PRB Discuss Online: Population and Climate Change, What Is the Link?

(December 2009) Climate change may adversely affect the population in many parts of the globe, in particular in developing countries where there is still substantial population growth. How do population dynamics figure into the conversations about climate? The contribution of population to climate change has been widely debated, and it is getting more attention leading up to the international meeting on climate in Copenhagen in December 2009.


During a PRB Discuss Online, Karen Hardee, vice president of research at Population Action International, answered participants’ questions about population and adaption to (or mitigation of) the effects of climate change.

Because of the large number of submissions, Karen Hardee was not able to answer all of your questions during this session, but thank all of you for participating. We will plan another session on population, health, and environment in the near future.

You can access the new UNFPA State of World Population 2009, Facing a Changing World: Women, Population and Climate at


Dec. 2, 2009 1:00 PM EST


Transcript of Questions and Answers


Emeka Nwosu, Nigeria: Can you relate the increase in population in countries to the effects they suffer individually from climate change
Karen Hardee: While climate change is a global phenomenon, the least developed countries that have contributed very little to the dangerous buildup of global greenhouse emissions will suffer the greatest impacts in the coming decades from the effects of changes in climate. A large proportion of the population in developing countries is already vulnerable and living in marginalized areas, which are susceptible to climate variation and extreme weather events. Population growth is occurring most rapidly in the developing world, which is increasing the scale of vulnerability to projected impacts of climate change. Among the 49 Least Developed Countries that are eligible to submit National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPA) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), 27 countries are projected to at least double their current population by 2050, based on the UN’s most recent population projections. People in these countries will experience the most serious impacts of climate change, including food scarcity, water scarcity, vulnerability to natural disasters and infectious diseases, and population displacement. All of these effects will be exacerbated by rapid population growth. In fact, 37 of 41 NAPAs that have been prepared list population pressure as exacerbating the effects of climate change. So, while countries with the most rapid population growth are not the countries that are contributing most to carbon emissions, rapid population growth is making it more difficult for people in those countries to cope and for governments to meet the needs of citizens to become more resilient to the effects of climate change.

Epokor Michael Kudjoe: The more the births the more the pressure on scarce resources and the more industries expand to meet needs hence the use of larger industrial plants what else? The more the numbers in the cities the more the importations of vehicles and because of the pocket economy of citizens “third hand” vehicles are those imported. What does that lead to? A whole lot of vehicular emmissions due to the old state of the vehicles. This adds up to the industrial ones and what do we have? What else does poulation change (increase) not lead to?
Karen Hardee: UNFPA’s State of the World Population Report 2009 is titled “Facing a Changing World: Women, Population and Climate.” I recommend this report to everyone who is engaged in this online discussion. It does an excellent job of explaining how women are the most vulnerable to climate change and also how women are the best stewards of the earth’s resources and need to be a bigger part of determining solutions to climate change. On the question of our human numbers, the report also shows that how many people the earth has to sustain is also important, as well as where people live, what we consume, what types of household we live in, and our age patterns. UNFPA report notes that if the world’s population today was the 300 million as it was 1000 years ago, rather than the current global population of nearly 7 billion, “greenhouse gases would not be accumulating so hazardously.” We are where we are though and with our current numbers, we need to change patterns of consumption and production in industrialized countries to break the cycle you mention in your question. Part of the climate negotiations in Copenhagen will be about transfer of technology so that developing countries can develop using more green technologies.

Geoff Dabelko: Karen, Much of the negative reaction to linking population and climate is predicated on the assumption that by “population” we mean “developing country populations.” In what ways are groups like PAI addressing this misconception by bringing consumption into the discussion and/or questions of unplanned pregnacies in developed countries?
Karen Hardee: It is interesting how some words have strong associations. Since the term “population” came into vogue in the 1960s when world population was growing rapidly, the connotation that population means developing country populations persists. Now, we live in a demographically divided world with some countries concerned about shrinking numbers and others still experiencing rapid population growth. While our global human numbers matter for carbon emissions, so does where we live and what we consume. Population growth in the United States makes a much bigger difference to carbon emissions than population growth in Tanzania. The flip side of aggregate population size, growth and distribution is the need to ensure that all couples and individuals have the right to decide freely and responsibility the number and spacing of their children and the means to do so. That right was enshrined at a 1968 international human rights conference in Tehran. What many people probably don’t realize is that unintended pregnancy is high in the United States with half of all pregnancies unintended. In 25 of the 49 least developed countries eligible to develop National Adaptation Programmes of Action under the UNFCCC that have relevant data, unmet need for family planning is over 20%. That means that more than 20% of married women in these countries say that want to space or stop childbearing but are not using family planning. Worldwide, 200 million women say the same thing and many end up having more children than they want to have. Regardless of where women live – be it Washington or Dhaka, they need access to family planning. Our research in Ethiopia shows that women and men consider access to family planning among the important strategies to help them cope with the effects of changing climate conditions.

