Population and Climate Change

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Lydia DePillis has a depressing item about the role access to contraceptives is playing (or, rather, not playing) in efforts to forestall catastrophic climate change:

Earlier this week, Thomas Wire of the London School of Economics published a study concluding that improved family planning is one of the most effective methods of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions we’ve got. This is something that sustainable-growth advocates have realized for a long time, but the actual numbers are startling: Reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies out there—calculated on the basis of “unmet need,” or women who want contraception but currently don’t have access —is roughly five times as cost-effective as deploying low-carbon technologies like wind, solar, and carbon sequestration. (Treehugger has a good summary.)

So, today, David Fahrenthold of The Washington Post asked around Washington to see what nonprofit and government types thought about this bit of research. As it turns out, the environmental establishment wanted nothing to do with it.

Of course this should be pretty obvious. Efficiency—just not using energy—is the cleanest source of energy at all. And nobody uses less energy than a person who doesn’t even exist. That’s not to say we should be engaging in coercive limits on people’s ability to have children, that would be a cure that’s far worse than the disease. But the evidence is pretty clear that in societies where women are empowered and have access to contraception, that on average they want modest-sized families. And what this study is talking about is specifically what could be accomplished by closing the gap between the level of contraception that people want to have and the level of contraception they’re actually able to maintain. There are dozens of good reasons to think closing that gap would be beneficial, the impact on the environment is one of them, and there’s no reason people should refuse to say that.