Population Matters

Don’t “Runaway” from Climate Change Action

September 25th, 2009

According to today’s Washington Post, a new scientific study conducted for the United Nations Environment Program predicts that even if developed and developing nations do everything they have pledged to do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, global temperatures will still rise by 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century.

If that analysis is correct, it is truly alarming, for it would lead to rising sea levels and other climatic changes that are far worse than what has been anticipated to date.

For the past few decades scientists have expressed concern about potential “runaway” climate change.  To date, most of the increase in global temperatures has been linked to escalating human activity, most notably fossil-fuel consumption and destruction of tropical forests and other ‘carbon sinks’.   But there are natural feedback mechanisms, such as the melting of the permafrost, which could–at some point–create sharp, non-linear changes in the level of greenhouse gas emissions, creating a “runaway” effect on global temperatures.

British scientists this week release a study in Nature suggesting that we already may be seeing a ‘runaway’ melting of the glaciers around the perimeter of Greenland and in western Antarctica.  Based upon measurements taken by NASA’s gravity-mapping satellite, known as GRACE, it appears that the glaciers are experiencing “seaward motion” in addition to the melting caused by rising temperatures.  As a consequence, Greenland is now experiencing a net loss of “about a Lake Erie’s worth of ice” every six months.

The danger in these ‘doomsday’ reports is that popular willingness to take action will flag, and governments will simply give up.  But the presence of “runaway” effects does not make action less urgent, it only makes matters more so.  The UNEP report indicates that if no action is taken to limit greenhouse gas emissions, temperatures will rise even further…8.1 degrees Fahrenheit by the close of the century.  The less we do, the greater the risk of “runaway” effects.

With respect to population, these forecasts only heighten the need to expand family planning in developed and developing nations alike.  Expanded family planning, particularly in developed nations like the U.S., may be one of the least expensive means available for limiting long-term greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, educating women and expanding family planning options may be one of the least expensive–and compassionate–means of adapting to, or coping with, the now inevitable effects of climate change in areas like sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Runaway climate change doesn’t mean we should run away from the problem.  Now, more then ever, action is needed on all fronts.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

Norman Borlaug, the Green Revolution, and Population

September 15th, 2009

This weekend Nobel Peace Prize winner and father of the Green Revolution, Norman Borlaug, passed away. Unfortunately, most people in the United States do not recognize his name or realize the enormous contribution Dr. Borlaug made to the world; he may have saved more lives than any other person in the world with the agricultural revolution he began.

Dr. Borlaug understood Malthusian principals. Malthus saw that food production for most of human history has increased linearly while human population grew exponentially, and if those trends continue you would see a human population no longer able to feed itself. In the face of famine around the world Dr. Borlaug conducted agricultural research to try to increase crop yield. The results were remarkable; the first strain of wheat he worked on produced 10 times as much grain as the original wheat.

This discovery and those that followed, averted global famine and saved millions of lives. But Dr. Borlaug understood that this wasn’t enough to prevent future troubles and explained the problem best in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1970:

It is true that the tide of the battle against hunger has changed for the better during the past three years. But tides have a way of flowing and then ebbing again. We may be at high tide now, but ebb tide could set in if we become complacent and relax our efforts. For we are dealing with two opposing forces, the scientific power of food production and the biologic power of human reproduction.

…There can be no permanent progress in the battle against hunger until the agencies that fight for increased food production and those that fight for population control unite in a common effort. Fighting alone, they may win temporary skirmishes, but united they can win a decisive victory to provide food and other amenities of a progressive civilization for the benefit of all mankind.

We are now approaching what he would describe as an ebb in the tide against global hunger. Dwindling global grain reserves, rising energy prices, increasing water scarcity, climate change, and ever growing population are creating the threat of another global famine, but there is no new Green Revolution in sight.  Yes, we can increase yields in Africa (via a green revolution) and rely more heavily on genetically engineered crops, but demand for food grains is expected to increase by 50% over the next two decades.  Meeting that demand will require another breakthrough equivalent to the Green Revolution, but with little prospect at the moment of such a breakthrough materializing.  Without a new Green Revolution in sight, providing universal access to international family planning is still critically needed.

Kristina Stefanova, USAID

Kristina Stefanova, USAID

Posted by Jennie Wetter, Program Manager

UNESCO’s Sex-ed Guidelines

September 10th, 2009

The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recently proposed “International Guidelines on Sexuality Education.” These guidelines provide educators with information on how to teach children about reproductive and sexual matters including HIV/AIDS transmission and unintended pregnancy.

The reason for these guidelines lies in the astonishing HIV/AIDS figures from UNAIDS and the WHO, which states that more than five million young people are living with HIV worldwide and 45 percent of all new infections occur among those aged 15 to 24 years old.  International Planned Parenthood Federation shows that 111 million new cases of curable sexually transmitted infections occur among young people aged 10 to 24 and 4.4 million girls aged 15 to 19 seek abortions, most of which are unsafe.

