What Next? Finding Ways to Integrate Population and Reproductive Health Into Climate Change AdaptationNovember 12, 2012 By Kathleen Mogelgaard
The size, composition, and spatial distribution of human populations are constantly changing, and in some areas of the world, they’re changing very rapidly. Related trends in fertility and reproductive health are also in flux. These changes will affect how people experience climate change, both individually and societally.
We are beginning to see thoughtful discussion of the ways in which population dynamics, including reproductive health, matter for climate change vulnerability and adaptation – and this is a critical first step. But then what? What do we do with that knowledge?
In order to fully capitalize on opportunities that exist for integration, we need to first grapple with a central challenge: among climate specialists – the policymakers, planners, program managers, advocates, and others with responsibility for responding to climate change – understanding of population dynamics remains limited.
Working in the climate change community, I have observed that most climate specialists tend to fall into one of three categories:
- They don’t really think about demographic trends because they are more focused on challenges situated in a specific moment in time;
- They may think about the fact that population is changing, but don’t fully grasp the scale of the changes that are coming (Malawi, where the population is projected to grow from 15 million today to somewhere between 45 and 55 million by 2050, is an example of the massive scale of changes expected in some places); or
- They may understand that population is changing, and in some places changing rapidly, but they think that nothing can be done or believe that “doing something” requires limiting people’s rights.
Population and reproductive health experts can help climate specialists understand some of the basic concepts of population change – not only growth, but also trends in migration, urbanization, and aging. They can explain the complex population projections that demonstrate the range of possibilities for growth within the next generation. And they can point out that future population growth is responsive to policies and programs – particularly rights-based programs that meet women’s needs for family planning and bring us closer to universal access to reproductive health (which is, by the way, a target of the globally agreed Millennium Development Goals).
Understanding which category climate specialists fall into can be helpful in talking with them about integrating population dynamics into their climate change adaptation efforts. But where, specifically, can that integration take place? There are at least four areas where climate change responses can be strengthened through a better understanding of population dynamics.
One: Adaptation Planning Frameworks
Planning to survive and thrive in a changing climate is taking place at local, regional, and national levels. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has created mechanisms for supporting national-level adaptation planning for the most vulnerable countries. The first phase was the development of National Adaptation Programs of Action (NAPAs), in which governments of least developed countries and small island states identified their most urgent and immediate adaptation needs. The next phase will focus on medium- and long-term adaptation needs, through the development of National Adaptation Plans (NAPs).
Population dynamics and reproductive health needs are relevant for both immediate and long-term vulnerability and adaptive capacity and warrant inclusion in these planning frameworks. A 2009 analysis of NAPAs revealed that a vast majority of countries identified population pressure as an issue exacerbating the effects of climate change for their citizens. However, only a handful stated that slowing population growth or meeting needs for reproductive health and family planning should be a priority in their adaptation strategy, and only two countries (Uganda and Sao Tome and Principe) proposed projects with a reproductive health component.
While much remains to be worked out regarding how NAP development will unfold, it is expected that the UNFCCC’s Least Developed Countries Expert Group will oversee planning and support for NAP preparation, including workshops, trainings, technical papers, and regional exchanges.
Now is the time for greater awareness-raising and capacity-building so that planners can accurately assess population dynamics and, where appropriate, incorporate interventions that are responsive to population-related vulnerabilities. As governments turn their attention to developing NAPs for medium- and long-term adaptation, population and reproductive health experts can contribute to national dialogues on adaptation. In particular, their expertise can be effectively applied in the areas outlined below.
Two: Tools and Training
To inform adaptation planning frameworks, like the UNFCCC’s efforts, we need effective training materials on the integration of population dynamics.
Fortunately, this is a process that has already begun: In 2011, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) partnered with Population Action International to develop training modules on population dynamics and climate change. These have been integrated into CC:Learn, the UN training platform on climate change. UNFPA is also in the process of finalizing a comprehensive census manual that can be paired with these training modules to provide hands-on, practical training and tools for the integration of population dynamics into adaptation efforts.
