As the Copenhagen climate conference convenes this week, a few crucial issues are likely to remain in the background, shrouded in taboo. Foremost among them is the role of birth control in dealing with climate change.
Family planning should certainly be part of the discussion, since slower population growth has the potential to slow climate change and make societies more resilient to it. But because of bad associations with “population control” policies such as China’s one-child rule and India’s forced vasectomies of the 1970s, the intersection of climate and contraception is radioactive. Few governments are interested in talking about it.
If women wanted all the children they are having, it would be indefensible to make an argument that they should reduce their fertility for the good of the planet. But there’s a lot of evidence that women are desperate to limit their childbearing.
The United Nations predicts the world’s population will surpass 9 billion by 2050 and, depending on fertility trends, could surge to 10.5 billion. Brian O’Neill, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, has estimated that slowing population growth to 8 billion would eliminate between 1 and 2 billion tons of carbon emissions annually.
Just as importantly, the places where population is growing most rapidly—such as sub-Saharan Africa—are going to be among the hardest hit by climate disasters such as hurricanes, droughts, and disappearing coastlines. Ever increasing population numbers will make responding to these events all the more difficult, as weather crises victimize more and more people, destroying coastal communities and harvests and incubating virulent disease strains. Yet “fear of appearing supportive of ‘population control’ has until recently held back any mention of ‘population’ in the climate debate,” said a November report by the United Nations Population Fund. “Nonetheless, some participants in the debate are tentatively suggesting the need at least to consider the impacts of population growth.”
They have to be very tentative indeed, because the subject is immensely sensitive for reasons that go beyond squeamishness about sex. In the 1960s and 1970s, the United States led an international panic over overpopulation. Serious people were convinced that rapid population growth was going to lead to apocalyptic political upheavals and terrible human suffering. “The battle to feed all of humanity is over,” Paul Ehrlich wrote in his 1968 smash, The Population Bomb. “In the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”
Even George H.W. Bush earned the nickname “Rubbers” for his obsession with population control. In 1973, he wrote, “Success in the population field, under United Nations leadership, may, in turn, determine whether we can resolve successfully the other great questions of peace, prosperity, and individual rights that face the world.”
But disasters on the scale Ehrlich predicted never happened. And coercive population control made many religious groups, feminists, and human rights advocates suspicious of all arguments about population.
This uneasiness has persisted. Talking about population as a component of climate change can seem like blaming the fecundity of poor women—rather than profligate consumption in rich countries—for our environmental crisis. After all, the average American uses far more of the world’s resources than the average African. The poorest billion people in the world are responsible for a mere 3 percent of the world’s total carbon footprint. If anyone’s population growth is causing environmental problems, it’s ours, not theirs.
But nature lacks a sense of justice, and so the countries most responsible for climate change will not be those hardest hit by its results. “Loss of healthy life years as a result of global environmental change (including climate change) is predicted to be 500 times greater in poor African populations than in European populations,” The Lancet recently reported. Climate change is going to make it even harder for the poorest parts of the world to absorb their rapidly growing populations.
Nor is it desirable for poor people to keep using so few resources. As Kathleen Mogelgaard, senior program manager for population and climate at Population Action International, points out, one reason a country like Madagascar has such modest emissions is that it lacks electricity even in many health centers. That needs to change. “The very low per capita emissions of some of the countries experiencing rapid population growth is not something we want to see continue,” says Mogelgaard. Most projections assume, perhaps optimistically, that poor people will eventually start using more of their fair share.
She adds, “It’s our contention that a slower population growth trajectory would enable more people to come out of energy poverty while continuing to have an atmosphere that can protect and sustain us without negative human consequences.”
If women wanted all the children they are having, it would be indefensible to make an argument that they should reduce their fertility for the good of the planet. But there’s a lot of evidence that women are desperate to limit their childbearing. Almost 20 million women in poor countries resort to unsafe abortions each year, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Contraceptive shortages are endemic in much of Africa. Climate change isn’t a reason to force unwanted interventions on women. It’s a reason to mobilize an often-indifferent world to give women what they need.
“Women themselves, when they have the options to do everything that men can do—to not get pregnant and to have sex when they want to—having more women able to do that will lead us toward lower levels of fertility, which will be good, among other things, for climate change,” says Robert Engelman, vice president at the Worldwatch Institute and the lead author of the UNFPA report. “As the public becomes more educated about the connections between women, women’s rights, population, and climate change, there can be more understanding and more support for family planning.”
Just don’t expect to hear very much talk about it in Denmark. “The world’s nations are not at all at the point where they can even really make an overall agreement on climate change, let alone say that we ought to make family planning part of that agreement,” says Engelman. “That’s still, I suspect, years away.”
Get Involved: Population Action International advocates for family planning access in the developing world, especially in regions hard-hit by climate change. The United Nations Population Fund distributes condoms and provides other reproductive health services.
Michelle Goldberg is the author of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World and Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. She is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and her work has appeared in The New Republic, The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, Glamour, and many other publications.