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

Mothers and Mother Earth: Making the Connection

April 21st, 2011

World leaders face some very tough choices.  Deciding whether to expand family planning and reproductive health services is not one of them.  It’s a ‘win-win’ proposition for everyone, including mothers and Mother Earth.

That’s why the “Million for a Billion” campaign is developing action steps for each of the 17 days between Earth Day 2011 and Mother’s Day 2011.  It’s time to show the world that there’s nothing to be lost by achieving universal access to reproductive health care services…and everything to be gained.

When women everywhere have access to family planning and reproductive health services, there are fewer unplanned births, fewer women die as a result of pregnancy-related causes, and more children survive infancy.  That translates into:

  • Less poverty;
  • More primary education for girls (and boys);
  • Greater gender equality and women’s rights;
  • Improved health for women and their families;
  • Less stress on the environment and resources; and
  • A healthier planet.

In a report issued last year, the United Nations Population Fund found that:

Investing in sexual and reproductive health is one of the surest and most effective ways to promote equitable and sustainable development and achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). If we can reach the poorest and most vulnerable populations with reproductive health information and services, we can save many lives and improve countless others. We will also make significant strides in reducing poverty, advancing development and protecting human rights.

Achieving a just and sustainable world is no easy task, but it will be a lot harder if women and young people do not have access to the family planning and reproductive health services that many of us take for granted.

The United Nations has set 2015 as the target year for achieving universal access to reproductive health services, but if that target is to be reached, the United States and other donor nations urgently need to step up their support for family planning and reproductive health programs.    More than 200 million in the developing world who say they want to avoid a pregnancy are not currently using a modern method of birth control.   Meeting their needs and the needs of the world’s largest generation of young people is important to people and the planet.

Help us spread the word over the next 17 days and beyond….

Those interested in participating in the campaign can check our blog, our Twitter, or our Facebook pages for daily updates and action steps.

Running into the “Danger Zone”

April 15th, 2011

With the world’s angst focused on Middle East violence, the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and the global debt woes, there’s no room for another crisis.  If, as some psychologists suggest, the human mind has a “finite pool of worry,” it’s easy to understand how most of us, including Congressional leaders, have no spare capacity for dwelling on longer-term challenges like climate change.   “Please, one problem, one crisis, at a time.  Take a number.”

Still, there is one problem that begs world attention:  the once and future food crisis.  World Bank president Robert Zellick warned yesterday that we have entered the “danger zone.” Food stocks are so low that another round of bad harvests could send food prices soaring still higher.  According to the World Bank’s index of basic food commodities, prices last month were 36% above a year earlier.  Over the past year, the price of maize has gone up 74%, wheat 69%, soybeans 36%, and sugar 21%.   For many of the 1.2 billion people living in severe poverty (less than $1.25 a day), particularly those living in urban areas, these prices shocks have been borderline catastrophic.  And the worst, according to the World Bank, may be yet to come.

In the past year, rising food prices have pushed another 44 million into severe poverty, and if prices go up another 10%, the World Bank says another 10 million will fall below the severe poverty line.  If prices go another 30%, 34 million will be added.

In normal times, these warnings might be enough to trigger a response from the U.S. and other donor nations, but these, of course, are not normal times. While President Obama asked Congress to appropriate $1.6 billion for international agricultural development assistance (Feed the Future) in 2011, the recent budget agreement freezes the funding at $1.2 billion.  Concerned about the long-term budget crisis, Congress has turned a deaf ear to the long-term food crisis.  It also reduced funding for international family planning.

The food crisis, of course, is more than a humanitarian crisis.  As amply demonstrated by the unrest that has swept North Africa and the Middle East in the past few months, food concerns have a way of translating into political instability.  If the food crisis persists, there are many areas of the world that are potentially vulnerable to disruption.  In the Philippines this week, lawmakers warned that the food crisis could bring about massive protests and food riots.  Indeed, a long list of countries in Africa, South Asia, and even Latin America, are at risk of food-related turmoil.

And political unrest, of course, has a way of exacerbating food shortages.  The political upheaval in Cote d’Voire, the former Ivory Coast, for example, has disrupted production of cocoa and other staples, sending cocoa prices to the highest levels in over 30 years.  Josette Sheeran, the executive director of the World Food Programme, warned that there are “alarming shortages of food, water and other basic needs” in Cote d’Ivoire.  Liberia and other eighboring countries have also been impacted by the conflict.

In many cases, it’s a vicious cycle of food shortages causing political unrest and vice versa. While the political unrest in Egypt has eased in recent weeks, Egypt now finds itself still dangerously dependent on wheat imports.  If wheat prices continue to climb, Egypt, which imports nearly half its food, could face another round of food riots and political unrest.

No one knows how long the current food crisis will last, but the U.N’s Food and Agriculture Organization warns that high food prices could persist for several years to come.  And it could be a lot longer.  To feed an expanding population, the FAO says that food production in the developing world will have to double in the next 40 years, and it will have to do so despite a host of obstacles:  severe drought, flooding, higher temperatures, loss of top soil and arable land, water scarcity, and the rising cost of fuel and fertilizer.

The challenge posed by government debt is not to be taken lightly, but in short-changing agricultural development, humanitarian aid, and international family planning assistance, Congress is running, not walking, into the “danger zone.”

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