Climate Change, Environment, Family Planning

Climate Change, Population Growth and Reproductive Health: It’s About More Than Reducing Emissions

by Kathleen Mogelgaard and Karen Hardee

This is a big week in the march towards the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December, where world leaders are expected to hammer out a new global treaty to address the problem. Today, President Obama and other heads of state will meet in New York with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to discuss climate change; the subject is also likely to be high on the agenda at the G20 meetings in Pittsburgh later this week.

Much of the focus this week and leading up to the meeting in Copenhagen in December is on reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change: who should have to cut, by how much, and in what time frame. We hear a lot about cap and trade, clean energy, promoting energy efficiency, and other technological solutions. For years, reducing emissions has been the focus of efforts to address climate change. But we know now that reducing emissions is not enough: millions of lives are being upended by the effects of changes in climate – food scarcity, water scarcity, vulnerability to natural disasters and infectious diseases, and population displacement.  Women and children are the most vulnerable groups to climate change. 

So how does reproductive health fit into this picture? A new study by the UK-based Optimum Population Trust and the London School of Economics shows the connection between contraceptives and climate change. The study concludes that universal access to reproductive health could be one of the most cost effective ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. A Population Action International report from May detailed how population dynamics, not just overall growth, contribute to climate change.

This helps to broaden our thinking around the diversity of strategies that will be needed for meaningful and lasting solutions to climate change. Investing in contraceptives and reproductive health is about more than reducing emissions; it is also a critical piece of reducing vulnerability and building resilience to the impacts of climate change.

This is true from a demographic perspective, as well as at the individual and household level. Rapid population growth can exacerbate existing vulnerability to the impacts of climate change–for example, population growth rates in highly vulnerable low elevation coastal zones in Bangladesh and China are nearly twice as high as national averages; and in Ethiopia, the combination of rapid population growth and climate-induced declines in agricultural production will heighten food insecurity. At the household level, a woman with access to reproductive health services is healthier and has healthier children; she has greater opportunities to diversify income sources; and she is more likely to be able safeguard herself and her family in the event of disaster. All of these things contribute to resilience in the face of the impacts of climate change.

Slowly but surely, the larger reproductive health and rights community is paying attention to these important linkages in the lead up to Copenhagen. In preparation for this week’s climate meeting at the UN, PAI’s Dr. Karen Hardee participated in an event hosted by UNFPA to highlight this critical but often overlooked aspect of climate change. Karen spoke of the link between meeting needs for reproductive health and fostering resilience in countries hard hit by the effects of climate change. She highlighted PAI’s recent working paper, which examines national climate change adaptation plans for 41 least developed countries. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of these plans identify rapid population growth as a factor that exacerbates vulnerability in their countries; unfortunately, only two propose adaptation projects that include aspects of reproductive health.

Karen elaborated on these points in an interview with IPS in Pakistan. In a world where 200 million women have an “unmet need” for family planning, increasing access to contraceptive services can and should be one of the tools for addressing the impacts of climate change.

As heads of state gather in NY and Pittsburgh this week to discuss our climate future, they should broaden their view beyond the technological fixes that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and remember the human face of climate change–a face that is frequently female, and in need of fundamental support that will enable her to take care of herself, her family, and our world.

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