Nov 192010

Numbers swirl around climate change.

So many parts per million of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. So many gigatons of carbon dioxide emitted. So many degrees Celsius of temperature rise that we hope won’t happen. Yet one number rarely comes into play when experts or negotiators talk about the changing atmosphere and the warming of the planet: the number of humans putting heat-trapping gases into the air.

The relative silence isn’t hard to understand. Population is almost always awkward to talk about. It’s fraught with sensitivity about who has how many children and whether that is anyone else’s business. It’s freighted with sexuality, contraception, abortion, immigration, gender bias, and other buttons too hot to press into conversation. Yet two aspects of population’s connection to climate change cry out for greater attention—and conversation.

One is that population—especially its growth, but other changes as well—matters importantly to the future of climate change, a statement that as far as I can tell is not challenged scientifically. (The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for example, accepts the accuracy of the so-called Kaya identity, which names population among the four factors that determine emissions growth from decade to decade.) And, two, addressing population in climate-friendly ways is also fundamentally people-friendly, in that it involves no “population control,” but rather the giving up of control—especially control of women’s bodies by people other than themselves.

Population, Climate Change, and Women's Lives

Worldwatch Institute's latest report

A new Worldwatch Institute report, which I authored, offers details, findings, and recommendations on both the importance of population in climate change and how to address it. The report looks at some of the history of the population-climate link—in particular, interesting work by William Ruddiman, who hypothesizes that the agricultural revolution contributed to global warming thousands of years ago. And it addresses the common objection that population growth can’t be that important in greenhouse gas emissions growth because countries with high per capita emissions tend to have smaller families than low-emitting countries.

Equity in per capita emissions, I argue, is an essential goal—and without it, no global effort to shrink emissions can succeed. The imperative of an equal sharing of atmospheric carbon space is among the most powerful arguments for a smaller world population. When greenhouse gases other than fossil fuel carbon dioxide—such as methane and “black carbon”—are considered, per capita emissions gaps are not as wide as many writers believe. And the amount of all these gases that equal emitters can contribute without altering the atmosphere shrinks in direct proportion to population’s growth.

Arguments about population’s role in climate change are unnecessarily heated, however. Even if the growth of human numbers played only a minor role in emissions growth, it would be worth discussing—not because addressing population will somehow resolve our climate predicament, but because ultimately no other strategy on its own will either. We need the widest possible range of strategies—economic, political, technological, and behavioral—that are both feasible and consistent with shared human values.

On population, the most effective way to slow growth is to support women’s aspirations. Almost all women aspire to gain an education, to stand in equality with men, and to make decisions for themselves—including whether and when to give birth. Policies and programs to help women achieve these aspirations exist in many places. But they don’t get the attention, support and funding they deserve. And they are rarely seen as climate-change strategies.

As societies, we have the ability to end the ongoing growth of human numbers—soon, and based on human rights and women’s intentions. This makes it easy to speak of women, population, and climate change in a single breath.

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  5 Responses to “The Number Left Out: Bringing Population into the Climate Conversation”

  1. Having just finished reading the great State of the World 2010 report, I have noticed that you really have paid attention to this topic, assuming that the main ultimate aspiration for all women also in the developing countries is education, equality and therefore also a smaller family with fewer children.

    I agree that this is definitely true for many women. However, reading your writings related to this sensitive topic has made me wonder a couple of things.

    The assumption seems to be that even the most conservative women who are still wishing for larger families will be changing their values and attitudes e.g. when being shown “entertainment education” types of TV programs or when society’s attitudes change so that smaller families become desirable. However, the danger is that this approach only sees women as a big mass with similar values and aspirations that can easily be modified and manipulated. I would like to emphasize that the reality is not so simple.

    I am a well educated (university degree) Western woman in a well-paid position and appreciated profession. I am also very concerned about the environment and try to raise up and teach my children in an eco-friendy, low-carbon way. However, the usage of any contraception is in contrast with my ethical values and beliefs. I do not believe that I have the right to choose who is allowed to born and when. Contraception is an ethical issue to me and even if the society changed and larger families were even more marginalized and perhaps even sanctioned somehow, I would not change my opinion on that topic. Whatever the public opinion would be, I would never be able to use any kind of contraception as that is against my ethical values and the topic is highly sensitive to me.

    My question is, what kind of actions you would suggest for us stubborn and old-fashioned women (I know that there are a couple of us around the globe) thinking this way? I really, really hope that you are not advocating any compulsory actions. As you mentioned this is a highly personal issue and I have understood that e.g. China’s tactics have not been very successful with all those compulsory sterilizations and abortions. I really hope that you are not promoting that kind off approach to tackle the problem.

