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Will Renewed Attention to Climate Change Bring Back Population Control?

October 31, 2011 | PHI Center for Public Health and Climate Change | Dialogue4Health

Who's afraid of climate change? Well, I am. And not necessarily for the reasons you may think. I'm afraid that the recent, much-deserved attention to climate change will revive some of the old alarmist debates on population. And with those debates, I'm worried that the specter of population control will rear its ugly head again.

You see, as a woman of color, I am particularly sensitive to population control arguments. After all, claims of "overpopulation" usually target women who look like me. Throughout the 20th century, coercive welfare policies led to thousands of African American women in the U.S. being sterilized without their consent, in a procedure that came to be known as the "Mississippi Appendectomy".

Puerto Rican women's bodies were used as the testing grounds for controversial and experimental contraceptive trials in the 1950s, in part due to government perceptions that these experiments could help solve the island's "population problem".

Around the same time, population control became enshrined within development programs in India and Bangladesh, where use of contraceptives and permanent sterilization were attached to food aid programs and the allocation of land and medical care.

And as recently as the late 1990s, hundreds of thousands of poor and indigenous women were sterilized against their will by the government of Peru, all under the banner of fighting poverty and overpopulation.

What does all of this have to do with the environment? Well, a lot.

In the U.S., fears of a "population crisis" exploded onto the scene back in the '60s and '70s with the rise of the environmental movement, with environmentalists blaming population growth for everything from deforestation and desertification to global food shortages. Neo-Malthusian scholars and activists called for reducing food aid to starving populations in developing countries; one well known biologist famously suggested that sterilants be placed into the American water supply.

Population alarmism gained quite a bit of support at the time, both among the general American public, and among some members of the international development sector, who felt that controlling and reducing population growth through a focus on demographic targets would be beneficial to the global environment and the security of U.S. borders. Luckily, population controllers were stopped in their tracks by a coalition of women's health and rights reformers in the mid-90s.

At the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) meetings in Cairo, world leaders agreed that universal access to reproductive health services, within a broader focus on women's rights and empowerment, would replace population control as the leading paradigm for the international family planning movement. Focused on meeting women's reproductive health needs, as opposed to controlling and reducing fertility, this new paradigm was enshrined in a document known as the Cairo Consensus, which was ratified by 179 countries.

At the same time, the population bubble has burst. According to the Population Reference Bureau, nowadays the average woman in a developing country gives birth to 2.5 children, compared to 6 children in 1950. In the industrialized world, this figure is even lower, with women having an average of 1.64 kids. Although in some regions like sub-Saharan Africa, rapid population growth continues to be carried along by demographic momentum, the trend toward the average woman giving birth to fewer children is a long term, global phenomenon.

But is this enough to keep population controllers at bay? I'm not sure. Climate change has received much well-deserved attention lately in the news. But along with it comes the old, familiar population debate.Here's where it gets tricky.

In 2009, the Vice Minister of China's National Population and Family Planning Commission told an international audience that the Chinese one-child policy had proved to be an environmental success, adding that the 400 million births that have been prevented since the introduction of the policy have resulted in 1.8 billion fewer tons of carbon dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere. Several professors in the U.S. and Australia have proposed carbon taxes for every child born beyond the replacement fertility level of two children per couple.

At the same time, the British charity Optimum Population Trust published a report arguing that spending just $7 on international family planning projects could reduce carbon emissions by 1 ton, concluding that family planning as a method of reducing future emissions of carbon dioxide, is significantly cheaper than many low carbon technologies. They've gone as far as creating a website which offers consumers the opportunity to offset their carbon footprint by investing in family planning in developing countries. Arguing that investing in family planning is a "cost-effective and permanent way of reducing CO2 emissions and climate change," with "no downsides," the site offers wealthy Westerners the opportunity to consume their way into reducing their carbon footprints through reducing the childbearing of other women, rather than changing their own greenhouse gas emitting behaviors.

Not only do these approaches get into an ethical gray zone, they are based on faulty logic.

First, the U.S. is the leading global emitter of greenhouse gases, producing 25% of the world's emissions every year, although our population accounts for just 4.5% of the world total. Many global South countries with rapidly growing populations, like Kenya, emit far fewer greenhouse gases than we do; the average Kenyan produces 0.3 tons of emissions every year, compared with the average American's average 20 tons of emissions. Clearly, it is what we do, rather than how many of us there are, that drives the climate bus.

And who is the "we" that I am referring to? Well, that's complicated as well. As Lisa Hymas argued in a recent blog post, not all of us Americans consume the same volume of resources in the same way. Middle and upper class Americans who drive multiple vehicles, build vacation homes and race to buy every new technological gizmo that comes on the market have a significantly higher carbon footprint than the working class and poor.

At the same time, we have to think about the bigger actors that dwarf all of us in their climate-changing behaviors. Mega oil corporations earn billions of dollars in profits when they extract, burn, refine and sell fossil fuel products. And, how could we ever forget the role of the military in this conversation? Their atmosphere polluting activities are often hidden in the debates over climate change and population growth--a shocking fact, considering that the U.S. military is the single largest consumer of oil in the world.

Yet, women, communities of color, and the poor suffer more of the impacts of climate change. Climate-related natural disasters, which are on the rise, disproportionately impact women around the world, who are much more likely to drown or die in accidents. Those who survive are more likely to experience domestic violence, sexual abuse and poor reproductive health outcomes.

Climate change does offer us opportunities to address women's human and reproductive rights, but the connections must be made in the right way. Advocating for women's comprehensive reproductive health services, including emergency obstetric care, a mix of hormonal and barrier methods of contraception, diagnosis and treatment of sexually transmitted infections, HIV testing, counseling and treatment, and referrals for services for gender based violence, can all serve as important components of a gender sensitive approach to adapting to the effects of climate change. Supporting population interventions among the poor as a means of mitigating, or preventing, climate change, is a far less defensible approach.

At the same time, we must be ever vigilant, keeping the principles of reproductive health, reproductive rights, and reproductive justice for women at the heart of the approach. Through this framework, and the protection of women's rights to have children, to not have children, and to parent the children that they do have, we can remain on the right side of both the climate justice and reproductive justice debates.

For more information about PHI's Center for Public Health and Climate Change visit www.climatehealthconnect.org