We need to talk about women and climate

At first glance, empowering women and climate change might seem unrelated. Climate change requires systemic change of pretty much everything to reduce our GHG emissions to get to net zero and most solutions today tend to be about technology – renewable power, electric cars, afforestation. Empowering women needs systemic change too but in a different way, more usually described as cultural and mindset changes. However, scratch a tiny bit deeper and you realise that the two things are inextricably linked, although they rarely seem to get talked about that way. We can’t make progress on climate change without making progress on female empowerment. This is a multi-faceted problem but for now, I’m going to focus on one part of it – empowering women through education and access to family planning.

Project Drawdown has listed the top 100 solutions to reverse global warming, all with currently available technology. Educating girls and family planning come in at numbers 6 and 7, each with the potential to reduce 51.48 GT of CO2e by 2050. Research from Lund university also described the top action that anyone in developed countries can do to address climate change is to have one less child. Both of these are highlighting the need to reduce population growth without actually saying that too loudly.

An rapidly growing population on a planet of finite size and resources has serious consequences. The global population is currently 7.6 billion and forecast to reach approximately 11 billion by 2100. The annual growth rate is naturally slowing and is expected to continue slowing but 11 billion people on our one planet is a huge number to feed, water and house and the potential emissions, waste and natural habitat loss created by that many people is unthinkable. However, consciously slowing population growth is a controversial topic, with horrendous racist and xenophobic actions in the past such as forced sterilisations of Native American women in the 1960s and 70s. It seems that this has made a gigantic elephant in the corner of the room that we don’t talk about. That actions, which could have a significant positive impact on the environment, on addressing climate change and the wellbeing of millions of women, are skirted around.

The thing is, providing education and access to family planning is not about forcing or telling certain communities to stop having children, it’s about giving women equal opportunities, caring for our health and empowering us with choices.

62 million girls around the world don’t have access to education today. This is for a variety of reasons, such as: cultural views that only boys need education, school is too expensive, girls need to earn an income for the family, risk of sexual assault on the journey from school and many more. It’s critical that that they get access to education. Educated women have fewer, healthier children and we are less likely to marry as children. We also have increased incomes, our agricultural plots are more productive, we make greater investment in our family and we make sure our own children are educated.

A staggering 225 million women in developing countries want to be able to chose when they get pregnant but don’t have access to contraception. And this isn’t just an issue in developing countries: in the US and Europe over 40% of pregnancies are unintended.

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Enabling women to plan their child-bearing, in any country, allows us to strive for our ambitions as well as having the family we want. It would also allow women to live healthier lives, reduce the number unsafe abortions and reduce poverty.

Bangladesh is an interesting example of a country who has worked at this over the past 50 years – their total fertility rate has dropped by two thirds since 1960. This was achieved through a combination of: improved health care and vaccinations for children, provision of family planning, health and welfare services, education of women and providing women with micro-finance. This isn’t to say that everything is great – fertility rates in rural areas are a lot higher than in urban areas and a quarter of the population lives on less than $2 a day. So there is much still to do.

Providing women and girls with education and access to family planning has many benefits that are maybe more immediately obvious than reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but this provision is also inextricably linked to addressing climate change. We need to start talking about this step as the vital one that it is for social and environmental benefits. And not just talk but act on it. It’s not enough to just focus on technological solutions to our climate problems and leave the elephant in the corner of the room.


Interesting podcasts if you want to know more about the link between climate and population:

Fascinating 2 episodes by Outside/In Radio on the history of controlling population growth

Guardian podcast about population and climate change based on questions from members

Sustainababble talks to Alice Brown, prominent Birthstriker – one of the women who has said they are not having children until action is taken on climate change


photo credits:

World Bank Photo Collection Students taking year end exams via photopin (license)

http://www.cemillerphotography.com Stop Brett Kavanaugh Rally Downtown Chicago Illinois 8-26-18 3481 via photopin (license)

  1. I find this an excellent and thoughtful contribution to the climate change debate, building on the observation that women’s education and a reduction in the birth rate correlate. As you observe, there are excellent examples, such as Bangladesh, which you site, that show how powerful these policies can be when they succeed. And as you point out, addressing local and cultural concerns is paramount to having an Impact. In other words, understanding the contingent factors in the local environment that are driving the current rate of births is the foundation of any solution, rather than a copy-paste approach that believes that an outside expert will immediately have the answer. From this perspective, it would be interesting to better understand not simply positive examples, but those that have been less successful, such as Africa, where population continues to grow, since this region will not simply be it by population growth but also by severe climate change Impact in parallel. So many thanks, again for your thoughtful views addressing an important underlying factor, and I look forward to reading other comments.

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    1. Thanks Andrew. Population growth is such a complex topic – it’s not just about developing countries as individuals in developed countries have a higher carbon footprint so fewer people in those countries has a bigger impact. But then what’s the right rate to maintain a balanced society?!

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  2. Thanks, Meryl. Your blog surely touches on a critical issue, which we should talk more about. Although the talk of women’s rights gets muddled in the feminism jargon- I prefer the human rights stance. There is enough evidence to show women are losing out – say, for instance, women are 50% of the world’s population and own less than 20% of the world’s land (https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/01/women-own-less-than-20-of-the-worlds-land-its-time-to-give-them-equal-property-rights/).

    Interestingly enough, I worked on the concept of women’s empowerment for my SAP and although I had used empowerment frequently in my work but engaging with it academically made me see it in a whole new light. I really like Kabeer’s (2010) definition of empowerment; as the expansion in people’s ability to make ‘strategic life choices’ in a context where this ability was previously denied to them. To be disempowered, according to Kabeer (1999), therefore, implies to be denied choice.

    Empowerment is a long road and choices do not come from thin air. As you have rightly pointed out education and contraception (I would say the entire gamut of reproductive rights) are critical elements in this process. So are employment/labour force participation, access to financial resources, inheritance rights, the freedom to live a violence-free life (both at home and at the workplace) and other legal rights, which reduce gender gaps and enable the journey to empowerment.

    The climate change challenge has to be addressed at various fronts and technology cannot be the only (quick) fix. Not when you have half the world’s population denied its capacities and abilities to live a full life.

    Kabeer, N. (2010) Women’s Empowerment, Development Interventions and the Management of Information Flows. IDS Bulletin, 41 (6): pp. 105–113
    Kabeer, N. (1999) Resources, Agency, Achievements: Reflections on the Measurement of Women ’s Empowerment. Development and Change, 30: pp. 435–464.

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