Webcast Recap

If current projections hold, Africa’s population will more than double in 40 years, putting more people at risk of food, water, health, and economic insecurity as the climate changes, as well as negating progress made in reducing carbon emissions per person. But what if it didn’t?

“Population size is far from immutable,” said Monica Das Gupta at the Wilson Center on March 11, especially if the more than 200 million women who want access to family planning and reproductive health services were provided them. Not only would this boost maternal and child health and be an ethical thing to do, said Kathleen Mogelgaard, a consultant with ECSP, but it could significantly reduce vulnerability to climate change in certain parts of the world.

Deconstructing Vulnerability and Building Resilience

“It needs to be stressed that clearly the poorest countries do not owe it to the world to reduce fertility to help slow the pace of climate change, given the excesses perpetrated by others in the past and currently,” said Das Gupta, a visiting scholar at the Population Reference Bureau and research professor at the University of Maryland. Rather, lower fertility “helps reduce poverty and increase the pace of economic growth, so you have more resources to cope with climate change and fewer people living in places that are extra vulnerable to climate change.”

Lowering fertility by expanding access to voluntary family planning is also the “most tractable option” for adaptation and resilience, said Das Gupta, since many developing countries do not have the fiscal, technical, or administrative capacity to implement complex disaster-prevention measures and infrastructure. “Adaptation isn’t just about developing, building a higher seawall,” said Mogelgaard. “There are all of these kinds of social dimensions of vulnerability that also need to be incorporated into adaptation projects.”

Climate change exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity are the three core components of vulnerability, she said. If you compare the shorelines of a developing and developed country, both experiencing similar extreme weather events, “their level of exposure to those impacts are different simply from the infrastructure that’s available to them.” And “depending on the kinds of livelihood strategies they employ…if they have cars and can drive away from the storm surge, or if they have tight social networks that will help elderly or the very young,” their ability to cope and adapt to the same events will be very different.

Rapid population growth increases the number of people vulnerable to these changes not only through increased density in exposed areas but also because of the types of livelihoods prominent in fast-growing regions, said Mogelgaard:

We know, for example, that population density in coastal areas is increasing at a rate higher than in other areas, we know that there are growing proportions of populations that are dependent on rain-fed agriculture for food security or for livelihood strategies, and we know that when women and families don’t have access to health services, that has lots of implications for household resilience and adaptive capacity to the kinds of changes that are coming with climate change.

“A Basic Human Right”

When it comes to policy, however, the link between access to health services and climate resilience is rarely made, said Mogelgaard. “We do know that things like fertility and population growth can be responsive to policy and programmatic interventions, and yet we don’t see that kind of scenario discussion happening within vulnerability assessments for future climate change impacts.”

Part of the problem could be the perception that climate change and population are controversial issues – some fear coercive methods of “population control,” while climate change has a host of baggage in some parts of the world. But, said Mogelgaard, “if there’s no one creating that space for the discussion, I think it just leaves a vacuum for there either to be less responsible messaging around what these linkages are, or it leaves a vacuum for the next generation coming up not drawing those connections.”

“These issues are clearly very important because they have connections to overall development outcomes,” she said, “but I also want to emphasize that access to health services is seen as a basic human right in its own right.”

Perceptions can change on the local level. For example, in the Philippines, a country already especially vulnerable to extreme weather events, rapid population growth is in part a result of the Catholic Church’s strong influence on restrictive family planning laws. At the community level, however, the panelists pointed out these restrictions are sometimes ignored when people face food shortages and poverty. “On the ground in the Philippines and similarly in Latin America, priests have not put barriers to it because they see what’s going on around them,” Das Gupta said.Mogelgaard recalled a small fishing community in the Philippines, which relied heavily on a local reef for food and financial security. “I remember very clearly having a conversation with a parish priest in a community there who said, ‘I am so concerned about the ability of my parishioners to essentially survive here’…He was completely behind a clinic that supported a broad method, a full method mix, of family planning services for women and families in that community.”

Encouraging Comprehensive Solutions

One potential avenue for combining health and climate change interventions, said Mogelgaard, is the population, health, and environment (PHE) approach to development. “The biggest bang for the buck comes when you set up your health services in areas that are more densely populated,” she said, but it is often the most remote and rural areas where total fertility rates are highest and the need for health services is most dire. In these areas, it may be most cost-effective to combine interventions.

The PHE approach enables partnerships between conservation and health initiatives to save valuable natural resources while providing underserved communities the services and tools they need to make their own decisions about sustainable development. The Lake Chilwa Basin Climate Change and Adaptation Program, for example, started as a conservation project, but when leaders discovered local women could not participate because of a lack of access to family planning, they integrated reproductive health resources into their program, improving participation and reducing population growth in a rights-based way.

One necessary step going forward, regardless of the particular approach to development, said Mogelgaard, is to work towards getting more literature on the links between climate change vulnerability and population dynamics into peer-reviewed publications and the IPCC reports, to “better mainstream these ideas within the scientific community focused on climate change.”

recent report by the World Resources Institute (WRI) on achieving sustainable food supplies is a positive example of how population dynamics can be integrated with another sector, said Mogelgaard. The authors went beyond the usual productivity measures and recommended helping African women reduce their fertility rates by improving school retention rates for young girls and providing better access to health services.

“That to me was really encouraging, to see a group like WRI stepping out on that and really jumping across sectors and thinking about comprehensive solutions,” she said. “We need to be doing that more and more in the climate change adaptation space as well.”

Event Resources:

Drafted by Paris Achenbach, edited by Schuyler Null.


  • Monica Das Gupta

    Research Professor, University of Maryland; Visiting Scholar, Population Reference Bureau
  • Roger-Mark De Souza

    Director of Population, Environmental Security, and Resilience, Wilson Center
  • Kathleen Mogelgaard

    Consultant, Environmental Change and Security Program, Wilson Center