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Population and Climate Change - Can We Talk?

ISTANBUL—The workshop I’ve been attending in this ancient city drew 31 people—ranging from a member of the British parliament to a Dutch women’s rights advocate to a Hungarian environmentalist—to talk about whether it makes sense to bring population into the global debate on climate change.

Tough question, given that most of the responsibility for human-induced global warming stems from the past behavior of wealthier nations, most of whose populations are now growing relatively slowly or not at all. Workshop participants thus worried that taking on population would risk giving a pass to the disproportionately high carbon consumption these nations enjoy.

Many of these participants work to support a concept known by the unwieldy acronym of SRHR—for sexual and reproductive health and rights. Never heard of it? Neither have most people, and that makes the work of these dedicated professionals all the harder. They are promoting, after all, the right of all people to be sexually active when and as they choose, in safety and health, and to conceive a child only if and when they want. Should be pretty basic, but not much of the world prioritizes SRHR or strongly enough supports the health services needed to make it possible for all.

In More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want, I mildly chide some in the SRHR community for eschewing a potential alliance with environmentalists who see the benefits of the concept in reducing unintended childbearing and thus slowing population growth. Disconcertingly, many on the SRHR side also see population as a purely “Southern”—or developing-country—issue. The reality is that unintended pregnancy is to varying degrees common in all countries, and it elevates the populations even of high-consuming nations above what they would be if all reproduction were intentional. The already populous United States, for example, grows faster demographically than some developing countries do—in part because nearly half of all U.S. pregnancies are unintended.

This workshop, at least, undermined the criticism I expressed in More. Though all my SRHR-focused colleagues worried—justifiably—about making too simplistic a link between population growth and climate change, almost all were prepared to accept that the link is real and important. Much of the debate was over whether or how to use it in advocacy aimed at improving access to reproductive health services in developing countries. Though no common statement emerged—this was merely a workshop to start a fresh dialogue—participants proposed exploring alliances with likeminded environmentalists in Europe. That’s a step forward, especially given that concern about population growth has long been less common there than in North America.

The participation of two representatives from sub-Saharan Africa made this meeting even more exciting. Both had much to teach the rest of us about applying the connections between population, health, and the environment in communities. “Why don’t we link these at the local level?” asked one participant, whose national government has endorsed the concept. “If we do, we’re much more likely to solve the problems of poverty and energy.”

I wish I could claim these encouraging outcomes came about because More, which treats the evolution of these linkages from the deep past to the near future, had been assigned reading on the planes to Istanbul. Not quite. But at least I was able to sell a few copies to new friends, whose reactions to the book will mean more to me than I would have predicted when I arrived.