URIRI ALEX EMUMENA: In Nigeria, the average man on the streets do not understand what climate change is all about, especially in the Niger Delta ravaged by environmental pollution by Oil exploiting companies owned mainly by Western powers. This environmental degradation is aggravated also by the negative impact on the environment by military bombings and discharges into the Niger Delta environment by both the oppresive federal government army as well as freedom fighters in the area in recent times. My questions thus goes … is it not an anomaly for us to focus on population dynamics as a factor of climate change in this region since such a mismatch blinds us to the positive role many poor people play in protecting the environment? In the Niger Delta of Nigeria, as in other parts of the world, small farmers, especially women are the main preservers of plant biodiversity through cultivating local crop varieties, preserving seeds, and forest stewardship.
Karen Hardee: I bet if you asked the average man on the street in Nigeria about climate change he would have heard of it and I think he would be able to talk about changes in his own life. Better yet, ask the average woman on the street who is likely very aware of how her life and that of her family is changing and what she is doing about it. We asked that of people in Ethiopia in our recent study and they spoke eloquently about the increasing challenges they face in adapting to climate change; they recounted how rising temperatures, more frequent droughts and, paradoxically, increased flooding, receding agricultural grazing land and diminishing forests are making it more difficult for their families and communities to cope. They also linked population pressure to the effects of climate change and report that families, while placing a cultural value on large families, should consider having fewer children to avoid as much hardship in making a living and in utilizing natural resources for survival. They highlighted the particular vulnerabilities of women and children. They spoke of communities coming together to promote coping strategies and the need for government assistance in the face of increasing frequency of adverse events caused by the effects of climate change. I bet people in Nigeria, including in the Niger Delta, would give similar responses, if asked.

Philippe Masabo: When a political situation in a developing country can be a hindrance to the reduction of birth rate, while definetely the growth of the population is clearly … the base of environment degradation, thus source of climate change, what can be a more efficient may to face the issue as a civil society Organization, aware of the danger, but unable to face openely the rulers? This is actually the case of Burundi, where this issue is not addressed at all by the Government, nor encouraged when being spoken by CSOs.
Karen Hardee: Fostering political commitment for family planning is important since high level political support means more resources and enlightened policies. Building political commitment has occurred over the years through a variety of means in all regions, including through showing the RAPID presentation to heads of state. These interactive computer programs show government leaders the effects of various rates of population growth on their ability to provide for their citizens needs for education, health, livelihoods, etc. Since the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), civil society organizations in many countries have advocated successfully for increased attention to sexual and reproductive health as espoused in the ICPD Programme of Action. Much more needs to be done, but the issue is getting renewed attention, including at the recent International Conference on Family Planning held in Kampala, the first such meeting in 17 years. In the opening, Uganda’s First Lady Janet Museveni, spoke of the importance of family planning to protect mother’s health.

Hussayn: [B]eyond the increasing numbers of people in the developing countries there are dynamic links to population and climate change. [S]uch links exist in the poverty of these growing numbers which force them to continuallly depend on nature for there livelihood such as for fuel wood, water, waste disposal and so many other basic needs of their lives. how can we understand and reduce this complex relationship between nature and human beings or ensure that this relationship benefit both human beings and nature so that climate change will not be a problem to either of the parties?
Karen Hardee: As I mentioned in a previous response, we need to rethink our approach to adaptation. The current architecture is too single-sector driven and needs a much more integrated approach. Integrated projects are more likely to meet the needs of vulnerable populations, which face risks in all aspects of their lives—food, shelter, livelihoods, health, etc., including their voiced desire to stop or space childbearing. A promising model exists in integrated Population, Health and Environment (PHE) projects, which seek to address the complex connections between humans, their health, and their environment. PHE projects are integrated approaches to simultaneously improve access to health services while also helping communities manage their natural resources in ways that improve their health and livelihoods and conserve the critical ecosystems they depend upon. For more information on PHE, the Woodrow Wilson Center has a range of material through its Environment and Security Program, as does PRB. PHE projects can serve as a model on which to build integrated projects that focus on adaptation needs. A project is getting started by USAID in the Himalaya area of Nepal to assess adaptation needs using this PHE lens in the face of glacial ice melt.

