John Podesta served as the chair of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and counselor to President Barack Obama and on the U.N. secretary general’s high-level panel on the post-2015 development agenda. Timothy E. Wirth is vice chairman and president emeritus of the United Nations Foundation. He represented Colorado in the U.S. House and Senate from 1975 to 1992 and served as undersecretary of state for global affairs from 1993 to 1997.
When we talk about stepping up to address climate change across the world, we rarely think of it in terms of women’s rights. But if environmental activists really want to reduce emissions, raise living standards and build a more sustainable future, they cannot overlook the importance of reproductive rights and health.
Forging a coalition between the environmental movement and the women’s rights movement will not only fundamentally advance women’s rights but also do a world of good for the planet, which is bearing an environmental burden because of population growth.
It took 200,000 years for the human population to reach 2 billion in 1940 but only 75 years afterward for it to nearly triple to 7.6 billion people. The world gains 83 million inhabitants annually. That’s roughly the equivalent of another Chicago every two weeks, another Germany every year and another China every 16 years.
Population projection experts estimate a worst-case scenario in which we grow by 70 percent and reach a population of 13 billion people by the end of the century. But if we continue to invest in sensible international family-planning programs and accept the challenge of meeting the needs of women and families, we could potentially stabilize the population at below 10 billion.
Giving women across the globe access to reproductive rights and health is a moral imperative. Too many women in too many places, including the United States, still have unmet demands for access to family-planning resources. Estimates indicate that more than 200 million women want to prevent or delay pregnancy but aren’t using effective contraception. Access to reproductive health services can ensure women have more autonomy over their lives and bodies and ultimately help move the world toward greater gender parity.
Recent research has reinforced the understanding of the benefits of helping families plan the timing, spacing and number of their children. Brown University researchers showed that slowing population growth can enhance economic outcomes and reduce emissions simultaneously. In Nigeria, researchers found that achieving low fertility by 2050 could increase per capita income by 10 percent. Other studies have estimated that meeting the demand for family planning worldwide could potentially reduce carbon emissions in 2050 by 16 to 29 percent — the equivalent of ending worldwide deforestation today.
In fact, family planning ranks as one of the 10 most substantive solutions to climate change, according to a recent analysis of peer-reviewed research. In addition to being cost-effective from an emissions reduction perspective, the co-benefits to women and families across the globe are enormous.
That’s why 193 countries at the United Nations committed to universal access to sexual and reproductive health care as part of the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals. Indeed, family planning, gender equality and maternal health targets in the SDGs reflect American leadership and values, which helped forge a global consensus over many years of development cooperation.
And yet, one of President Trump’s first acts in office was to widely expand the “global gag rule,” which blocks federal funding to any global health organization that provides, counsels on or advocates legal abortion services, including those providing family-planning services, HIV treatment and vaccinations. These actions risk sacrificing American leadership and demand cooperation among other American actors and the rest of the world. This is where women’s rights activists and environmental activists have a powerful opportunity to push back and align their resources.
In addition to making family planning and reproductive health services universally available, we need to ensure that every child receives primary and secondary education and that we end the scourge of child marriage. New data from the United Nations found that if girls in the developing world all received secondary education, we would see a 42 percent decline in the fertility rate. All of this is possible with broad public- and private-sector cooperation if foundations, governments, nongovernmental organizations and countless communities can forge a partnership to advance these goals and deliver the services needed to realize them.
American environmentalists and women’s rights advocates have every reason to feel under siege by the Trump administration. But this is all the more reason to find common cause in fighting for healthy women and a healthy planet. Progress is made possible when groups that have long focused on single issues join forces to build fairer, more sustainable economies and societies.
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