Women in Bangkok, Thailand, march to demand gender and climate justice.UNITED NATIONS, New York (WOMENSENEWS)–Milbry C. Polk, a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society who has traveled throughout the Middle East, Asia and the Arctic, recently trudged into new political territory.

At the tail end of a panel discussion on women’s participation in environmental policy, held in conjunction with the 54th United Nations Commission on the Status of Women meeting earlier this month, Polk uttered a word often considered wise to avoid in women’s advocacy: population.

“The population is at nearly 7 billion right now. We’ve eaten just about everything we can eat out of the ocean and off the land,” Polk told about 60 women at the gathering, hosted by the New York-based interfaith organization Temple of Understanding. “We can forget about any rights-based approaches if we have too many people, because we’ll all lose all our rights.”

In raising the population question, Polk tested a reticence explained by decades of battles to protect women’s rights from the excesses of development planners.

Some population control policies that began in the 1950s and 1960s led to notorious human rights abuses. In the 1970s and 1980s, women in several countries–notably China, India, Peru and Bangladesh–were forcibly sterilized or coerced into abortions. In the early 1970s, USAID provided nearly half a million women overseas with defective intra-uterine devices–bought on the cheap from an American corporation facing a domestic lawsuit–before recalling them in 1975.

By the mid-1990s, the global women’s movement was fighting back and pushing women’s rights into the general spectrum of human rights. This shift was cemented at the U.N.-sponsored 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt, and reaffirmed a year later at the historic Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.

Editors of the Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Center for Women, based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, are defending that territory from the incursion of population discussion in climate politics.

“The dangers of undue emphasis on population reduction to address climate change is clear,” they write in a 2009 report. “It jeopardizes decades of work to advance multifaceted, rights-respecting, environmentally-sound and equitable development work.”

Women’s Fertility at Strategy’s Center

But two reports issued around the same time last year put women and their fertility at the center of carbon-emissions reduction strategies.

Roger Martin, chairman of the U.K. charity Optimum Population Trust, commissioned one of these reports, “Fewer Emitters, Lower Emissions, Less Cost: Reducing Future Carbon Emissions by Investing in Family Planning.” It finds that a $7 investment in family planning would prevent one ton of CO2 emissions between 2010 and 2050; a similar CO2 reduction would take a $32 investment in low-carbon technology.

Martin is surprised by the resistance of reproductive rights activists to use population and climate change arguments.

“There’s not just one reason to empower women, and to give them health and education–because it’s their right–which is what the women’s movement has been saying for ages,” he told Women’s eNews in a recent telephone interview. “There are umpteen reasons. It’s in the whole planet’s interest.”

Martin also asks, wouldn’t one want to use “every possible argument you can throw at donors?”

Tom Wire, who completed his Master of Science in operational research at the London School of Economics, wrote the report by calculating the cost of providing family planning to those who currently want it, estimating the reduction in carbon emissions of a smaller population and then measuring that reduction against what a similar reduction would cost using existing carbon technology.

He says the central message of the report is the need to extend contraception services to women who want it.

“We are looking entirely at meeting an unmet need, so people who’ve expressed a need or want for family planning, but for some reason don’t have it. So in no way could it possibly be seen as coercive,” he said in a recent telephone interview.

The report “Reproduction and the Carbon Legacies of Individuals,” by Paul A. Murtaugh and Michael G. Schlax, two professors at Oregon State University, also came out late last year. It finds that in choosing to have children, parents bear a responsibility for the carbon emissions of later generations. It does not address the idea of an unmet need for contraception.

Women Eliminated from Conference Docs

At another panel associated with the U.N. Commission on Women meeting–on gender and the Copenhagen discussions–Cate Owren, program director at the New York-based nongovernmental organization the Women’s Environment and Development Organization, said references to women and gender equality were steadily eliminated from drafts of documents throughout the negotiations leading up to and during the Copenhagen climate talks.

Speakers at the panel noted how women were particularly affected by climate change and acknowledged the potential roles they could play in mitigating it. But no mention of population was made throughout the session.

“We’ve partnered with UNFPA where we’ve ventured a little bit into population issues, but to be honest we treat it very, very carefully,” Owren told Women’s eNews after the event. “We are very, very careful about the way we talk about populations. But of course we’re deeply concerned about what we call population dynamics–migration, urbanization and changes in makeup of our societies–that will deeply affect climate change.”

Sandeep Bathala, director of the Sierra Club’s Global Population and Environment Program, stressed that the two issues were not anathema to one another.

“It is possible to have a rights-based approach,” she told Women’s eNews in an interview. “‘Control’ is not something we work around. We work around empowerment and access.”

Old Adversary Resurfacing

Frances Kissling, founder and former president of Catholics for Choice and one of the key figures behind the rights-based approach to sexual and reproductive health adopted at the International Conference on Population and Development, sees an old adversary in the climate-change corner.

“These are the old pop-control people coming forward,” she said. “They have this one new statistic that’s sexy, the $7.”

Kissling said that “historically, arguments about environment and population growth lent themselves to the justification of coercive measures.” At the same time, she acknowledged a growing openness within the women’s community to ideas on population.

“There’s a diversity of opinion and a new interest in linking population and climate change,” she said.

Robert Engelman is vice president of programs at the Worldwatch Institute and author of “More: Population, Nature and What Women Want” and the 2009 UNFPA State of the World’s population report.

“It’s obvious we’ll be more successful combating climate change if we have a smaller population. That is logically unassailable,” he said in a telephone interview.

“Population and gender are different but related. They’re both especially significant connections to climate change that are under-discussed,” he added. “If a bridge could be built between them, then we could have a lot more impact with policymakers.”

Anna Louie Sussman is a freelance journalist whose work has also appeared in the Nation, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.

For more information:

UNPFA State of World Population 2009 report on women and climate change

Optimum Population Trust

Women’s Environment and Development Organization