The Context

Almost weekly there have been reports on the impacts from climate change on specific locales, regions, and the globe.  This concentration of activity is, of course, tied to the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting in Copenhagen in December 2009 where the parties will determine how to proceed after the Kyoto Protocol, or not.  The big three challenges at the meeting will be to what extent the industrialized countries agree to cap greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, how developing countries can begin to limit their emissions, and how the former can aid the latter in funds and technology for mitigating and adapting to the climate changes.  

The present report, “Facing a Changing World,”focuses on how climate change will affect vulnerable populations.  As the “Foreward” argues, “climate change is more than an issue of energy efficiency or industrial carbon emissions; it is also an issue of population dynamics, poverty and gender equity.”

At the outset it is necessary to indicate that the report does not call for any form of population control as that term, and what it represents, is not acceptable to the UNFPA. In the past there were efforts to “control” population through direct government intervention and limits on fertility levels.  That approach has been roundly rejected and current policies rely on women and their partners deciding if and when to have children, with support for family planning and reproductive health care and other basic health and education services.

The Report

The report builds on earlier work from the UN on population dynamics.  In1994 the  International Conference on Population and Development, or ICPD, adopted a program based on the position that if needs for family planning and reproductive health care are met, along with other basic health and education services, then population stabilization will occur naturally, not as a matter of coercion or control.  Some of that goal was to be met by universal access to reproductive health, improved education for girls, and gender equality.

After reviewing the science of climate change and the general impacts from those changes, the report analyzes the relative contributions to the problem from developed and developing countries.   Between 1850 and 2002, developed countries contributed over 76% of carbon dioxide (CO2) from fossil fuel combustion now in the atmosphere whereas developing countries added 24%. The GHGs in the atmosphere now, that are causing wide-spread environmental risks, are from developed countries, yet the health and other risks are being paid by people developing countries.

The source of GHGs is changing, however, as developing countries, particularly of course China and India, are now emitting over 50% of all GHGs, largely as the result of a growing affluence and population.  But per capita emissions remain substantially higher in developed countries.

The report also analyzes the relative contribution to GHG emissions from the increase in numbers of people and from the increase in consumption of each person.  Stabilizing population growth will help control GHG emissions, from the sheer reduction in number of people, and universal access to voluntary family planning helps stabilize population growth.   Fewer people does not necessarily lead to lower levels of GHG emissions, as a richer life style often accompanies lower population growth.   Reductions depend on the fewer people becoming less reliant on fossil fuels, through individual action or government policies and programs.

Even if GHG emissions are controlled now — a very big “if” — some adaptation to the effects of climate change will be required by just about everybody and every country.  And while adaptation in developing countries may be funded by industrialized countries, the hard work of determining and implementing the specific adaptation actions will fall on the people in those developing countries.  The report argues that women must be given a voice in that process.  In many instances, women will have to make the adjustments to food production necessitated by climate change as they have the primary responsibility for farming in many developing countries.

With regard to any financial aid from developed countries to assist developing countries in technology transfers and adaptation  strategies, the report warns that such support cannot simply be a bookkeeping entry giving existing “development aid” a new name “adaptation aid” without more funds being provided.

The report also addresses the complicated issue of population movements that result from climate change – environmentally induced population movements. Whether people leave their homes because of environmental conditions depends on a host of factors, including incomes, social networks, and options available.  The report acknowledges that people have always moved in response to changing conditions, as they did as a result of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s in America.  Migration is in some respects an adaptive response to socio-economic, cultural and environmental change.  But the population movement resulting from climate change will be on a scale not seen before, with estimates ranging up to half a billion people displaced and perhaps over a very short period, perhaps years.

In the past, most of the environmental refugees came from rural areas in least developed countries.  That could well change as sea rise begins to threaten, and damage or destroy, urban areas where 60% of the world’s population lives.  There are twelve  cities on coastal areas with populations of more than ten million, and the one million people displaced by hurricane Katrina may be a sign of things to come.  It is not just the headline-grabbing environmental disasters that will displace people, but the slow developing, gradual environmental changes – water scarcity,  desertification, coastal and soil erosion – will take their toll.  During these crises, women have less access to information and more responsibility for caring for the young and the old and therefore they suffer more at such times.

One of the strengths of the report is its documentation, often through side-bar stories but also in the main text, of the concrete impacts from climate change on women as a result of the still wide-spread gender inequality.  For example, more women and girls die as result of disasters than men and boys.  Sometimes it’s as simple as girls not being taught how to swim or climb trees, so they have fewer options for escaping rising water.  Sometimes it’s as complicated as when a father tried to hold on to a son and daughter during a tidal surge but had to let go of one and chose to let go of the daughter as the son had to carry on the family line.

While the global issues and major international players will take center stage in Copenhagen in several weeks, this report serves as a welcome reminder that back stage there are millions of women  and vulnerable populations that will have to live with the decisions, or lack of decisions, taking place on that stage.

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