Population and climate change get short shrift in the media—that is, until Rush Limbaugh urges you to commit suicide
. It’s a disturbing sign that this extremely complex topic
only gets play when the knives come out. And as this summer’s health care circus demonstrates, the blogosphere is often more interested in covering the shouting than the issues at hand.
So what happened? At the Wilson Center last week, the New York Times’ Andrew Revkin (via Skype) mentioned a thought experiment he had put forward in a recent post on his blog: “Should you get credit — if we’re going to become carbon-centric — for having a one-child family when you could have had two or three. And obviously it’s just a thought experiment, but it raises some interesting questions about all this.”
Limbaugh, picking up on a post on CNS.com, a conservative online news outlet, said Revkin and “militant environmentalists, these wackos, have so much in common with the jihad guys.” The furor was reported by a number of news blogs, including NYT’s Paul Krugman, the Guardian, and Politico.
An earlier and more substantial account by Miller-McCune’s Emily Badger deftly hits the highlights, including some historical context from The Nation’s Emily Douglas. While earlier projections assumed population growth would decline following the dissemination of birth control in the West, “that assumption turned out to be false,” said Douglas, because women in developing countries have not received similar access to contraceptives.
Indeed, as Worldwatch Institute’s blog post on the event points out, “an estimated 200 million women who want to avoid pregnancy are risking it anyway because they have inadequate access to contraception and related reproductive health services.”
I’m disheartened that this kerfluffle follows a recent uptick in thoughtful coverage of the population-climate connection. At a standing-room-only panel (audio) on covering population and environment at the most recent SEJ conference, Baltimore Sun reporter Tim Wheeler (video) said that population “has those challenges of so, what do you do about it, how do you deal with it.” But he said it was reporters’ “constant challenge to continue to wrestle with these issues.”
Moving the wrestling match into the center ring is bringing a new focus to the debate, which could be useful, as Suzanne Petroni writes in the ECSP Report: “A careful discussion of the ways in which voluntary family planning can further individual rights, community development, and, to some extent, climate change mitigation, could increase awareness not only of the outsized contribution of developed nations to global emissions, but also of their appropriate role in the global community.”
As Revkin says at the end of his response to Limbaugh: “And of course there’s the reality that explosive population growth in certain places, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, could be blunted without a single draconian measure, many experts say, simply by providing access to family planning for millions of women who already want it, but can’t get it – whether or not someone gets a carbon credit in the process.”
Family planning advocates—who have long been wary of linking contraception to climate mitigation—would mostly agree with that statement, although they would phrase it a little differently. Better reproductive health care is “an end in itself,” with climate mitigation being the “side effect,” rather than the primary goal, Barbara Crossette writes in The Nation.
Population experts cautiously agree there is a link, but warn that quantifying it is not so simple. At a major conference of demographers in Marrakesh, researchers previewed forthcoming research described the potential for emissions “savings” brought by decreases in fertility.
In the near term, it doesn’t look likely that all this attention will lead to policy action at Copenhagen. Population Action International reports that while almost all of the least developed countries’ adaptation plans mention population as a factor which increases their vulnerability to climate change, only a few state that investing in family planning should part of their strategy.
I encourage you to watch the webcast of the event and add your own (thoughtful) comments to the dialogue below. No suicide threats, please.