    However, thanks for your thought-provoking articles and a great report!

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  3. Thanks much for your comments, A mom of many, intentionally. I want to clarify that intentionality in childbearing is exactly the point of what I have written. While my convictions on the ethics of contraception differ from yours, I share your view that there should be no cumpulsion of any kind in reproduction–including, of course, compulsion of a woman to have more children than she intends by withholding access to information, contraception and safe abortion services. In my book More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want, I noted that there is wide room in an environmentally sustainable population for any number of children a woman chooses to have, so long as the average number of intended pregnancies and births is at or below the replacement rate of somewhat more than two per woman. I believe that ensuring reproductive freedom and autonomy for all women would bring humanity quickly to such a fertility rate, and through it a peak and eventual gradual decline of world population with intended childbearing and hopefully quite low rates of child and adult mortality. Reproductive freedom and autonomy for all, of course, would include for those who chose not to use any means of managing their own fertility, not even natural contraception, which many people who oppose modern or artificial contraception do use. The choice is the woman’s, ideally in cooperation with her male partner, but failing that, hers alone. Thanks again for writing, and for your comments on the articles and report.

  4. Thanks for your kind and respectful response and understanding. In these conversations, it is important to try to understand the opposite views as well and I think that is often forgotten when this topic is addressed.

    I live in an European country where the birth rates are very low and have been falling for many decades now. We currently have a huge amount of old people but compared to them, just a small amount of taxpayers who could support the aging population, health care system etc. (we have a free public health care system for everyone here). On a government level, there have been several attempts to try to encourage people to have more than the average 1.8 kids. There are e.g. some financial benefits and allowances provided for parents with small children. One argument would, of course, be that families with children should not be supported financially at all, especially if they have more than 1 or 2. However, in our country an increasing number of families with kids are living below poverty line – without the compensations and allowances, the situation would probably be much worse for many. And still, however, future is made of people. Children are the future decision-makers and taxpayers who could hopefully invent solutions to many problems we are encountering and struggling with today. We should take good care of children and invest in them in order to secure better future for the future generations. That is the reason why many governments also want to support families with several children, although they definitely consider the environmental aspect too, but the compromises are needed on a national politics level. I do not know about the situation in US, as you have more immigrants there which probably ensures that you will have enough work force in the future?

    What comes to the sustainability of lifestyles, I think that especially us having more than 1-2 kids have the responsibility to live as simply and modestly as possible. Our family, for example, has chosen a quite voluntary simplicity way of living: we live in a small flat apartment (far below current average housing standards), mainly use just public transport, buy the majority of our stuff recycled etc. I often have mixed feelings looking at childless couples, or families with one or two kids, driving SUVs, traveling around the world, buying all the latest toys for children… I recently read somewhere that an average American spends over 40USD per child on Christmas presents! That was shocking news to me – we have never used that amount of money even for presents for the whole family, that sounds just horrible conspicuous consumption. I kind of tend to agree what is said that the lifestyle matters as well. We all Westerners should cut off consumption, be happy with less space, less money, less food, less stuff… but it still seems that the majority of people are not ready that yet (I am hoping some day they will!) The fewer children you have, the higher standard of living you often have and the more you spend on your child. China’s “little emperors” are a good example of that. In contrast to that, children who are grown up in bigger “tribes” also are more happy with less, accustomed to share things etc. I can notice it in my own children as well.

    In the State of the World report, I also paid attention to the point of intentionality that you mentioned. In the report’s article related to this topic one of the key messages (if I remember right) was that the majority of pregnancies globally are unwanted and if the just could be prevented, the situation would be much better with the population growth. For me personally, it sounds incredibly sad that there even exists such a concept of “unwanted pregnancy”, although that is still the reality. For me personally, the point is not about having as many children as possible, but rather leaving oneself totally into bigger (God’s) hands. Therefore, the natural birth control that you mentioned, is not an option for me either. It is not about methods but more about attitude, mindset: am I try to control things, play God, prevent pregnancy even if that would be God’s will – be the method whatever? Definitely, the majority of world’s population see no problem here and there are huge amounts of women around the globe who desperately desire access to contraception in order to pursue something more than childbearing. The main point of my comment was just to mention that there are also other viewpoints: not all women are similar and share similar aspirations. The attitudes towards bigger families seem to get even more hostile and the dialogue is often difficult if the other party does not see or understand where the other is coming from and why. Thanks again for your understanding and kind response.

  5. A small correction to the previous comment: I recently read somewhere that an average American spends over 400 USD per child on Christmas presents! – 400, not 40! One zero was missing 🙂

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