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Population and Pollution

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Q&A with NRDC Visionary Kathleen Mogelgaard

So much of what we talk about when we discuss the need to reduce global warming pollution is telling people what they can’t do, such as driving big cars and cutting down forests. Kathleen Mogelgaard is a senior advisor on population, gender, and climate at Population Action International, a research and advocacy organization focused on improving reproductive health and family planning services around the world. She suggests we try another approach: What if we protect biodiversity and address climate change and other environmental challenges through family planning and reproductive health services for women? Mogelgaard, who devoted the past decade to research, policy, and advocacy on population and environmental issues, will discuss population growth and climate change in her lecture at the Natural Resources Defense Council as part of its Visionary Speaker Series.

How would you describe the work of Population Action International?

When we look at population on a global scale, we’re seeing an increase of about 78 million people every year, a pretty substantial number. A lot of what PAI does is to think about how we can help meet the needs of women who would like to avoid pregnancies but don’t have access to the kinds of health services that we in the developed world take for granted. If we extend health services and improve access to reproductive health and family planning, we will contribute to healthier women, healthier children, and, at the same time, slow population growth.

How does being a healthier woman, with better control over your reproductive health, affect climate change or slow population growth?

We know from studies that women are disproportionately vulnerable to climate change in the developing world. The kinds of shifting temperatures and precipitation patterns that we are seeing with climate change have significant effects on water supplies and agricultural production. Women have to walk farther to get water, for instance. They’re more likely to go hungry because, when food is limited, they will feed their family first and themselves last. Addressing a woman’s needs for reproductive health and family planning enables her to make decisions about the number and spacing of her children. It gives a woman greater control over the natural resources and financial resources in her life. It contributes to her family’s ability to survive the impact of climate change.

Demographers at the United Nations tell us that world population, 6.8 billion people today, could grow to 9.2 billion by 2050. That’s actually a middle-range projection. It could be as high as 10.5 billion or as low as 8 billion. The path of future population growth will depend in large part on the access women have to contraception. A really important part of how population is going to grow in the future is fertility, the number of children born per woman. Universal access to reproductive health and family planning is an important goal called for in the Millennium Development Goals and during the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development. What’s interesting about that medium projection is that when U.N. demographers released those projections, they made it very clear that to achieve the 9.2 billion by 2050 requires greater access to and use of family planning services around the world than we’re seeing today.

How do you tackle the cultural concerns of those who prefer that Westerners not tell them how many children to have or the size of their country’s population?

In many parts of the world, there is a cultural preference for larger families. But what we find in most places is that women want to be able to make decisions about when to have children. Around the world, 215 million women would like to avoid a pregnancy but lack modern contraception. It’s not simply access to health services that determines the size of a family. There are other important factors like gender equity, access to education, and access to economic opportunities. In addition to promoting universal access to reproductive health care and family planning, there are important programs that lead to greater gender equity, things like ensuring that girls stay in school, for example, and have greater economic opportunities. These are things that help bring people out of poverty and also have relationships to family size.

When you improve the education and economic opportunities of a specific population, don’t you also increase that population’s consumption rate?

We need smart policies all around in order to achieve the kind of sustainable development that would allow for increasing the well-being of the poorest and most vulnerable around the world while at the same time protecting the global atmosphere for all of us. When education and economic opportunity improve, fertility will decline if women have access to contraception. In order to truly achieve sustainable development, we’re going to have to address energy poverty. Is there electricity in schools or paved roads for people to use to get to a market to sell goods? That kind of energy poverty is not something we want to see as a perpetual condition for the poorest people around the world. That means that emissions that come from those activities, for some people, will have to increase. We need to be working on all fronts to ensure that renewable energy sources are tapped into and available, that green technology is spread and shared worldwide, that we find other ways to take carbon out of the atmosphere.

Why does the focus of this effort seem to be on poorer, developing countries when it is the United States, the industrial West, and China that contribute more to climate change?

Where we see population growing most rapidly is in some of the poorest countries of the world. Right now, those are countries whose environmental footprint is very, very small. Population growth in Ethiopia right now is not contributing in a significant way to greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. We wouldn’t want that very low per capita energy consumption in Ethiopia to be a perpetual condition for Ethiopia. At the same time, population growth in a country like the United States has a much, much greater impact in terms of contributing to greenhouse emissions. It’s critical that we think about how we reduce energy consumption in the United States and that we do everything that we can to ensure that the highest energy-emitting countries are putting some strong policies in place to bring their greenhouse gas emissions down, that we work towards an equitable international agreement, while at the same time sustainable development can proceed.

We believe that meeting the reproductive health and family planning needs of women and families around the world could contribute to those solutions. It’s not the silver bullet, for sure, but if we’re able to really look at the reproductive health and gender dimensions of sustainable development, we’ll be able to cope with the impacts of climate change and also enable a greater prospect for sustainable development globally.

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Michael O. Allen, a veteran writer, researcher and editor, began covering sustainable growth in the late 1980s at the Burlington (Vt.) Free Press. He has an extensive career as a journalist, and the New York Association of Black Journalists awarded h... READ MORE >