The Population-Climate Change Link: Opportunity and Danger
The debate about population growth and climate change is heating up. First, researchers at Oregon State University showed that having fewer children is among the best ways for Americans to limit their carbon footprint. Then the UK’s Optimum Population Trust (OPT) came out with a report claiming that contraception is five times cheaper than conventional green technologies as a means of combating climate change.
The new attention to population growth and climate change presents an opportunity—and also a danger.
On the opportunity side, it could generate new support for family planning and reproductive health services, girls’ education, and other ethical means to slow population growth—the long neglected “Cairo agenda,” which the world’s nations endorsed at a UN conference in 1994, then promptly forgot.
The danger is that it could revive calls for numbers-driven “population control.” In the past, those programs trampled people’s rights and health in pursuit of lower birthrates. Where the focus is on numbers, abuses of human rights are common. There are, of course, the notorious examples: China’s one-child policy and the forced abortions used to implement it; and the sterilization camps of India’s emergency period in the 1970s, where thousands died of botched operations.
And there were seemingly more benign policies of incentives and disincentives, which actually punished the poorest and most vulnerable. In India, children were expelled from school if their parents refused to be sterilized. Other policies forced the poor to make a Hobbesian choice between fertility and survival. In Bangladesh in the 1980s, flood victims who refused sterilization were denied emergency food aid.
The family planning/reproductive health movement has come a long way since then. While some abuses persist (notably in China), the movement as a whole has been revolutionized from within. As Michele Goldberg recounts in her wonderful book, The Means of Reproduction, a new generation of feminists rose through the ranks of the family planning movement and shifted the focus from fertility control to sexual and reproductive rights and health.
Reproductive health advocates understand that when a woman has a 1 in 6 chance of dying in childbirth; that when her kids are getting sick and dying of preventable disease, she needs more than an IUD. They understand that the same woman is more likely to visit a clinic that addresses her full range of needs, and treats her with respect. And they showed that a broader approach to reproductive health and rights can improve maternal and child health, prevent STDs and lower fertility.
This was a paradigm shift in population and family planning, and it formed the basis of a new global agreement at a 1994 UN population conference in Cairo. At that meeting, environmentalists, feminists, and other civil society groups from around the world helped produce a plan of action that was endorsed by 179 nations.
The Cairo agreement says that choosing the number and timing of one’s own children is an inalienable human right. It acknowledges that slowing population growth is one of the things we need to do to build a sustainable future. And it shows that the best way to slow population growth is not with top-down population control, but by making sure that all people have the means and the power to make their own decisions about childbearing.
Where the Cairo agenda has been implemented, the effects have been dramatic. Where reproductive health services are available, where couples are confident their children will survive, where girls go to school, where young women and men have economic opportunity, couples have healthier–and smaller—families.
But governments haven’t kept the promises they made in Cairo. While developing countries are spending about half of what they promised in Cairo, developed countries have delivered less than a quarter of the promised funding. The cost is not huge: the developed countries’ share of the cost to provide reproductive health services for every woman on earth is $20 billion—about what the bankers on Wall Street gave themselves in bonuses last year. The US share is $1 billion—about a fifth of what we spend in Afghanistan each month.
Now we are at a crossroads. We can move forward on the path charted in Cairo; or we could head back to population control. There are ominous signs: Time Magazine, in a teaser for an article about the OPT report, writes: “As the global population increases, it gets harder to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Simple answer: Control the population.”
Knowing the history, you know it’s not simple. Slowing population growth is but one of many things we must do to avert catastrophic climate change. That does not justify a return to the abusive population control schemes of the past. It does, however, provide another reason for the US and other developed countries to make good on the promises they made in Cairo.