Population Matters

Living on a Finite Planet

December 27th, 2010

2010 was a great year for commodity investors.   Not so good for the consumers of those commodities.  Prices for a broad range of commodities—everything from corn to copper to cotton—jumped sharply.   Critics of the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy blamed “quantitative easing” for the run up in prices.  Others were quick to blame speculators. 

But as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize winning economist, wrote yesterday, “What the commodity markets are telling us is that we’re living in a finite world, in which the rapid growth of emerging economies is placing pressure on limited supplies of raw materials, pushing up their prices.”

Commodity prices are inherently volatile.  It’s easy to read too much into the daily, weekly or even monthly fluctuations.  Historically, a big surge in the price of wheat or copper would incentivize production, resulting in lower commodity prices.  As the old adage goes, “The best cure for high prices is high prices.”

But for some commodities that old adage may not apply any longer.   Big jumps in oil prices, for example, no longer generate big jumps in oil supply.   Indeed, as Krugman pointed out yesterday, conventional oil production has been essentially flat for four years, even though the price of oil is back to nearly $90 per barrel.  

Even more worrisome, however, is the trend in farm commodities.  Prices for wheat and corn this year jumped about 50 percent, while cotton prices have doubled in the past six months.  Soybeans are up about 40 percent this year. 

In times past, when the price of wheat has soared, farmers have planted more wheat, and cutback on corn, soybeans or other crops.  But when farm commodities are rising across the board, that kind of substitution doesn’t take place.   It’s yet another sign that we are living on a finite planet.

Krugman did not ring any alarm bells.  He was careful to say that the world was not descending into “a Mad-Max-style collapse.”  But if the recent surge in commodity prices is a reflection that we are living on a finite planet, what will commodity prices—and the world—look  like in 30 or 40 years when we could have close to 9 billion people on the planet?  What will happen to commodity prices in 2040 or 2050 if the world economy is several times larger than it is today, and the demand for cotton, corn, and copper all that much higher?  What will happen when the world’s demand for cotton and biofuels collides with the need to feed a hungry planet?  I guess we will find out what it’s like to live on a finite planet.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

Shame on the House

December 21st, 2010

The defeat last week of a bill aimed at combating the practice of child marriage was nothing less than shameful.  After the Senate passed the measure unanimously, House supporters of the bill assumed that House passage was a done deal.  The bill, however, failed to get the 2/3rds votes needed to pass it under an expedited House procedure.

What supporters of the bill failed to anticipate was a last-minute attack by the Republican leadership alleging that the bill would fund abortions.  It would do no such thing.  It would simply fund programs aimed at curbing the practice of child marriage in countries like Yemen, where young girls in rural areas are often married off at the age of 9 or 10.

For anyone concerned about the sanctity of life, let them reflect upon the maternal deaths, the obstetric fistulas, and miscarriages that result when young girls are impregnated before they are old enough to safely bear children.  That’s why child marriage is a recognized violation of human rights.  And, unfortunately, the practice is widespread.  An average of 25,000 girls a day become child brides, and unless something is done to change this trend within the next 10 years, over 100 million girls in the developing world will become child brides. 

Before this Congress adjourns on January 4, the House of Representatives should bring the child marriage bill (S. 987) to the House floor  under normal procedures that would allow its passage by a simple majority.  

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

Population and Climate Change: Looking Beyond Cancun

December 15th, 2010

Climate activists are still debating the significance of the Cancun agreement, but everyone agrees that we still have a long way to go if we are to avert and/or cope with the worse effects of climate change. If all goes well, world leaders will meet again next November in Durban, South Africa, and hammer out a binding and long-awaited international agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  

In the meantime, however, there is no time to lose; the planet continues to warm and the world edges ever closer to ecological disaster. We can’t wait around for world leaders to summon their collective courage.  We need to get busy on boosting energy conservation, expanding renewable energy production, and addressing the many challenges that will inevitably arise as the world heats up.

