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)

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
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.