Should We Be Talking About Population and Climate Change?

Discussions of global climate
change and environmental degradation are putting "population" back
in the spotlight. Population stabilization has been noted by respected
climate researchers, such as Brian O’Neill and PAI’s Leiwen Jiang, as a potential strategy in the race to keep
carbon in check (although more research is needed to determine how much
it might contribute). Clearly, consumption and emissions in the West
are the major contributors to global warming, but how important is population
to climate change in the short and long term? Does it make any difference
to the atmosphere if the world’s population is six, nine or 12 billion

Work by Brian, Leiwen and other
colleagues shows that the relationship between population and climate
change is complex and that age structure, household composition and
urbanization are important demographic factors, in addition to population
size. Within this complexity, members of our field (broadly defined
as those working on family planning, reproductive health and sexual
and reproductive health and rights) are discussing the pros and cons
of engaging in the discussion on population and climate change.

In her work on developing a
justice framework for addressing population and environment issues,
Laurie Mazur, who is currently editing a book titled Population, Justice
and the Environmental Challenge
, has noted that some colleagues,
"even those concerned about the carrying capacity of the planet –
want to silence the talk about population and the environment, for fear
of what it might unleash." She called the space between the
reproductive health and rights and environmental movements "something
of a demilitarized zone."

Some argue that linking population
with climate change should not include discussion of family planning
as part of the solution, for fear of reversing gains made at the 1994 International Conference
on Population and Development in Cairo

towards programming based on a rights framework rather than on a demographic
rationale. This group worries about tendencies towards coercion in setting population targets. In an online discussion of population and climate change conducted by
the webBulletin of the
Atomic Scientists
, Betsy Hartmann, director
of Hampshire College’s Population and Development Program, argued that "when population control is the objective,
the quality of [family planning] service suffers and coercive methods
often override freedom of choice." But Suzanne Petroni, Program Officer
at the Summit Foundation, who also cautions about making the population-climate
change connection, notes that "we
must engage the discussion, if only to prevent a return to the days of
coerced sterilizations, forced abortions and two-child per family mandates."

And others say
that acknowledging the link between population and climate, and the
role family planning can play, won’t automatically lead to coercive policies.
In the Atomic Scientists discussion, John
Guillebaud, emeritus professor at University College, London, and Martin
Desvaux, trustee of the Optimum Population Trust in Britain, wrote that
this argument "perpetuates some infamous myths about people
who have a qualitative concern about human population… [including]
that being concerned about population leads intrinsically to coercion."

This latter group argues that
voluntary family planning is critical to meeting the needs of millions
of women (PDF) who express the desire to space or
limit pregnancy and yet are not using contraception. Meeting this need
for contraception at the individual level, by providing universal access
to family planning and reproductive health (a goal set in Cairo), will
ultimately have a positive effect on population stabilization. Fred
Meyerson, assistant professor at the University of Rhode Island, in
the same online discussion, emphatically states that "stopping emissions
growth and climate change will be unattainable without universal
effective [family planning] programs and population stabilization…" but adds that "There is agreement..about
the need to provide FP/RH…and related education to everyone on
the planet in a non-coercive way."

As someone who has been involved
in population, family planning, reproductive health and sexual reproductive
health and rights work for over two decades, I am in the "let’s
talk about it" camp. We are the ones who know the history of
our field and understand that Cairo reaffirmed the need for voluntary,
rights-based sexual and reproductive health services, including, but
not limited to, family planning.

We should also remember that
the Cairo Programme of Action was generated at the Conference on
Population and Development

and that we have win-win language from the Programme of Action:

"…recognizing that
the ultimate goal is the improvement of the quality of life of present
and future generations, the objective is to facilitate the demographic
as soon as possible in countries where there is an imbalance
between demographic rates and social, economic and environmental goals,
while respecting human rights." (Emphasis mine.)

This is language that nearly
180 countries signed on to in Cairo in 1994.

If we don’t stay in the discussion
on population and climate change and insist on family planning and reproductive
health programs that respect individual rights, what solutions might
emerge from people who are unaware about what can happen when population
policies and programs are driven purely by demographic targets?

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  • invalid-0

    In her article, Karen Hardee does not mention my central argument in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists online debate about population and climate change, namely that I don’t think population is the main cause of climate change nor do I think family planning is the solution. Focusing on population growth puts the blame on the world’s poorest people who have the least impact on global warming and does nothing to contribute to real solutions such as reducing luxury consumption, investing in alternative forms of energy and public transport, greening industrialization in countries like China and India, and reducing carbon emissions in socially just ways that redistribute income from the rich to the poor. I go into these issues in depth in the debate. Please see:

    I do wonder if PAI’s focus on population and climate change is less about the real issues at hand and more about strategically trying to garner support in environmental and other policy circles for international family planning assistance. If so, I find this instrumental approach problematic. We need to support access to reproductive health as a basic right, not as a tool of population control and social engineering.