In doing so, we also need to take a fresh look at the connections between population, climate change, and the status of women. The WorldWatch Institute has just released a special report (Population, Climate Change, and Women’s Lives), written by Robert Engelman, which does just that.  It pulls together the latest scientific evidence, including the recent report by Brian O’Neill and his colleagues, to show how addressing population could help the world meet the challenge posed by climate change.  

O’Neill’s report, which appeared earlier this fall in PNAS, calculated that slowing population growth could provide 16-29 % of the emissions reductions needed to avoid the most dangerous effects of climate change.  The WorldWatch report emphasizes that slowing population growth would also boost the resilience of the developed countries as they struggle to cope with the inevitable effects of climate change. 

Citing the benefits of both climate change mitigation and adaptation, Engelman proposes a three-pronged strategy:

  • Eliminating institutional, social, and cultural barriers to women’s full legal, civic, and political equality with men;
  • Improving schooling for all children and youth, and especially increasing educational attainment among girls and women; and
  • Assuring that all women and their partners have access to, and full freedom to use, reproductive health and family planning services so that the highest proportion possible of births results from parents’ intentions to raise a child to adulthood.

There are, of course,  plenty of other compelling reasons for taking these steps; mitigating and adapting to climate change is just another reason for doing so.  But that shouldn’t stop us from discussing the relationship between population and climate change, no matter how politically sensitive it may be. As Engelman notes in his report, “Despite its key contribution to climate change, population plays little role in current discussions….”  It’s time to change that. Expanding voluntary family planning and elevating the status of women are not substitutes for reducing per capita greenhouse gas emissions.  Far from it.  But in the absence of a binding global agreement on climate change, they assume critical importance.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

Keeping Women’s Rights in Human Rights Day

December 10th, 2010

Today is Human Rights Day and it marks the end of the16 Days to End Violence against Women campaign. The campaign, which takes place every year between the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on November 25th, and Human Rights Day on December 10th, emphasizes that violence against women, in any of 16 forms, is a violation of human rights. But more than just a human rights issue, violence against women is an economic and social problem that has widespread implications.

Violence against women takes many forms, including domestic violence, female genital mutilation/ cutting, child marriage, human trafficking, ‘honor’ killings, and sexual violence.  The problem is so large that it might appear insoluble, but there are three bills before the U.S. Congress that would make a large contribution to ending violence against women.

The first is the Convention for the Elimination of All Form of Violence against Women (CEDAW). CEDAW is a 30 year old international human rights treaty that focuses exclusively on women’s rights and gender equality. The convention sets a global definition for discrimination against women and outlines a plan to end that discrimination. The United States is one of just seven nations in the U.N. who have refused to ratify CEDAW. The other six countries are Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Nauru, Palau, and Tonga.  If the United States wants to be a leader in human rights, particularly women’s rights, it is imperative that the U.S. ratify CEDAW.

The next bill now pending before Congress is the International Violence against Women Act (IVAWA). IVAWA would establish an Office for Global Women’s Issues in the State Department to coordinate efforts regarding gender integration and empowerment of women in U.S. foreign policy.  At USAID, it would establish an Office for Women’s Global Development to integrate gender in U.S. foreign assistance programs and policies, and direct the agency to develop a comprehensive five-year strategy for programs to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls in countries with severe levels of violence against women. The House bill (H.R. 4594) was introduced by Rep. Delahunt and currently has 133 cosponsors.  The Senate bill (S. 2982), introduced by Senator John Kerry, has 35 cosponsors.

The last bill is the International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act. Last week this bill was approved unanimously by the Senate. The bill, sponsored by Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME), would authorize the President to provide assistance to prevent the incidence of child marriage and promote the educational, health, economic, social, and legal empowerment of girls. The State Department is required to come up with a multi-year strategy to prevent child marriage and promote the empowerment of young girls who are at risk of child marriage. The House version of this bill (H.R. 2103) needs to be passed before Congress adjourns later this month. To help encourage the House to consider this bill CARE, the international relief organization, has organized a letter writing campaign.  To learn more and take action, visit their website. https://my.care.org/site/Advocacy?cmd=display&page=UserAction&id=465&s_src=redlinkadvo1208010am&s_subsrc=twadvo&utm_source=redlinkadvo1208010am&utm_medium=tw&utm_term=advo&utm_content=childmarriage&utm_campaign=sm_redcmadvo.

