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Family planning for climate change

Population growth is an ecological problem, contraception is a solution

April 23, 2014 5:00AM ET

Ask Americans how much they would donate to feed one hungry African child. If you give the child a name, show her picture and tell her story, the average donation is $2. If you tell the same story but add “By the way, there are 1 million other hungry girls,” people give less. Presented with the statistics without an individual story, they give less still.

Such were the results of an experiment conducted in 2010 by Deborah Small, a marketing professor at Wharton; George Loewenstein, an economist at Carnegie Mellon; and Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon. Charitable donations increase when requests appeal to the heart. Numbers, on the other hand, numb instead of incite.

Yet we are grappling with big numbers. A March 2014 publication by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification contained two stunning statistics. It projected that “by 2020 an estimated 60 million people could move from the arid desert areas of sub-Saharan Africa towards North Africa and Europe” and that by 2050, “200 million people may be permanently displaced environmental migrants.”

But what is even more startling is what is absent from the recent U.N. report: There is no mention of improving access to family planning.

Today’s problems all too easily blind us to tomorrow’s catastrophes. But we must look ahead to the fearful day when climate change collides with population growth. In 1950, 31 million people, mainly subsistence farmers, lived in the Sahel — the dry area stretching across Africa from the Atlantic to the Red Sea. Today that number has swelled to 125 million, and the U.N. median projection for 2050 is 325 million (PDF). The Sahel also has the burden of widespread child marriage, a uniquely rapid population growth factor that by itself presents nearly insurmountable problems. Additionally, climatologists and agronomists see crop yields plummeting as the area experiences what may be the harshest effects of climate change seen around the globe. Already the U.N. says that 11 million people (PDF) in the Sahel are food insecure. That number will grow exponentially. 

Helping women and couples plan the families they desire does not mean telling them what to do; it means listening to what they want. It means meeting their need for increased access to information and a range of modern contraceptive methods. An estimated 220 million women in developing countries report that they would like to better space their births or that they have already met their desired family size. In the Sahel, many women want to delay the next pregnancy or don’t wish to add to their family size but lack access to birth control. (Underscoring the critical need for greater access to contraception, a recent study (PDF) by the Institut Supérieur des Sciences de la Population at the University of Ouagadougou and the Guttmacher Institute found that low levels of contraceptive use in Burkina Faso fueled high rates of unintended pregnancy, with an estimated 105,000 women resorting to unsafe abortions in 2012.)

Providing access to contraception saves lives, builds stronger families and fosters economies. It is one of the world’s most cost-effective investments.

The U.S. experience provides a good example. In 1842, when family planning was illegal and contraceptives were primitive, the average American family had six children. In the early 1900s, when policies changed and more modern methods — including oral contraceptives, hormonal implants and intrauterine devices — were available, women in the U.S. chose to have fewer children: The number dropped to an average of 3.5 children. Providing better access to contraception saves lives, builds stronger families, gives girls a better shot at education and fosters stronger communities and economies. It is one of the world’s most cost-effective investments.

In February the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs issued a plan “to break the cycle of hunger and vulnerability” in the Sahel. Again, there was no mention of helping women and couples better plan the families they desire. While it is not the only factor contributing to the region’s dire problems, we must understand that increasing contraceptive access is a prerequisite for ameliorating problems of poverty and food security and increasing the welfare and autonomy of women.

The challenge is not simply a humanitarian one: It is also a security issue of growing magnitude. As the 9/11 Commission concluded, the rapidly rising population of unemployed young men is “a prescription for social turbulence.” We have already witnessed the expansion of Al-Qaeda in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. A failed state, such as Somalia, is immensely costly. The World Bank estimates (PDF) that in 2010, pirates operating off the coast of Somalia cost the global economy a staggering $7 billion to $12 billion in security expenditures, disruption of oil supplies and other costs. Population growth without widespread access to contraception and family planning will only exacerbate existing problems.

If we listen closely and act, an unprecedented humanitarian disaster and escalating security crises in the Sahel can be averted. By undertaking immediate, large-scale integrated efforts among governments, donors, NGOs and the private sector to make modern contraception universally available, by investing in girls and young women and by bringing the most appropriate and cost-effective technologies to help farmers adapt to climate change, we can change course. 

Malcolm Potts is the director of the Bixby Center for Population, Health and Sustainability at the School of Public Health at the University of California at Berkeley.

J. Brian Atwood is a professor and the chair of global policy studies at the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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