NEW YORK (AlertNet) - Finding a way to put the environmental impact of population and women’s reproductive health more prominently on the climate change agenda is increasingly urgent, experts said in Washington this week.
Suggesting a strong connection between family planning and the environment often risks an explosion in the highly charged political landscape of climate talks, meaning the word “population” is rarely heard, observed speakers on a panel assembled by the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP).
Kavita Ramdas, executive director of Stanford University’s social entrepreneurship program, calls making the link between population and the environment “the last taboo”.
“This connection ... needs to be in a place where we can talk thoughtfully about the fact that yes, more people on this planet - and we’ve just crossed 7 billion - does actually put pressure on the planet. And no, it is not just black women or brown women or Chinese women who create that problem,” she told a session on women’s health and climate adaptation strategies.
“In fact, the issues around consumption in the more developed part of the world are profoundly significant. And when you know that every American baby born consumes 40 times as much as every Indian baby born, clearly there is a need to be able to tie those issues together,” she added.
Daniel Schensul, a technical specialist in the climate change, population and development branch of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), noted that adapting to a shifting climate amounts to building resilience in the face of change. “Women’s ability to control fertility, I think, is at the very centre of this,” he said.
Kathleen Mogelgaard, a consultant on the Wilson Center’s ECSP, described universal access to reproductive health as “a win-win opportunity for climate change adaptation”. Compared with other adaptation strategies, family planning is already in demand among women around the world, although many lack access to it, she said.
And it’s relatively inexpensive, she added, requiring only an additional $3.6 billion a year to fully meet women’s reproductive health needs.
FEAR OF LIMITING RIGHTS
Nonetheless, social and political barriers to including population in climate discussions persist, Stanford University’s Ramdas said. Climate experts avoid talking about population issues out of fear they will be labelled racists or eugenicists, and in an effort “not to muddy the waters” surrounding the already delicate subject of climate change, she said.
“At the same time women’s rights activists also have been reluctant to jump into the argument. You can’t discuss contraception without being drawn into a debate about abortion,” she added.
The ECSP’s Mogelgaard noted that population is rarely included in assessments of climate change vulnerability and adaptation. In her experience, climate specialists have a limited understanding of population dynamics and the scale of coming demographic change - such as populations tripling in countries like Malawi by 2050.
And, if they do grasp the issues, they “assume that doing something about population means limiting people’s rights,” she said. “What this says to me is that there is a real need for raising awareness of the connection between population, climate change and reproductive health.”
More academic evidence supporting the connection would help get population considered as a legitimate issue in the climate community, the experts argued. “There hasn’t been enough work that directly shows us that, when a woman’s need for reproductive health is met, how that impacts on adaptation,” Mogelgaard said.
She knows of only one study - “Linking Population, Fertility and Family Planning with Adaptation to Climate Change: Views from Ethiopia”, issued by Population Action International (PAI) in October 2009 - that “shows that when women have access to reproductive health they say they are better able to cope with climate change”.
Schensul said UNFPA wants to see population and reproductive health on the June agenda of Rio+20, the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development. To that end, it is working with partners to “establish a nuanced, evidence-based and human rights-based perspective on the operational links between population, reproductive health and climate change”.
If these inter-related factors remain neglected in climate discussions, “silence around this issue will continue to leave us in a space where the planet and her women will continue to have no voice,” Ramdas warned.