research.

Discussions of global climate
change and environmental degradation are putting “population” back
in the spotlight. Population stabilization has been noted by respected
climate researchers, such as Brian O’Neill and PAI’s Leiwen Jiang, as a potential strategy in the race to keep
carbon in check (although more research is needed to determine how much
it might contribute). Clearly, consumption and emissions in the West
are the major contributors to global warming, but how important is population
to climate change in the short and long term? Does it make any difference
to the atmosphere if the world’s population is six, nine or 12 billion

Work by Brian, Leiwen and other
colleagues shows that the relationship between population and climate
change is complex and that age structure, household composition and
urbanization are important demographic factors, in addition to population
size. Within this complexity, members of our field (broadly defined
as those working on family planning, reproductive health and sexual
and reproductive health and rights) are discussing the pros and cons
of engaging in the discussion on population and climate change.

In her work on developing a
justice framework for addressing population and environment issues,
Laurie Mazur, who is currently editing a book titled Population, Justice
and the Environmental Challenge
, has noted that some colleagues,
“even those concerned about the carrying capacity of the planet -
want to silence the talk about population and the environment, for fear
of what it might unleash.” She called the space between the
reproductive health and rights and environmental movements “something
of a demilitarized zone.”

Some argue that linking population
with climate change should not include discussion of family planning
as part of the solution, for fear of reversing gains made at the 1994 International Conference
on Population and Development in Cairo

towards programming based on a rights framework rather than on a
demographic rationale. This group worries about tendencies towards
coercion in setting population targets. In an online discussion of
population and climate change conducted by the webBulletin of the
Atomic Scientists
, Betsy Hartmann, director
of Hampshire College’s Population and Development Program, argued that “when population control is the objective,
the quality of [family planning] service suffers and coercive methods
often override freedom of choice.” But Suzanne Petroni, Program Officer
at the Summit Foundation, who also cautions about making the population-climate
change connection, notes that “we
must engage the discussion, if only to prevent a return to the days of
coerced sterilizations, forced abortions and two-child per family mandates.”

And others say
that acknowledging the link between population and climate, and the
role family planning can play, won’t automatically lead to coercive policies.
In the Atomic Scientists discussion, John
Guillebaud, emeritus professor at University College, London, and Martin
Desvaux, trustee of the Optimum Population Trust in Britain, wrote that
this argument “perpetuates some infamous myths about people
who have a qualitative concern about human population… [including]
that being concerned about population leads intrinsically to coercion.”

This latter group argues that
voluntary family planning is critical to meeting the needs of millions
of women (PDF) who express the desire to space or
limit pregnancy and yet are not using contraception. Meeting this need
for contraception at the individual level, by providing universal access
to family planning and reproductive health (a goal set in Cairo), will
ultimately have a positive effect on population stabilization. Fred
Meyerson, assistant professor at the University of Rhode Island, in
the same online discussion, emphatically states that “stopping emissions
growth and climate change will be unattainable without universal
effective [family planning] programs and population stabilization…” but adds that “There is agreement..about
the need to provide FP/RH…and related education to everyone on
the planet in a non-coercive way.”

As someone who has been involved
in population, family planning, reproductive health and sexual reproductive
health and rights work for over two decades, I am in the “let’s
talk about it” camp. We are the ones who know the history of
our field and understand that Cairo reaffirmed the need for voluntary,
rights-based sexual and reproductive health services, including, but
not limited to, family planning.

We should also remember that
the Cairo Programme of Action was generated at the Conference on
Population and Development

and that we have win-win language from the Programme of Action:

“…recognizing that
the ultimate goal is the improvement of the quality of life of present
and future generations, the objective is to facilitate the demographic
as soon as possible in countries where there is an imbalance
between demographic rates and social, economic and environmental goals,
while respecting human rights.” (Emphasis mine.)

This is language that nearly
180 countries signed on to in Cairo in 1994.

If we don’t stay in the discussion
on population and climate change and insist on family planning and reproductive
health programs that respect individual rights, what solutions might
emerge from people who are unaware about what can happen when population
policies and programs are driven purely by demographic targets?

Originally published at RH Reality Check.

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