    Many women in the development and environment community are doing excellent work on gender and climate change issues, but not within a populationist framework. This is a much more promising direction. I would also like to direct readers to a recent working paper by the Hampshire College Population and Development Program on how reproductive justice, environmental justice and peace movements might find common ground in working together on climate justice issues:

    Here is a short excerpt from the paper:

    Reproductive Justice, Climate Justice and Peace:
    A Call for Solidarity, not Population Control

    “The focus on population growth as a root cause of climate change prevents an effective collective response to the true driving forces behind global warming: war and militarism, environmental racism, and unsustainable and unjust systems of production, distribution and consumption.
    Instead we support the making of connections between the struggle for climate justice – the just and equitable response to the global climate crisis, led by those communities most impacted and least responsible for climate change, reproductive justice – the economic, social, and political empowerment of all people to make healthy decisions about their bodies, sexuality and reproduction for themselves, their families and their communities, and movements for peace around the world.”

    Betsy Hartmann
    Director, Population and Development Program
    Hampshire College

  • invalid-0

    If we act locally, we are not effecting the “world’s poorest people”. We are funding amd motivating contraception in our own home towns!
    Cairo was NO CONSENSUS!

    Tax funded schools and childcare destroy the environment and raise rents and oil prices by exploiting the childless, especially sports programs which also encourage bullys.
    Many local employers and landlords already do it secretly, but they need to openly discriminate against heterosexuals, which is still legal in NC, because they use too much parental leave and childcare benefits.

  • malea-hoepf-young

    can all agree that the responsibility for climate change rests squarely on the
    shoulders of the high-emitting, high-income countries. However, this does not mean
    that we can ignore the links between population, demographics, and climate
    change– linkages that climate scientists at the IPCC include in the foundations
    of their climate change projections. With a challenge so large and complex,
    there is no one solution – we need multiple strategies to be successful in the
    long term. Linkages between population and climate deserve more research.
    Universal access to voluntary reproductive health services – enshrined at Cairo
    and included as Target 5b in the millennium development goals– can help to slow
    population growth, as well as provide a broad range of benefits to those most
    affected by a changing climate: women
    (see my post here: )
    With a problem as urgent and challenging as this, it’s no time to rule out
    promising solutions, especially those with life-improving benefits for all.

  • invalid-0


    You’re correct to note that “the relationship between population and climate change is complex and that age structure, household composition and urbanization are important demographic factors, in addition to population size.” We tend to assume that more people automatically means more emissions, but as you note, it’s more complicated than that– for instance, older U.S. households have lower per capita carbon-intensive expenditures than younger ones.

    We were lucky enough to host Brian O’Neill for a discussion of the links between population and climate change earlier this year, and I encourage everyone interested in learning more about these issues to check out the archived video, PowerPoint presentations, and meeting summary, as well as an original podcast with Brian.

    In addition, it’s interesting to note that the presidential campaigns have this issue on their respective radars– but are very hesitant to talk about it. See this New Security Beat blog post for some classic hemming and hawing.

  • invalid-0

    To say that high birth rates in developing nations don’t effect global warming is to reveal a lack of commitment to improving the standard of living in impoverished regions. The planet cannot sustain 12 billion people with a high standard of living. The impact of China’s and India’s huge populations on fossil fuel consumption are now being felt as their economies modernize. Protecting the planet is a problem that must be approached simultaneously from many different angles.
    Certainly technological innovation and conservation are key, but just think how much more manageable the task of protecting the planet while improving lives would be with a more stable human population.

    I know that improved standards of living often lead to lower birth rates, but that takes generations. We need to act sooner to help impoverished people escape the cycle of poverty by helping them control their reproduction. This will help them now, and the environment down the road.

  • invalid-0

    Procreation is just one of many things we as animals can do, which society may need to curtail for various utilitarian ends. A person having a child impacts society and the environment as a whole, so it seems reasonable that society have some ability to limit procreation by law and even force in extreme cases. Of course voluntary family planning is preferable but people who want to endanger our collective future because of religious and cultural superstitions regarding large families or even just selfish personal preference need to be brought into line a bit. I think limiting families is no different and in fact has far greater impact than banning inefficient vehicles, harmful chemicals or other things people choose to do which harm the environment.

    I think people bemoaning “coercion” when it comes to procreation either are blatantly espousing religious dogma or because of the ideological dominance of the Abrahamic religions, expressing an unconscious bias in favour of a growing society. The near unchallenged dominance of unsustainable growth-based economics also makes people wary of a contracting society, despite the obvious ability to spread wealth more qualitatively as well as equally with smaller populations.

  • invalid-0

    Fertility rates are falling all over the world.

    European fertility rates are so low that for every 100 Europeans in the year 2000, there will be only 23 in the year 2100 according to the UN.

    Reducing population by 75% over a hundred years is a drastic contraction.

    This contraction is occurring in nations that, well, pollute a lot. If your concern is for the environment.

    All of the lowest fertility rates have occured where contraception is available but not forced.

    Forced contraception has more in common with banning contraception than it does with access to contraception.

    Do we really want to live in a world where we use force to make other people’s personal choices for them?