It’s a sure bet that women won’t be high on the agenda, or even listed on the program, when UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon convenes a climate change summit of world leaders on September 22. Women are also likely to be missing at the make-or-break emissions reduction conference in Copenhagen in December.
Even less likely to be discussed at either event is the potential environmental role of reproductive health. Family planning is a toxic subject in too many places, best buried as a malingering relative of Malthusian population “control.”
Governments, which dominate these huge confabs, and the people who work independently in the field, down at village level, disagree sharply on the perils of omitting women and their reproductive choices when the future of the earth is at stake.
At the NGO Forum on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Development in Berlin early this month, experts from scores of nongovernmental organizations from around the world asked the governments of developing countries to accept that a “rising population and climate change need to be considered together in an integrated policy,” according to Inter Press Service. Reflective of the NGO view was Kulvashi Devi Hurrynag, a women’s rights activist from Mauritius, who said that countries must recognize the “synergies between family planning, sexual education, development and environmental equilibrium.”
UN officials are largely on the same page. Helen Clark, the new administrator of the UN Development Program, said at the Berlin forum that “educating women and families in the developing world on the number of children they actually wish to have, improving the health of women and promoting gender equality, reducing poverty and hunger, and mitigating climate change” form a virtuous circle.
Nevertheless, a warning to keep population off the table was sounded on August 29 by Jairam Ramesh, India’s environment minister, who in a conference in New Delhi pre-emptively charged that there was “a move in Western countries to bring population into climate change. Influential American think tanks are asking why should we reward profligate reproductive behavior? Why should we reward India which is adding 14 million people every year?”
The official policy of India, influential among developing nations, is important because India will overtake China as the world’s most populous country in the next few decades and is already the fifth-largest global polluter. India, where fossil fuels are and will be for a long time the predominant source of energy, has almost four times the population of the United States on a third of the land area. It is already short of water and arable soil.
India has the power to stymie environmental agreements, alone or using its influence among developing nations, where more than 90 percent of the world’s population growth will take place in this century. In August, the Population Reference Bureau in Washington announced that the world’s population will reach 7 billion by 2011, adding a staggering billion people in only twelve years.