Yibeltal Tebekaw: Can you give me the link in the form of Conceptual Framework?
Karen Hardee: I am not clear which conceptual framework you are referring to.

Ayyaz Kiani: Could you refer to studies which

a) link climate change and human sexual behaviours, and

b)link climate change and fertility rates?

What are your own views about such effects of climate change? What are possible impacts of climate change on population?
Karen Hardee: I am not aware any studies on how climate change is affecting sexual behavior – do others know of such a study? I do know that the literature on “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” to climate change have almost nothing that relates population and fertility with vulnerability, resilience and adaptation to climate change. For an excellent review of this literature see Vulnerability and Resilience in the Face of Climate Change: Current Research and Needs for Population Information, by Dr. Elizabeth Malone at the Joint Global Change Research Institute. Later this week, PAI will be releasing the study we just finished in Ethiopia that addresses climate change and population, fertility and family planning. Please check PAI’s website for the link.

Urvi Shah: Environmental and climate change in countries like India have particularly severe consequences on the lives of poor women. What should goverments and civil society do to mitigate women’s burden? Can coalitions be set up to ensure accountability of local goverments?
Karen Hardee: The role of women in addressing climate change is critical. I highly recommend the UNFPA State of the World Population Report 2009, which is an excellent source on women and climate change. The report shows how women and men are differentially affected by climate change – with women often suffering the worst impacts. At the same time, the report shows that women, as the world’s primary farmers, tend to be better stewards of the earth than men. Women are also the most sustainable consumers, and their participation is crucial to navigate climate change successfully. The presence of women’s organisations in low income countries may help protect forests against destruction. For example,iIn India, a collective of 5000 women in 75 villages in Andhra Pradesh is working on chemical free, non-irrigated, organic agriculture as a response to global warming. The report makes clear that ensuring that women have a strong voice in all aspects of the climate discussion—as scientists, advocates, and policy makers—will contribute to reducing carbon emissions and helping people adapt to climate change. UNFPA and WEDO have partnered to prepare a resource kit on gender, population and climate change.

Sharon Gordon: In your vision of the future, do you think we will have to measure our individual ecological footprints in order to take into account over-consumption in the west versus unmet family planning needs in the developing world? Or what is your vision for the future for coping with climate change and an increasing global population?
Karen Hardee: I don’t see this as an either-or scenario of our consumption vs. meeting unmet need for family planning. We need to do both. Clearly consumption patterns in industrialized countries – and in many urban areas of industrializing and developing countries – needs to shift to more sustainable levels at the same time people living in energy deficit need to be able to develop. And, as I mentioned in a previous response, there is unmet need for family planning in countries with the biggest carbon footprints, including the United States, with half of all pregnancies unintended. At the same time, about half of all married women in Yemen, which is certainly facing environmental pressure linked to climate change, say they want to space or stop childbearing but are not using contraception. Changing consumption patterns and meeting women’s stated need for family planning are both important.

Shiva Dhungel: While doing climate change project isn’t it better to do both adaptation and mitigation integratedly?
Karen Hardee: Addressing both mitigation and adaptation is critical. Some projects can address both simultaneously, for example, projects to protect forests that provide carbon sinks and can protect natural environments in which people live. Other projects to make energy more efficient and clean may initially have more of an impact on mitigation but also have potential for aiding adaptation as these technologies are shared around the world.

Jorge Dehays-Rocha: We know that population growth is concentrated in the poorest countries in the world, where GHG emissions are negligible, then what is the contribution of family planning for mitigation of climate change?
Karen Hardee: Colleagues at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and other institutions have conducted an analysis that suggests that if the world’s population in 2050 reaches the 8 billion mark (the UN’s low variant population projection) rather than the 9.2 billion mark (the UN’s medium variant projection),[this] could result in one to two billion fewer tons of carbon emissions. Clearly large countries like India, China and the United States contribute more heavily to those analyses than do small countries. Still, in those countries that are not currently contributing significantly to carbon emissions but have high population growth rates, addressing population pressure will help ease the burden people – especially women—are facing with changes in climate. Women in those countries are expressing a desire for lower fertility – that demand should be met. Likewise, reducing the unintended pregnancy rate in industrialized countries like the US will help women, families and the climate.