Predictably, the UNESCO guidelines have stirred a strong reaction from social conservatives, who argue that the guidelines are exposing kids to sex far too early, by drawing attention to masturbation and abortion.  But according to Time, masturbation is only mentioned 5 times in the 102 page document, “twice to explain to 5 to 8 year olds what the term means” noting that “it is not harmful, but should be done in private.”  The other three times it is mentioned is to 9 to 15 year olds explaining that “it does not cause physical or emotional harm and is often a person’s first experience of sexual pleasure.”  This is hardly teaching 5 year olds how to perform such a task.

UNESCO recommends that students are provided with sex education starting at five years old, with more detailed information as they get older.  Acording to UNESCO, sex education at an early age helps delay sexual activity and reduces the amount of sexual partners and unprotected sex.  The guidelines also provide a section entirely devoted to justifying why they have been written, drawing on information from 87 different studies from around the world reviewing curricula from 12 countries.

It is clear that UNESCO understands the importance of education.  With no AIDS vaccine, UNESCO recognizes that education is the only way to prevent the  spread of the deadly virus.  Fortunately, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has responded by reaffirming its support for comprehensive sexuality education. UNFPA’s Executive Director, Thoraya Ahmed Obaid spoke out this week, saying that, “We are mandated by the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) to provide support to governments to protect and promote the rights of adolescents to reproductive health education, information and care.”

Posted by: Emily Pontarelli, Program Associate

Berlin’s Call to Action

September 8th, 2009

Last week, September 2-4, in honor of the 15th Anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) there was a Global NGO Forum held in Berlin, Germany, on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Development. The forum was organized to reengage the NGO community working on sexual and reproductive health issues around the Program of Action from ICPD. It included leaders from NGOs from more than 130 countries with a focus on the Global South and youth.

In 1994 the ICPD created a global consensus around the issues of population growth and development. It shifted the focus to the individual and women in particular, showing that if you provided women with family planning, reproductive health services and focused on girls’ education population numbers would stabilize on their own. Therefore the ICPD pushed for women’s empowerment and put reproductive health in the center of its agenda.

While countries initially put a lot of money behind the Program of Action, over the years support has fallen and it is time for countries to recommit. The Berlin forum worked to release its Call to Action where it stressed that five actions needed to be immediately taken so that the ICPD is able to achieve its goals when it runs out in five years.

1) Guarantee that sexual and reproductive rights, as human rights, are fully recognized and fulfilled.

2) Invest in comprehensive sexual and reproductive health (SRH) information, supplies and services as a priority in health system strengthening.

3) Ensure the sexual and reproductive rights of adolescents and young people.

4) Create and implement formal mechanism for meaningful civil society participation in programs, policy and budget decisions, monitoring and evaluation.

5) Ensure that national governments and donors allocate sufficient resources and budgets that meet the needs of all people’s sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Hopefully the Berlin NGO Forum will encourage countries around to the world to strengthen their commitments to the ICPD Program of Action when they have their ICPD +15 meetings later this year and more importantly when they are working on their international aid budgets. It is imperative that the international community follows up it rhetoric around the anniversary of the ICPD with real support for its Program of Action.

Posted by Jennie Wetter, Program Manager

What if we were all Duggars?

September 1st, 2009

Today Michelle Duggar, the co-star of the cable TV program 18 Kids and Counting, announced that she is pregnant with her nineteenth child. To Michelle Duggar this pregnancy is a blessing, but only because she lives in a country with one of the best health care systems in the world.  It’s a much different story in the developing world.

In June, UNFPA featured a story about a woman named Ayupo, living in Uganda, who died in childbirth giving birth to her fifth child. The nearest obstetrician or doctor was 20 miles away, so Ayupo used a traditional birth attendant, but when complications arose she was unable to reach a hospital in time.  With the death of Ayupo, her newborn’s life was at risk because she has no mother to feed her and unsafe water to drink.  Ayupo’s four other children would also suffer because in Africa, it is the mother who feeds, protects, and gets her children educated.

This case is not unusual, in sub-Saharan Africa, a woman’s lifetime risk of dying due to pregnancy and childbirth is 1 in 22.  In the United States, where Michelle Duggar lives, this risk is only 1 in 4,800. Women in developing countries have large families because they have no other choices available to them; they lack the education, healthcare, and the social status to say no to their husbands and use contraceptives.

If you are curious as to what this 19th member of the Duggar family could mean to U.S. population, the Huffington Post gives some statistics on what would happen in 100-200 years if the Duggars and their descendants all had childen at this rate for five generations:

  • One in every hundred people in America would be a Duggar
  • There would almost be enough Duggars to have one in every square mile of America.
  • If all the Duggars earned $30,000 annually, they would collect $96 billion a year before taxes, enough to bailout AIG and have enough left to buy Marvel Comics three times over.
  • There would be more Duggars than Muslims in America.
  • There would be more Duggars than residents of America’s 21 least populous states.

What’s important to remember about these numbers is that a child born in the United States has a much larger carbon and ecological footprint than a child born in Uganda.  Americans on average consume resources–including fossil fuels–at a rate more than five times faster than the rest of the world.  That’s something that the Duggars might want to consider before 19 Kids and Counting becomes 20 Kids and Counting.

Posted By Emily Pontarelli, Program Associate