In addition to new tools like these, however, we need to better incorporate an understanding of population dynamics into existing tools for vulnerability assessment and project design. Some tools in use demonstrate missed opportunities; for example, neither the UN Development Programme’s Gender, Climate Change and Community Based Adaptation guidebook or CARE’s Climate Vulnerability and Capacity Analysis Handbook include reference to reproductive health.
Three: Program Design
To be clear, population dynamics do not necessarily play a critical role in every place that is vulnerable to climate change. But in areas where assessments indicate population growth, high fertility, and unmet need for family planning contribute to vulnerability or limit adaptive capacity, integrating reproductive health services into adaptation programming may boost community resilience and support longer-term sustainability.
The good news is that there is a long and rich history of community-based integrated programs that climate change practitioners can draw upon.
Population, health, and environment (PHE) programs aim to simultaneously meet the health and development needs of communities while sustaining the natural resources, environmental services, and biodiversity upon which they (and we, collectively) depend. Because of the way that lack of access to family planning affects the health of women and families, livelihood strategies, the local environment, and achievement of development goals, PHE programs can be very effective in communities that specifically identify lack of access to family planning services as a priority.
PHE shares many elements in common with community-based adaptation (CBA), an emerging strategy for building resilience and adaptive capacity in communities vulnerable to climate change, yet the two communities of practice rarely overlap. Both approaches could be strengthened by sharing experiences, best practices, and tools.
Four: Strengthening the Evidence Base
Over the last several years, the body of work documenting population-climate linkages has grown. Much of the existing evidence was captured in UNFPA’s 2009 State of World Population, which focused on women, population, and climate. Since then, we have seen steady growth in the evidence base that documents and helps us better articulate these relationships.
Population Action International’s Mapping Population and Climate Change website identifies “hotspots” of high climate change vulnerability, rapid population growth, and high projected declines in agricultural productivity. New work from PAI also shows how these relationships are important in the broader pursuit of sustainable development in Africa.
Similarly, a 2012 study by the Futures Group demonstrates that by 2050, a slower population growth path would make up for the caloric shortfall that is likely to arise from the impact of climate change on agriculture and would cut in half the number of underweight children.
While it has been exciting to see this growth in the evidence base, we need to better understand and document population-climate relationships beyond the demographic angle.
We know, for example, that meeting reproductive health needs contributes significantly to some of the development outcomes – healthier women and children, greater opportunities for education and employment, etc. – that are important building blocks of adaptive capacity. However, there has not yet been much research that directly examines how fertility and reproductive health relate to climate vulnerability and adaptive capacity.
One study by Population Action International documents how high fertility and reproductive health needs relate to adaptive capacity in two regions in Ethiopia. Additional studies in diverse settings would strengthen our understanding of the relative importance of these relationships at the household level. And publishing this work in peer-reviewed literature would strengthen prospects for inclusion in the periodic assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which would boost the legitimacy of the linkages in the eyes of many climate specialists.
From Theory to Practice
The devastation caused by recent years’ floods, droughts, and storms has increased the urgency to reduce emissions of the greenhouse gases responsible for climate change. But these events are also a reminder that even with aggressive mitigation action, societies around the globe need to adapt to changes that are already built into the climate system.
As our understanding of population dynamics grows, so too does the need to identify the ways in which that understanding can inform and improve existing and future climate change adaptation efforts.
Population and reproductive health experts have a critical role to play in increasing understanding among climate specialists. Adaptation responses will be more effective when population dynamics are thoughtfully integrated into adaptation planning frameworks, tools, training, and program design. And there is much to gain by expanding multidisciplinary research efforts on the implications of population dynamics for vulnerability and adaptive capacity. Capitalizing on these multiple avenues for comprehensive, integrated approaches to adaptation will increase the likelihood that communities around the globe will be able to survive and thrive amidst a changing climate.
Kathleen Mogelgaard is a writer and analyst on population and the environment, and a consultant for the Environmental Change and Security Program.
Sources: CARE, Futures Group, Population Action International, Scientific American, UN Development Programme, UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, UN Population Division.
Photo Credit: “Flood Relief in Sukker, Pakistan,” courtesy of Jason Tanner/Save the Children.