Jorge Dehays-Rocha: Karen, in a few days will begin a new summit in Copenhagen for talks between north and south on the weather. What role do you think will or should have the population variable in these negotiations? What is the demographic argument that should be considered?
Karen Hardee: As I said in an editorial in the British Medical Journal when UNFPA’s report on women, population and climate change was released on November 18, I hope the report, and other things written on the topic leading up to Copenhagen, convinces negotiators to pay more attention to women’s critical role in mitigating and adapting to climate change and to ensure that population factors stay on the table – within the rights based framework of the Programme of Action of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development that ensures the right of couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children.

Subhas Yadawad: Man has no control over natural calamities like flood, earthquake, tsunami etc. Nature will take care of its resources. Does human intervention help the nature to improve its quality? Or does it increase the ego of human beings that we can pollute and protect the nature? Nothing would be moved without our hands. Such a thought of humans is not a truth.
Karen Hardee: Climate change is reinforcing that we need to be better stewards of the environment, for example, by protecting the forests that provide carbon sinks, the natural habitats that provide biodiversity and the glaciers that provide water. Population pressure is also detrimental to the environment as people move into increasingly marginalized areas in search of agricultural land to feed their families or graze their cattle. I highly recommend a book edited by Laurie Mazur, published in 2009 by Island Press titled, A Pivotal Moment, Population, Justice and the Environmental Challenge. A chapter titled, Cancún: Paradise Lost, sums up what you have raised in your question. In describing the rise and decline of the ocean resort in Mexico, Adriana Carillas writes, “Although population growth has played an important role in Cancún’s problems, it has been steadily ignored. The story of Cancún is, indeed, a story about population growth and social and environmental ruin. But it is more than that. Fundamentally, it is a story about a dream: a model of development that promises prosperity but ignores the natural world on which prosperity depends; that delivers wealth for a few, but grinding, inescapable poverty for many more.”

Henry Tagoe: How has the global economic recession contributed to the current phenomenon of climate change and how can it be mitigated? Giving the fact that in most developing countries or the Global South, a significant proportion of the population depends directly on the environment. Any change in the composition of the population is going to have a negative impact on the environment and the reverse is true.
Karen Hardee: I think the data will show that the global economic recession has slowed emissions as production has slowed to meet lower consumption patterns. You are right that in the Global South, a significant proportion of the population depends directly on the environment to live. In Ethiopia, for example, where I have worked, 85% of the population is rural and depends on rain fed agriculture for their livelihoods. When temperatures rise and rainfall patterns shift, people’s livelihoods are directly affected. When adverse weather occurs with increasingly frequency, communities do not have time to bounce back using traditional community coping strategies such as social insurance schemes and increasingly rely on government assistance. That is a pattern we found in a study in Ethiopia that will be released later this week (check the PAI website), and that is occurring in many countries hit by increasingly frequent draught. In our study in Ethiopia, a female farmer in the Southern Region with six children explained, “When we have no rain and a drought is [expected], we will be forced to look for government aid.” The UNFPA report I mentioned in an earlier response quoted Mozoe Gondwe, a farmer from Malawi, who says she can no longer predict when the rains will come, even though she grew up in the area. Your question also asks if changes in the composition of the population is going to have a negative impact on the environment. I have learned a lot about this topic of demographic composition and climate change from my colleague Leiwen Jiang, who is currently at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and is a senior advisor on climate change at PAI. The first lesson is that the relationship between population and climate change is complex and is affected by other factors. So, while our numbers matter, so does where we live and what we consume. Leiwen and his colleagues have conducted research over the past decade on this topic and have found that the age composition of a population affects emissions, with older populations generally emitting less. Their research also shows that household size is an important demographic variable to include in research on climate change. Urbanization also matters, but not necessarily to make things worse for the environment in the long run. The “Environmental Kuznets Curve” implies that with urbanization, pollution increases up to a certain level of income and then stabilizes and decreases. Also, there are various types of urbanization related to various levels of industrialization. What we do know is that the world is becoming more urban. In 2008 for the first time in history more people lived in urban than rural areas globally and that trend will continue.

