Population Matters

Population, Climate Change, and Women

April 22nd, 2011

Earth Day is a time for reflecting on the linkages between humans and Mother Earth, and nowhere is that linkage more evident, or more critical, than with respect to the greatest environmental issue of our time:  climate change.

Human activity is, quite literally, transforming the planet.  A growing concentration of carbon in the atmosphere is creating a greenhouse effect that is contributing to warmer temperatures and increased drought and flooding.  And the cause is clearly anthropogenic.  We’re the culprits.  We’re the reason the glaciers are melting as rapidly as they are. It’s our carbon emissions that are responsible for the growing loss of the Arctic icecap.

In an unjust and ironic twist of fate, the people who are least responsible for the growing accumulation of greenhouse gases—the poorest of the poor—will likely suffer the most from climate change and, in particular, poor women will bear the brunt of it.

Unless we act very swiftly to cap greenhouse gas emissions, many parts of the world will suffer from higher temperatures, extreme drought, increased flooding, and rising seas, but it’s projected that sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia will suffer some of the worst effects.   Severe drought is already affecting wide areas of East Africa and the African Sahel.  Severe flooding has already taken a terrible toll in Pakistan and other parts of South Asia.  And the forecast for the next several decades is not good; it’s potentially catastrophic.

In addressing climate change and its effects the first thing that must be done is for the industrialized and emerging nations to reach a global accord aimed at limiting future greenhouse gas emissions and stopping the deforestation of the Amazon and other tropical regions.

The second and less obvious thing to do is to expand family planning and reproductive health services to women everywhere.  Reducing the world’s projected population growth will contribute to a reduction in projected greenhouse gas emissions. Last fall, a team of scientific investigators, led by Brian O’Neill, looked at how addressing population could help the world meet the challenge posed by climate change.  The report [“Global Demographic Trends and Future Carbon Emissions”] appeared in PNAS.  It found that slowing population growth could provide 16-29 % of the emissions reductions needed to avoid the most dangerous effects of climate change.

That should be reason enough to ensure that every woman who wants to avoid a pregnancy has access to family planning and reproductive health services, but there is an even more compelling reason for doing so:  it will help women and families in the developing world adapt to the unprecedented challenges posed by climate change.

Last fall, shortly after the O’Neill report was published, Robert Engelman of the WorldWatch Institute, wrote a compelling report, titled Population, Climate Change, and Women’s Lives, that makes this case and more.  He explains how promoting gender equality and fully empowering women—not just giving them access to family planning—could make the critical difference for nations struggling with the effects of climate change.  He writes:

Women’s differing perspectives, their work with natural resources, their experience adapting to environmental change, and their disproportionate vulnerability to natural disasters are among the many reasons for dismantling barriers that block their full participation in society and equal standing with men.  Women not only hold up half the sky, they contribute more than half of the hands and minds needed to grapple with a problem—climate change—that is now too late to fully prevent or solve.  It would be foolish to ignore those hands and minds, yet we remain a long way from taking advantage of women’s capabilities.

In the years ahead, the people of planet Earth face a lot of tough questions and choices related to food, energy, climate, and water.  Empowering women and giving them access to family planning and reproductive health services, however, is a no-brainer.  As it turns out, what’s good for mothers is good for Mother Earth.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

One Response to “Population, Climate Change, and Women”

  1. Thomas L. Vue Says:

    Regardless of the cause the one point that most people miss when talking about climate is that we have to be prepared for change. It is pure human fantasy to assume that the Earth today is some sort of steady state system that is supposed to remain exactly as it is. Ocean levels will change and coastlines along with it. Rain belts will shift (North Africa used to be the bread basket of the Roman Empire before the Sahara ate it) and glaciers will flow and retreat. Nearly all the ideas in the climate debate are built on the false supposition that the climate that supports the current geopolitical state is the norm. Let’s quit trying to find someone to blame and figure out how to deal with change that will come regardless of whose fault it is.

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