Climate change: Don’t blame the population, says Suzanne Petroni

The solution to population growth issues lies in respect for women's rights, said Petroni in her keynote address at Northwestern's Summit on Sustainability.

Population growth speeds climate change, we are often told. Linking these two phenomena is complicated and could lead to population control strategies that jeopardize human reproductive rights, said Suzanne Petroni in her keynote address at the Northwestern University Summit On Sustainability.

“We want to make sure that if we make this connection between slowing population growth and slowing climate change we are careful to advocate only for rights-based programs that enable people to make their own choices,” she said.

Engineers for a Sustainable World held its 2012 summit, “Public Health and the Environment,” from March 30-31. Petroni, vice president for global health at the Public Health Institute, criticized efforts to control population growth at the cost of human rights in her speech, “A World of Seven Billion: What Does it Mean?”

China proudly announced that it reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 1.3 billion tons by preventing 300 million people from being born, Petroni said. “But this so-called simple solution had devastating effects on human rights, resulting in coerced abortions and forced sterilizations.”

Policymakers have long feared that overpopulation will lead to a “tragedy of the commons,” straining resources and stifling economic development. In the 1950s and 60s the United States created a population policy that set targets for fertility rates at home and overseas, Petroni said.

In the 1970s and 80s, women’s rights organizations began to associate such policies with dictatorial restrictions on human rights. “If the planet was overpopulated, they asked, who were the excess people? And who had the right to control everyone’s reproductive laws?” Petroni said.

The dialogue shifted in 1994 as a result of the International Conference on Population and Development, which stated that people should have the freedom to decide responsibly the number, timing and spacing of their children. This “rights-based approach” represented a radical change in attitude and shifted the focus from control to empowerment.

“When individuals are given the information and access to comprehensive health care, education and information they will usually choose to have smaller families,” Petroni said. “Respect for and attention to women and their rights is the solution for population issues.”

What does this mean for the environment?

“If we want to discuss links between population growth and climate change, we have to first acknowledge that slowing population growth may only play a limited role in mitigating climate change as long as resource use continues unchecked,” Petroni said.

Even if the population stabilizes, which experts predict might happen when we reach nine billion people, resource consumption will continue to rise as individuals demand a higher quality of life. Petroni asked the audience to look at the “whole elephant” of climate change, not just population growth.

“Urbanization, consumption and development are important factors for our planet’s survival – maybe more so than a few more babies being born in a rural village in Ethiopia,” she said.

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