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Women's Health: Key to Climate Adaptation Strategies

“If we want to have a people-focused understanding of resilience then…reproductive health, women’s ability to choose, and the number and spacing and occurrence of birth is, I think, at the very center of that,” said David Schensul of the UNFPA.

Date & Time

Feb. 27, 2012
12:00pm – 2:00pm ET


5th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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The discussion about family planning and reproductive rights “needs to be in a place where we can talk thoughtfully about the fact that yes, more people on this planet – and we’ve just crossed seven billion – does actually put pressure on the planet. And no, it is not just black women or brown women or Chinese women who create that problem,” said Kavita Ramdas, executive director for programs on social entrepreneurship at Stanford University. Ramdas was joined by Daniel Schensul, technical specialist at the United Nations Population Fund and Kathleen Mogelgaard, independent consultant and former senior advisor at Population Action International (PAI) at the Wilson Center on February 27. The day’s topic: the role of family planning and reproductive health initiatives in climate change adaptation strategies.

Population, Women’s Health, and Adapting to Climate Change

“If we want to have a people-focused understanding of resilience then…reproductive health, women’s ability to choose, and the number and spacing and occurrence of birth is, I think, at the very center of that,” said David Schensul. “There is no such thing as an isolated vulnerability…we have to think about it holistically,” he continued; “governments work in sectors, often UN organizations work in sectors, but people experience their lives from morning to night.” 

“[Climate] adaption is absolutely essential… [but] it has not been considered with a perspective that population matters,” Schensul explained. He drew on mapping work by Population Action International to illustrate the collision of population growth, projected declines in agriculture, water stress, and low resilience to climate change in many parts of the world. These links represent a “critical, and in general, forgotten relationship,” he said.

It is important to note, however, that when the climate conversation shifts from vulnerability to emissions, population is in many cases not the most important factor. “Between 1900 and 2000 the U.S. tripled in size,” explained Schensul, “think about the implications of that tripling when you emit 20 tons per year [per capita].” In comparison, “between 1950 and 2000 the Democratic Republic of the Congo quadrupled in population and emits basically zero.” 

“Incidentally, the amount [of greenhouse gases] that people emit correlates inversely with their fertility,” Schensul said. “Slowing your population growth rate sometimes means increasing your emissions and consumption and production.” The key, he said, is to integrate population and reproductive rights into climate adaptation responses, while also pursuing ways to turn “the development trajectory from a high-emissions one to a low-emissions one” – the fabled “green economic transition.”

Finding an Entry Point

“Universal access to reproductive health does represent a win-win opportunity for climate change adaptation,” said Kathleen Mogelgaard. But there is a real need to raise awareness about population dynamics and the existing literature on population issues within climate change circles, she said. 

Contraception and reproductive health programs produce a triple benefit: many organizations are experienced implementers of these programs, reproductive health services are in demand by women around the world, and they are relatively inexpensive, said Mogelgaard. “To fully meet women’s needs for family planning around the world it would cost an additional $3.6 billion,” she said – a small sum in the world of climate change response. In short, the ways and means exist to use reproductive health programs as a low cost pathway towards increase resilience to environmental and climate related threats. 

Literacy can be enhanced through providing better tools and training, such as CARE’s Climate Vulnerability and Capacity Analysis Handbook, and by making a concerted effort to include integrated population, health, and environment approaches, including family planning, into programs that seek to address climate change threats and impacts. Such approaches are effective models for action on climate change, said Mogelgaard, but, so far, there are few studies in peer-reviewed literature to support them, she said.

Unfortunately, even when the opportunity is recognized, it is not necessarily translated into action. Mogelgaard presented analysis by PAI’s Karen Hardee and Clive Mutunga on the UN’s National Adaptation Programs of Action assessments that found of the 41 assessments completed at the time of analysis, 37 countries identified population growth as an issue that exacerbated vulnerability. However, only 6 of these 37 placed reproductive health issues as a top priority for action, only two identified priority projects in this sphere, and neither of these projects has been funded.

The Need for a More Open Dialogue

In addition to the practical arguments for including reproductive health in climate strategies, Ramdas pointed to the rights-based argument. Throughout the 1990s, the international community built “acommitment to empowering, educating, and giving women and girls the right to be fully equal citizens in this world,” she said. But today there is a sense that “we have significantly lost ground from a place where there had been really, fairly unanimous global consensus.”

Kavita described family planning and reproductive rights as a “last taboo.” “There is now no comfortable way for people to talk about the relationships between…access to voluntary family planning, and access to contraception, and the implications for our planet,” she said. According to her, this discomfort makes it difficult for the environmental and population communities to come together.

“We are having a conversation…that essentially is completely squeamish about the notion that addressing questions of women’s empowerment is not just about education – girls behind a desk and having libraries,” Ramdas said. “Yes, educated girls and women do have better chances…but it doesn’t happen automatically and it has to happen in concurrence with a thoughtful and active strategy around making contraception available to communities around the globe.”

A commitment to family planning and reproductive rights is “a way to achieve our larger goals as a global community around population stability, sustainability, and both economic and environmental development,” said Ramdas. We must be free to ask “how to think about population, development, and women’s rights in the same breath,” she said.


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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