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.
“Nearly all of the 80 million people being added to world population each year are born in countries where natural support systems are already deteriorating in the face of excessive population pressure, in the countries least able to support them,” Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute writes in “A Civilizational Tipping Point,” from the book Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization. “In these countries, the risk of state failure is growing.”
In Berlin, Leo Bryant of the Marie Stopes International foundation told IPS, a leading news service on the developing world, that while governments pay lip service to population growth, very few make the direct link to climate change and environmental strain. Bryant, whose foundation provides contraception, abortion, vasectomies and other reproductive services worldwide, has done a survey for the World Health Organization of concerns about climate change submitted by forty of the poorest nations in reports to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Thirty-eight of forty governments identified as their priorities the risk of increased flooding; thirty-six feared longer or more frequent droughts; thirty-three named reduced crop yields; thirty-five fresh water scarcity; and thirty-seven identified threats to biodiversity–but only six listed rapid population growth, Bryant told IPS.
That some European and American progressives see family planning as a population control tool to fix climate problems is getting the issue backwards. Reproductive choice is an end in itself, to make women healthier and happier in their sexual lives. If that means they choose to have fewer children, or just protected sex, the long-term impact may be positive for the environment as well as the family and community, but that is a side effect of the primary goal. Women know how much farther they have to walk every year for water or food and how many of their little girls will have to forgo school to help in that life-sustaining work.
Experts are not unaware of the special knowledge of women, though they may have a hard time making inroads into political thinking. A few weeks ago at the third World Climate Conference in Geneva, technicians and scientists, according to the meeting’s final statement, recognized, “having considered an extensive body of knowledge and expertise in the area of gender and climate variability and change…that women and men around the globe are distinct carriers, providers and users of climate information, and that mounting evidence shows that drivers and consequences of climate change are not gender neutral.”
They recommended that “gender equality must be mainstreamed into climate science, mechanisms and activities, and in climate institutions.” At the local level, they said, women should be trained for and involved in monitoring climate and the environment.
In Washington, the Obama administration is on its way to bigger and bigger investments in international family planning and women’s rights, an important issue to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Whether this growing commitment will be promoted by the United States in forthcoming international meetings is not known. But American officials can go armed with the knowledge that public opinion supports them.
This is not always true in Europe, where official family planning aid is sometimes seen as a cultural intrusion, an attitude that amounts to denying poor women the same choices women in industrial nations have.
In Washington, Michael Khoo, the vice president of communications for Population Action International, tracks numerous polls about American attitudes toward assisting reproductive programs globally. “The numbers show Americans overwhelmingly support family planning in developing countries, despite how some politicians may try and polarize the issue,” he said. “The reason why the vast majority of Americans support family planning is because they know it improves the lives of women and families around the world.”