by Nina Somera, Isis International

[Editor’s Note: A much briefer version of this article appeared in Arrows for Change, Vol. 15, No.1. Meanwhile, a more comprehensive version will appear in the forthcoming issue of Bank Watch]

“Population trends are intimately connected to the growth of GHGs that cause climate change.”

This was one of the overarching statements made by some reproductive health groups that participated in the recently concluded Conference of Parties (COP) 15 in Copenhagen, Denmark. The statement may not be sweeping for it builds on the national adaptation programmes of action (NAPAs) of some 41 least developing countries. Six of these explicitly cited population control as a priority measure that must be funded, along with many others that can build a community’s resilience to drastic changes in temperature and sea level. But the statement was also largely unnoticed given the intense debates on the very basic issues of greenhouse gas emissions reduction and historical responsibilities.


Nonetheless the issue of population control is bound to linger and resurface more prominently in the upcoming COPs. In Copenhagen, groups like the Population Action International pointed out that unlike the calls for population control in the past, the current demand is coming from the ground, especially as the NAPAs are supposed to be borne out of public consultations. It is also shared by both low and high-income countries as well as international financial institutions like the World Bank , that control the Global Environment Fund (GEF), a funding window that is eyed for NAPAs.

In their paper, “Climate Change and Family Planning: Least Developed Countries Define the Agenda,” that analysed the case of Ethiopia, Leo Bryant and his colleagues asserted that any population control measure has to be voluntary, responding to a community’s need to adapt to climate change rather than the international concern on overpopulation. Such measure must also be integrated into broader development plans. Some youth groups also echo this demand, citing that half of today’s population are people under the age of 25 whose choices “will directly determine the well-being of people around the world for generations to come.”

Yet a number of feminists were not budging and with good reasons. To begin with, many were more keen on obtaining a better deal in terms of reasonable GHG emissions cut and substantial public funding particularly for the adaptation and mitigation measures of developing countries. More importantly, many women also saw population control as another false solution that puts the blame of climate change on women’s bodies. As Titi Soentoro of NGO Forum on the ADB maintained, “Someone must be victimized by such a program and who else but women. Why not control industries, and governments and direct them to cut their emissions?”

The link between population control and climate change in terms of amount of emission is likewise untenable. Women are among those who have the least carbon footprint. Further the GHG emissions have strong class and race dimensions, where at the bottom of the pyramid are people living below poverty clearance, people who are residing in rural areas and indigenous peoples, among many others.

Tamra Gilbertson of Carbon Watch -Transnational Institute also pointed out, “This population discussion is really frightening and lacks any historical reference to how women have been abused by the system in terms of their reproductive rights and health. Women have been experimented on, lied to and sterilized with treatments.” Moreover population control programs have yet to be framed in a way that thoroughly accounts for sexual diversity, thus they continue to target the sexual desires of Southern women and devalue our abilities to reproduce.

While climate change is indeed an opportunity to advocate for women’s agency through their sexual and reproductive rights, it is simply a wrong venue. It helps governments and industries digress from the real issues of GHG emissions reduction and historical responsibilities. It also betrays reproductive justice that is located in the broader contexts of women’s human rights and social justice.

Climate change is certainly an “intergenerational” issue as claimed by the Global Youth Support Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) for a Just and Sustainable World. But then it is also intersectional and ultimately, systemic. It is a problem of the insatiable desire to control our world, our environment, our communities, our lives and our bodies.

British Broadcasting Corporation (2009). “Website appeal to fund family planning 'to cut CO2'
Bryant, Leo (2009). “Climate Change and Family Planning: Least Developed Countries Define the Agenda” in Bull World Health Organ (Vol.87).
Global Youth Support Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) for a Just and Sustainable World. (2009). “COP15 Policy Statement.” (copy text).
Gosine, Andil. (2009). “Monster, Womb, MSM: The Work of Sex in International Development” in Development (Vol. 52, No.1).
Population Action International. (2009). Executive Summary of “Population and Reproductive Health in National Adaptation Programmes of Action.”
_________. (2009). “Linking Population, Fertility and Family Planning with Adaptation to Climate Change. Views from Ethiopia.”
_________. (2009). “The Importance of Population for Climate Change Challenges and Solutions” in FACTSheet (Vol. 37).
Interview with Titi Soentoro (9 January 2010).
Correspondence with Tamra Gilbertson (4 December 2009)

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