RH Reality Check: Taking On Population and Climate Change

World Population DayNote: This post examines Population and Climate Change in honor of World Population Day, Friday, July 11. This post, written by Carolyn Vogel of Population Action International (PAI), originally appeared at RH Reality Check, a daily publication dedicated to news, analysis and commentary on the issues surrounding reproductive health and justice.

Examining linkages between population and climate change through many different frames leads to important research and policy questions — and it also allows the reproductive health community to discuss these linkages in a productive and positive way. If we leave the debate unframed, and the research questions unanswered, we leave space for harmful discourse and inaccurate facts to take center stage. The following series of blog posts, written by staff at Population Action International, will look at population and climate change from different angles, and provide an initial review of some of the broad frames.

Dr. Karen Hardee raises many of the difficult ethical issues that arise when population and climate change are linked. She examines these linkages from a women’s rights and empowerment frame. She encourages people, both those comfortable and uncomfortable with the linkage between population and climate change, to discuss the issue in order to come up with the best solutions and avoid mistakes of the past.

Dr. Leiwen Jiang approaches the issue from a demographic perspective, highlighting our need to understand the extent to which increasing population size, age structure and urbanization affects climate change. Research on demographic variables and their relationship to climate change show that population does indeed matter. Moreover, increases in population size, whether through migration or fertility, in regions vulnerable to the effects of climate change (such as coastal areas) mean more total people at risk.

There are many questions to explore. Does population growth in high carbon emitting countries such as the United States matter to climate change? How do the age structure, migration patterns and urbanization of a country affect energy consumption? Does demographic change, such as movement towards a mature age structure, increase a society’s resilience to climate change?

Malea Hoepf Young discusses the impact of climate change on women. From a gender perspective, women will suffer disproportionately from the effects of climate change. In their effort to adapt to severe weather, water scarcity, food insecurity and other consequences of changes in the climate, women and girls suffer increased workloads and as a result poor families often pull girls out of school. At home caring for young children and the elderly, women and girls are much more likely to die in severe weather events, unable or unaware of where to seek shelter.

While the demographic frame to the issue is still being explored through research and analysis, the gender frame is an area in which Population Action International has been able to apply what we know about women and development to the population and climate debate. For example, we know that women are powerful agents of change. While they are more vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change, they are also better positioned to help communities adapt to these changes.

There is very little research on what development activities will most contribute to increasing people’s resilience to the adverse impacts of climate change. However, we know that family planning is critical to the health and well-being of a family — including their economic stability. Therefore, family planning could also be an important contributor to resilience.

At the family level, the benefits of family planning on health and economic well-being are well documented. Is a woman who can time and space her childbearing better able, through better health and opportunity, to adapt to negative effects wrought by climate change? Smaller families tend to be healthier families, and women who use family planning have greater economic opportunities, increased control over all aspects of their lives and are thus likely to be more resilient to environmental, economic and human health challenges.

Will meeting women’s expressed need for good reproductive health care better enable them to participate in the stewardship of the environment and improved agricultural production?

Slowing population growth through voluntary family planning and reproductive health programs is an essential part of long-term efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as an important component of programs that aim to help vulnerable communities to adapt to climate change. It is also a cost-effective way to improve the health and well-being of individuals around the world. Couples deserve universal access to family planning and reproductive health, provided in a way that respects their rights to determine how many children they have and when. That will help people and countries and, hopefully, the planet.

1 thought on “RH Reality Check: Taking On Population and Climate Change”

  1. Mark Kiernan, Venice, Italy

    Overpopulation is the elephant in the room that people don’t dare touch, but it is time that we addressed it if we wish to save the earth and life upon it.

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