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Reaching Out at Rio: Population Growth, Family Planning, and Environmentalists

The results of a recent survey show “environmentalists are ready to talk about population, they’re ready to listen – it’s not toxic,” said Nancy Belden.

Date & Time

Feb. 22, 2012
12:00pm – 2:00pm ET
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“Promoting women’s empowerment is an effective strategy for looking at climate and the environment but also is important in its own right,” said the Sierra Club’s Kim Lovell at the Wilson Center on February 22. “Increasing access to family planning for women around the world is a climate adaptation and climate mitigation solution.”

Drawing on research by Brian O’Neill (National Center for Atmospheric Research) and others Lovell explained that meeting the unmet need for family planning around the world could provide up to 16 to 29 percent of the emissions reductions required by 2050 in order to avoid more than two degrees of warming (the target set by nations to prevent the most damaging effects of climate change).

For environmentalists and those concerned with climate change, “sometimes the idea has been that population is toxic, that we can’t talk about population growth,” said Nancy Belden of Belden Russonello and Stewart Consulting, but the results of a recent survey and several focus groups conducted in association with Americans for UNFPA demonstrate that there is great potential for engaging the environmental community in such a discussion.

Belden and Lovell were joined by Kate Sheppard from Mother Jones to discuss how the population and environment communities can come together in the lead-up to the Rio+20 UN sustainable development conference.

Besides providing a basic health commodity, empowering women through access to family planning also improves adaptation outcomes, said Lovell. “Climate change is already happening and women and families around the world are suffering from the effects of water scarcity [and] of erratic weather patterns,” she said. But “when women have the ability to plan their family size and have more choices about their families and about their reproductive health and rights, that makes it easier to adapt to those climate change effects that are already taking place.”

Resonating With Environmental Priorities

“The people who really care about the environment are generally the same people who care about access to contraception and birth control and family planning…they’re a ready audience to hear about these connections and they’re a ready audience to take action about them,” said Kate Sheppard. Reproductive rights issues are something that people can really connect with, she said; “most women, most men too…understand why it’s an important issue and they’ve understood it in their own life and they have [a] very strong response to it.” 

When we approach the linkages between environment and population, said Sheppard, it is important to recognize the role of empowering language – language about access to services, education, and resources for women – a rights-based approach.

The aim of the Americans for UNFPA survey aim was to find out whether environmentalists can be engaged in discussions of population issues such as family planning and international voluntary contraception, and if so, how?

The results show that “environmentalists are ready to talk about population, they’re ready to listen – it’s not toxic,” said Belden. She outlined three key findings: 

First, environmentalists prioritize the environment but they also give a high priority to empowering women, said Belden. “Population pressures are seen as an environmental problem…they don’t dismiss it,” yet the “strongest framework that we could come up with…for engaging people on the issues around voluntary family planning and contraception focuses on women.”

Second, the environmental community is relatively optimistic about the potential outcomes of family planning programs and of foreign aid in general. When queried, half of the environmentalists strongly supported the idea of U.S. contributions to UN programs that provide voluntary access to contraception in developing countries, said Belden.

When asked to mark their top priority among a list of possible outcomes of providing voluntary access to contraception, 47 percent of the environmentalists selected either “improving living conditions for women and their families” or “ensuring women have options and can make reproductive decisions” as their top priority. While a significant number are also concerned about stalling population growth, this integrative focus on improving the lives of women and their families is heartening, said Belden. 

In the Run-Up to Rio+20, More Than Pop

One point that all three speakers stressed is the need to integrate consumption into the integrated population message. In her survey work, Belden found that “if you don’t talk about consumption in the same breath, [environmentalists] start wanting to put it in there because otherwise…this is someone blaming others.” 

Lovell similarly highlighted that “if we’re working to ensure a sustainable planet for future generations to come, we have to think about consumption and population.” For instance, “the United States makes up five percent of the world’s population but consumes 25 percent of the world’s resources,” she said. 

Said Sheppard: “It’s not simply a problem that the numbers of people here on the Earth are going up, it’s a problem of how people, especially here in the U.S., live.”

It is imperative – especially from a sustainable development standpoint – that while working towards integrating environment and population we remain focused on a message that includes “using less but still having a high quality of life” here at home, said Sheppard.


Hosted By

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

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