URIRI ALEX EMUMENA: i have a strong feeling that the Climate change dilemma is being politicized by western nations against us, poor but rich developing nations. Enough of International conferences on a serious matter like climate change which requires pragmatic and implementable action.Don’t you think that more conferences on it without action is akin to mouthing platitudes?talk talk and more talk? the poor people want to participatorily help to solve the problem through adaptive behaviour change.Enough of the diseases of panels, committees and conferences. Let the conference even be held in Nigeria.
Karen Hardee: I understand your fatigue with conferences that don’t always result in constructive outcomes, and while there is plenty to debate and research about climate change, it is a global phenomenon that requires global, coordinated action to address. Most critically, countries that are responsible for current emissions levels need to change their production and consumption patterns and shift to greener technology. That will contribute most to climate change mitigation. At the same time, least developed countries that will bear the brunt of the effects of changes in climate need to take care of their citizens to help them adapt. While funding for adaptation should come from the global community, countries must develop and implement adaptation strategies that meet the needs of their citizens. I contend that the global “architecture” for climate change, under the UN Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), is not designed to meet the full range of needs for adaptation. For example, NAPAs, which I commented on in a question above, mostly propose single sector projects that are in 12 categories given by the UNFCCC. Half of the projects fall into three sectors—food security, terrestrial ecosystems and water resources. Those sectors are clearly critical, but so are social sectors, including health and education to promote human capital and community participation to promote social capital. The only social sector under the UNFCCC architecture is health and that is among the least well represented sectors. Only 7 percent of projects proposed through NAPAs are in the health sector. Education, particularly girl’s education, which is widely heralded for building human capital, is not a sector under the UNFCCC. Thirty-seven of 41 prepared NAPAs note population pressure as exacerbating the effects of climate change, yet there are no projects underway to promote family planning and reproductive health, let along women’s empowerment or education, which could help bolster resilience and ameliorate population pressure that is driving deforestation and expansion of agriculture into marginal areas in some countries. So, I think in the case of climate change, conferences are good if critical issues of mitigation and adaptation can be raised and addressed – and most importantly, acted on to improve people’s lives.

Anne Kielland: Do you know of any good studies that look into fertility as an instrument in the ex-ante strategies of households to prevent and mitigate climate related risks and shocks in areas with poor access to public social safety nets? High fertility allows for income and risk diversification within informal, family based networks of reciprocity, and discouraging high fertility through e.g. reproductive health programs could potentially render these families even more vulnerable to climate risks. Do you have any references or thoughts on this?
Karen Hardee: I think the findings on this are mixed. Some research in Ethiopia on agriculture and climate change by IFPRI [International Food Policy Research Institute] found some evidence to support what high fertility could be a strategy for diversification. Our research from Ethiopia that included farmers and pastoralists suggests otherwise. The sentiment expressed by participants was that while large families are celebrated culturally, people are realizing that the practice of having many children cannot be sustained. People talked about the difficulty of feeding and educating their children and keeping them healthy. Still, what we want is for individuals and couples to make their own informed choices about family size – and to have the means to act on those choices.

santosh kumar: To set the global green agenda, US has offered to reduce its emmissions by 17% below 2005 levels by 2020, China has announced its willingness to bring down its energy intensityby 40-45% from 2005 level in the next decade,Bazil has announced cut emmissions 36% below normal growth levels and India has announced voluntarily reducing its carbon intensity by 20-25% on purely domestic level. Its good sign to set forth the agenda but moot questions remain that whether the Kyoto Protocol will be base year of emmission reduction or below 2005 levels. Seconly, how will be resolved the legally binding cut emmissions verses voluntarily announcements and finally how the patterns of population growth will be affected across the globe?
Karen Hardee: Santosh, I am not an expert on emissions targets so am not able to answer your very good question.

Mr A . Frank: Is it true that a shift or movement of people to an area that was previously sparsely populated could attract more rainfall to such area ?
Karen Hardee: I have not heard this before. Does anyone else know?

ALIYU BARAU: How do we deal with essential emissions from rice and wheat fields when the world’s poor population still search foood hand outs?
Karen Hardee: I am not sure I understand this question. Clearly food security will be a major factor in adaptation to climate change.

Babar Kabir: Population rise is evident in developing countries where the GHG emissions are low and will continue to remain so if considered as per capita – but the country’s load to emissions does not take into account the entire GHG /carbon emissions of the country make the calcualtions quite biased.
Karen Hardee: You raise a good point here. I am not an expert on calculating emissions but it seems that experts are refining their techniques and investigating the tradeoff between looking at per capita and total emissions.

Chris Bystroff: Let’s say hypothetically there existed a contraceptive vaccine that was safe and effective and cheap to administer, and let’s say it was administered worldwide and there was a ten year period with no births. What effect would this have on culture, climate?
Karen Hardee