The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was grim: basically, the world’s top climatologists say that we have about twelve years to drastically reduce our carbon emissions, or we’ll experience a 1.5 °C increase in the planet’s average temperature. This may not seem like much—after all, the temperature in your hometown probably changes over the course of a year, right? But on a global scale, this kind of increase in the average temperature comes with some terrifying changes. Scientists predict that if we do hit that 1.5 °C mark, carbon feedback loops will kick in that will accelerate and worsen the extreme weather patterns, heatwaves, wildfires, and droughts that we’ve already been experiencing.
It’s safe to say that societies around the world will have to make some major changes in order to adapt to a warming planet and avoid the worst case scenario. While individuals should definitely strive to limit their personal consumption and reduce their own carbon footprints, we also need large-scale action: for example, environmental groups are pressuring governments around the world to put a carbon tax on corporations. And since our current global economic system requires infinite growth to continue (on a planet with finite resources), this is going to be a challenge—but extreme problems require extreme solutions.
There’s also the sensitive issue of our growing population. Population growth is exponential: in 1927, there were only 2 billion people, and by 1974, there were 4 billion. There are currently 7.6 billion people on the planet, and that number is expected to increase to 9.7 billion by 2050. The population doubles in shorter periods of time as it increases. Researchers believe that the population will inevitably “level off” around 11 billion by 2100 because we’ll reach the Earth’s “carrying capacity”—in other words, births and deaths will begin to balance each other out because there won’t be enough resources to support more people.
So, the planet could technically support a larger population of human beings—but the more people we have consuming limited resources, the more difficult it will be to fight climate change and reduce our emissions. And on an individual level, choosing to have one less child (or no children at all) is the best way to reduce your personal carbon footprint. Having a child increases your carbon footprint by 58.6 metric tons per year—far more than eating meat, giving up your car, or refusing to fly. We’re not quite overpopulated yet, but reducing fertility rates can only be of benefit when it comes to keeping the temperature stable.
But this conversation can get into some controversial territory. After all, every time a government decides to determine who is worthy of reproducing, it results in certain demographics being targeted and discriminated against. Furthermore, policies designed to limit the size of families can have unintended negative consequences. China’s One Child Policy was probably the most famous example. The policy was introduced in 1979 in order to curb population growth, and it was modified over the following decades until it was replaced by a two-child policy in 2016. While the policy was effective at reducing fertility rates, many couples chose to terminate pregnancies if they found out they were having a girl, and thousands of young girls were abandoned in orphanages. Now, there is an unnatural disparity between the number of men and women in China.
The best way to reduce fertility rates and encourage smaller families isn’t by legally enforcing certain family planning policies—it’s by giving women the tools to control family planning themselves. In countries where women have the opportunity to go to school, have access to hormonal and non hormonal forms of birth control, and better healthcare for themselves and their children, fertility rates naturally drop. And though it may make some people uncomfortable, reproductive rights include the right to safe, legal abortion—women need to be able to make that choice for themselves. It’s no accident that countries with higher literacy rates also have lower fertility rates—when women have opportunities aside from raising kids, and they have the ability to decide when they want kids, how many they want, or if they want them at all, they generally choose to have smaller families.
Unfortunately, many women around the world don’t have any control over family planning. How can we help? Wherever you live, make sure to vote for candidates who support women’s reproductive rights—or volunteer and help campaign for those candidates. Donate to organizations that provide free or low cost reproductive health care services to women. If you have the time, you can even get involved and volunteer with a clinic in your community. Climate change and feminism may not seem like related issues, but on a planet with limited resources and an ever increasing population, women’s reproductive rights have a place in this conversation.
What do you think it takes to introduce family planning in the climate change conversation?