Worldwatch Report #183: Population, Climate Change, and Women’s Lives

Author: Robert Engelman

ISBN: 978-1-878071-96-5
Publication Date: Nov. 2010
44 pages


The growth of population is a major factor behind climate change today. Human-caused climate change is fundamentally an imbalance of scale, as people release heat-trapping gases into Earth’s atmosphere faster than the oceans and living things can remove them. This imbalance stems from both the explosion of technologies made possible through the combustion of fossil fuels since the late 1700s and the more than sevenfold increase in human numbers since that time.

The size of today’s population and its continued growth also put at risk the social and institutional resilience needed to adapt successfully to the impacts of climate change, ranging from sea-level rise to more extreme weather events. Slower population growth followed by a gradual decline in population size would facilitate future reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and help societies adapt to the changes in climate that are now all but inevitable, since (due to the long lag times built into the climate system) they will be the product of emissions that we failed to cut in past years and decades.

Despite its key contribution to climate change, population plays little role in current discussions on how to address this serious challenge, particularly at the governmental level. Although many policymakers would welcome slower population growth, there is a concern that policies to slow growth will violate the right of couples to determine their own family size. Moreover, population is associated with sensitive issues including sexuality, contraception, abortion, migration, and religion. As a result, the debate on climate change tends to focus on the role of human technologies and their economic foundations, rather than on critical human numbers and behaviors.

Yet population dynamics are neither predetermined nor inevitable. Slower population growth and more socially beneficial age distributions based on lower fertility are near-certain outcomes of the development of human capacities. A large share of population growth today results not from reproductive self-determination but from its opposite: unintended pregnancies. Assuring that all pregnancies are welcome would by itself significantly slow population growth. Education for women, which reduces desired family size and fertility, would slow growth further, as would efforts to ease social pressures on women to have early and frequent pregnancies. Together, these steps would result in a gradually declining world population within a few decades.

In crafting policies, population change should be viewed as one element of the historic effort to bring women into equal standing with men. Women and children in poverty are among the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, despite their disproportionately low contribution to the problem. Removing the obstacles that hold back more than 3 billion potential agents of change—women and girls—is both pragmatic and necessary.

Women manage a broad range of consumption and production decisions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As farmers and foresters, they pull carbon out of the atmosphere and sequester it in soils and vegetation. Through cooperative and future-oriented approaches to leadership, as well as a tendency to manage risk more conservatively than men do, they contribute powerfully to social resilience and can help societies adapt to climate change. Increasingly, women also are acting directly on climate change as policymakers and negotiators.

These contributions can advance more powerfully and quickly as women approach legal, economic, and behavioral equality—including sexually and reproductively—with men. The strategies to bring this about this fall into three categories:

  • Eliminating institutional, social, and cultural barriers to women’s full legal, civic, and political equality with men;
  • Improving schooling for all children and youth, and especially increasing educational attainment among girls and women; and
  • Assuring that all women and their partners have access to, and full freedom to use, reproductive health and family planning services so that the highest proportion possible of births results from parents’ intentions to raise a child to adulthood.

Making significant progress in all of these areas will require educating the public and policymakers about the real foundations of population change. It also will require concerted action to improve women’s status, maternal and child health, and access to comprehensive, client-focused family planning services—all while vigilantly protecting the right of women to make their own decisions about childbearing. If we achieve this—and also tackle climate change seriously and directly, recognizing that no human being has more right than any other to alter the global commons of the atmosphere—we will accelerate the transition to population dynamics that help sustain a supportive climate for humanity’s future.

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