Changing Planet

Climate Change Activists Need To Talk About Population Too

Maps prepared by Population Action International overlay data on populations with high growth rates and low resilience to climate change.

“The environment does not exist as a sphere separate from human actions, ambitions, and needs, and attempts to defend it in isolation from human concerns have given the very word ‘environment’ a connotation of naivety in some political circles.”

These words come from the foreword of “Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development,” a landmark United Nations report that was written when the world’s population reached five billion. The report triggered the 1992 “Earth Summit” in Rio De Janeiro and a number of United Nations treaties and agreements all focusing on sustainable development.

Today, the global population is more than seven billion and the impact of all these people is the hot topic of discussion as nations prepare to gather in Brazil this June for a follow-up conference entitled “Rio+20.” On January 12, the Aspen Institute held a panel discussion, “The Road to Rio: Climate Change, Population and Sustainability,” that began with a discussion of this quote and whether Rio+20 should address population growth and the health and reproductive rights of women, which play an obvious role in population growth.

“There is a value in marking anniversaries with a purpose of both taking stock of what has been achieved and what has still not been achieved and that would be for me in the area of reproductive health and family planning.” noted former President of Ireland Mary Robinson, who launched the Mary Robinson Foundation–Climate Justice to address the impacts of climate change on the most impoverished parts of the world.

All four panelists, which also included Rachel Kyte, The World Bank’s Vice President of Sustainable Development, Carmen Barroso, Ph.D., Regional Director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation/Western Hemisphere Region, and Robert Engelman, President of Worldwatch Institute, questioned why world leaders were not considering women’s health and reproductive rights in the current crunch to figure out how to reduce emissions.

“2012, with Rio+20 as its highlight, offers the opportunity to reframe the global conversation on sustainable development today,” said Ms. Kyte.  “We need to bring data and evidence to facilitate decisions on the policy choices and trade-offs necessary for greener and more inclusive growth.”

The needs of women are beyond significant, according to United Nations Population Fund data. Approximately 215 million women who want to delay or stop having children—roughly one in six women of reproductive age—need effective contraceptive methods. Large numbers of women in every country—more than half in some countries—say their last birth was unwanted or not timed well.

“We’ve always known that there are millions of women – especially the young women – who want to delay or avoid their next pregnancy but do not have access to family planning information and services,” added Dr. Barroso. In the discussion, she cited recent research that discussed how meeting these needs and thus slowing the growth of the world population could reduce carbon emissions by 16-29% of the reductions needed to avoid the most calamitous climate change projections.

“If people understood that this is in a woman’s interest to manage the timing of her own pregnancies, a lot of the controversy would disappear,” Mr. Engelman said. “People still believe when we’re going to talk about population we are going to have to talk about some China-style policy where you can only have one child or maybe you can have two; instead, the evidence is so strong that there are so many unintended pregnancies in the world.”

“Relatively inexpensive policies to provide comprehensive sexuality education and access to contraception can meet the basic human right to decide how many children to have,” Dr. Barroso added, “And it is just common sense – universal access to family planning is a key intervention for sustainable development.”


(Population Action International’s interactive maps can be found here)

Dan Klotz is a veteran writer and advocate on conservation efforts and the health and sustainability of our food systems. Dan's career has spanned a wide range of policy issues, including protecting sharks around the world, securing the land rights of indigenous communities, addressing the sustainability and research needs of agriculture both domestically and internationally, advocating for smoke-free workplaces, cleaning up toxic waste sites, and preserving wild areas on land and in the ocean.

    I’m glad to see that people are FINALLY starting to talk publicly about the crucial need to control population growth. We are crowding other species off the planet because of our vast numbers and fowling our own nests too! Yet many religions place a high premium on increasing births. Look at the Catholic church, for instance in its insane opposition to contraception! Abortion is a separate issue, as that is the prevention of birth, rather than the prevention of conception.

  • […] to family planning out for it is – a human rights and social justice issue. Moreover, Barroso noted that “…it is just common sense – universal access to family planning is a key […]

  • Sarah Fisher

    Great article on an important yet overlooked issue.

    Unfortunately the Rio+20 zero draft contains no reference to reproductive health, and a very limited focus on population dynamics and other related issues such as gender equality.

    In response the Population and Climate Change Alliance (PCCA) has produced a document setting out recommendations and suggested text focusing on the significance of population dynamics and reproductive health and rights for sustainable development.

    Organisations undertaking advocacy work on these issues in relation to Rio+20 are invited to use the document as they wish, to inform negotiations on the zero draft. For further information see:

    Sarah Fisher, Population and Sustainability Network

  • Jane Roberts

    Population Action International also has an excellent video on climate change and how it affects the lives of everyday women. Also watch about the effects on individual women of seeking but not finding access to contraceptives. All these things are tied together. I am co-founder of 34 Million Friends of the United Nations Population Fund.

  • gillian toozs-hobson

    having as many children as you want is no longer a human right . Cut down significantly, the number of human beings being produced and you will cut down hugely the pressure put on all aspects of the enviroment and the planet. It is such a simple equation and solution to the problem but nobody wants to address it or admit it

  • BDG

    thank God the orginary folk are talking about this issue. now let’s see some real change for humanity and the environment. I feel this is the only way we might possibly achieve world peace.

  • […] linking fertility and population policies with the status of women. But there has been a renewed effort on the part of reproductive rights advocates to insert themselves into the international […]

  • Leslie

    The out and out denial of how the expansion of population growth has caused significant city and surburban expansion. That alone causes invasion into forest regions and increase in endangered wildlife species. If that were addressed the survival of our planet going into the next generation would have a lesser degree of fear regarding arctic climate progressing downward as heat rises and arctic chill increases in the U.S., as Russia and Alaska-to name a few- experience spring like weather. As minorities are quickly becoming the majority they need to take responsibility regarding this topic. I am a practicing Catholic who is pro-contaception and pro-life of planet earth.

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