Climate Change, Population Growth and Reproductive Health: It’s About More Than Reducing Emissions

This is a big week in the march towards the UN Climate
Change Conference in Copenhagen in December, where world leaders are expected
to hammer out a new global treaty to address the problem. Today, President
Obama and other heads of state will meet in New York with UN Secretary General Ban
Ki-moon to discuss climate change; the subject is also likely to be high on the
agenda at the G20 meetings in Pittsburgh later this week.

Much of the focus this week and leading up to the meeting
in Copenhagen in December is on reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that
cause climate change: who should have to cut, by how much, and in what time
frame. We hear a lot about cap and trade, clean energy, promoting energy
efficiency, and other technological solutions. For years, reducing emissions
has been the focus of efforts to address climate change. But we know now that
reducing emissions is not enough: millions of lives are being upended by the
effects of changes in climate – food scarcity,
water scarcity, vulnerability to natural disasters and infectious diseases,
and population displacement.  Women and children are the most
vulnerable groups to climate change. 

So how does
reproductive health fit into this picture? A new study
by the UK-based Optimum Population Trust
and the London School of Economics shows the connection between contraceptives
and climate change. The study concludes that universal access to reproductive
health could be one of the most cost effective ways to reduce greenhouse gas
emissions by 2050. A Population Action International report from May detailed
how population dynamics, not just overall growth, contribute to climate

This helps to
broaden our thinking around the diversity of strategies that will be needed for
meaningful and lasting solutions to climate change. Investing in contraceptives
and reproductive health is about more than reducing emissions; it is also a
critical piece of reducing vulnerability and building resilience to the impacts
of climate change.

This is true from
a demographic perspective, as well as at the individual and household
level.  Rapid population growth can
exacerbate existing vulnerability to the impacts of climate change—for example,
population growth rates in highly vulnerable low elevation coastal zones in
Bangladesh and China are nearly twice as high as national averages; and in
Ethiopia, the combination of rapid population growth and climate-induced
declines in agricultural production will heighten food insecurity. At the
household level, a woman with access to reproductive health services is
healthier and has healthier children; she has greater opportunities to
diversify income sources; and she is more likely to be able safeguard herself
and her family in the event of disaster. All of these things contribute to
resilience in the face of the impacts of climate change.

Slowly but surely, the larger reproductive health and
rights community is paying attention to these important linkages in the lead up
to Copenhagen. In preparation for this week’s climate meeting at the UN, PAI’s
Dr. Karen Hardee participated in an event hosted by UNFPA to highlight this
critical but often overlooked aspect of climate change.  Karen spoke of the link between meeting
needs for reproductive health and fostering resilience in countries hard hit by
the effects of climate change. She highlighted PAI’s recent working paper,
which examines national climate change adaptation plans for 41 least developed
countries. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of these plans identify rapid
population growth as a factor that exacerbates vulnerability in their
countries; unfortunately, only two propose adaptation projects that include
aspects of reproductive health. 

Karen elaborated on these points in an interview with IPS in Pakistan.  In a world
where 200 million women have an “unmet need” for family planning, increasing
access to contraceptive services can and should be one of the tools for
addressing the impacts of climate change.

As heads of state gather in NY and Pittsburgh this week
to discuss our climate future, they should broaden their view beyond the technological
fixes that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and remember the human face of
climate change—a face that is frequently female, and in need of fundamental
support that will enable her to take care of herself, her family, and our

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  • amy-higer

    Although rapid population growth may indeed contribute to climate change, it is dangerous to suggest that this should be the, or even a, rationale for governments to fund women’s reproductive health programs. We’ve been down this road before, and the result has disastrous for women and men. History has shown that treating women’s vital reproductive health needs as instrumental to other ends (population control, stemming global warming) rather than ends in their own right, leads to abuse and excesses (forced sterilization, to name just one of the most egregious). Women’s access to reproductive health should be viewed as a human right, not as a means to an end.

  • crowepps

    Unfortunately, there is not just a huge unmet NEED for birth control, there are organizations actively working to PREVENT those trying to meet that need on both religious and tribal grounds.  One way of undermining that opposition is to show the general public ‘what’s in it for me’ when it comes to helping women actualize their voluntary desire to choose smaller families.

  • kodero

    There is some good insights in the article and discussions that we need to follow on keenly. There is no doubt that the conditions of women and children in most of the developing world is deplorable and this is being exacerbated by climate change. In case you still have doubts, just take a look at the short video @

    Unfortunately, RH is often approached with cultural insensitivity making it harder to communicate the true story. All societies have a good sense of RH and I would be very keen to collaborate on a research project to investigate linkages between climate forcings and RH in Africa, especially how existing strategies need to be reworked to increase the resilience of women and children to climate risk.

  • drclay

    Overpopulation is perhaps the main underlying cause of global climate change, and the fact that there are hundreds of millions with a need for access family planning information but are having their needs subverted, either culturally or politically, is shocking.

    I would imagine that in many cases women just need education on the basics of reproductive health, something that it is unimaginable to be offensive to anyone, but it appears in many religiously patriarchal societies it is. What this issue really highlights is the woeful state of women’s rights in many countries around the world. Until THAT issue is addressed none of these reproductive education efforts will ever be able to take root.