If action is taken on all three of these measures it would go a long way to helping end violence against women internationally. Women’s issues may not be high on the Congress’ ‘lame duck’ agenda, but they are critically important to the millions of women around the world who have to deal with FGM/C, child marriage, ‘honor’ killings, trafficking, or wife beating. Congress needs to act now.

Posted by Jennie Wetter, Program Manager

Food: the Population Connection

December 8th, 2010

With the world on the verge of yet another food crisis, it’s no secret that projected population growth poses an enormous challenge to the world’s ability to satisfy the world’s growing appetite for food.  All too often, however, studies assume that little or nothing can be done to affect population growth. Many experts accept, as a given, that world population, presently 6.9 billion, will rise–as projected by the U.N.’s medium variant–to between 9.1 and 9.2 billion by 2050.

A new report from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), however, makes clear that much depends on whether population by 2050 is on the low side (7.9 billion) or the high side (10.4 billion) of U.N. population projections. The report, Food Security, Farming, and Climate Change:  Scenarios, Results, and Policy Options, indicates that:

The challenge of reaching sustainable food security and delivering on it through 2050 is daunting. Our starting point, in 2010, is a world with unacceptable levels of poverty and deprivation, as is clear from the 2010 report on the Millennium Development Goals. Progress will be made more difficult by two looming challenges: a growing world population and increasingly negative productivity effects from climate change.

While food production kept pace with, and at times exceeded, population growth in the last century, satisfying the world’s demand for food is getting tougher and tougher. The report warns that higher food prices are here to stay:

Rising prices signal the existence of imbalances in supply and demand and growing resource scarcity, driven either by demand factors such as growing population and income, or by supply factors such as reduced productivity due to climate change. Unlike much of the 20th century, when real agricultural prices declined, our analysis suggests that real agricultural prices will likely increase between now and 2050, the result of growing incomes and population as well as the negative productivity effects of climate change.

 The report, however,  makes clear that future prices will vary significantly depending on how fast population grows:  

 …unlike in the 20th century when real agricultural prices declined (see Figure 2.1), the price scenarios in this report show substantial increases between 2010 and 2050. The price increases vary from 31.2 percent for rice in the optimistic scenario to 100.7 percent for maize in the pessimistic scenario (see Table 2.2). The pessimistic scenario has the highest price increases, as high population and low income growth rates combine to increase the demand for staple foods.

The IFPRI report, which was prepared for the climate change conference now under way in Cancun, is a warning signal. It helps to illuminate the challenges posed by population growth and climate change, but it’s not the last word.  Forecasting food production and food commodity prices is an inherently risky business.  Ten years ago, many experts were confident that we could, by 2015, reduce the number of chronically hungry people in the world by half, but last year the number of hungry people in the world crossed the one billion mark for the first time in history.  Four years ago, virtually no one was predicting that the prices of corn and wheat would double in the next two years, and that rice prices would triple, but they did. In June of this year, with ample food reserves, no one was anticipating that wheat and corn prices would jump by 50 percent or more in the next four months, but they did.  

While the IFPRI report did not recommend an increase in the level of international family planning assistance, it’s difficult not to draw that conclusion.  When it comes to food security, population growth is a not-to-be-forgotten variable. While we urgently need to devote more resources to boosting agricultural productivity and combating climate change, we also need to expand family planning services and information.  

The United Nations Population Fund estimates that it would cost just $3.6 billion a year more to provide family planning services to the estimated 215 million women in the world who want to avoid a pregnancy, but who are not using a modern method of birth control.  One of the many reasons for doing so, as highlighted by the IFPRI report, is the contribution that such an investment would make to food security and the ability of low-income countries to adapt to the anticipated effects of  climate change.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President