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The ‘human’ factor missing in Copenhagen

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Ellen Goodman
December 10, 2009
— Yes, there is something more foreign than being offered kippered herring for your breakfast. It’s being offered PopOffsets for your conscience.

After seven hours and 3,325 miles, I arrive here, open the paper and discover that a British think tank, Optimum Population Trust, is ready to make me a deal. As a good environmentalist, I can offset the 1.1 tons of carbon emissions spewed into the atmosphere from my trans-Atlantic flight by donating $7 to a family planning program.


Well, I am not a fan of carbon offsets, which have been described as a get-out-of-jail-free card. I don’t cotton to the idea that we can neutralize our wasteful ways by planting a tree in the rain forest. The idea that I can balance flying by preventing a few little carbon footprints smacks of an elitism I thought went out with the Raj. Indeed to prove the point, the newspaper story was illustrated by a Busby Berkeley arrangement of African babies in a circle. So I pop off at the PopOffsetters.


But the irony is that at least these think-tankers are making a connection between population growth and climate change. That’s more than the scientists are doing at the conference in Copenhagen.


The think-tankers may be tone deaf, but the Copenhageners seem to be altogether deaf. The subjects under discussion range from clean energy technology and protecting forests, to carbon credits and enforcing a treaty. Countries are wrangling over everything about human-induced climate change except the increasing number of humans inducing it.


An odd fatalism about population growth has settled in since 2007, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared the subject virtually untouchable. The “scope and legitimacy of population control,” they warned, were still “subject to ongoing debate.”


One piece of the controversy is, of course, amply illustrated by the implication that some countries can maintain their high carbon diets by reducing births in other countries. As Robert Engelman, co-author of a recent United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) report, says, “There’s a perception that wealthy countries with lower fertility rates are casting aspersions on poor countries with high fertility rates, blaming them for having too many children.”


The link between population growth and the environment is also complicated by the fact that the little people in my American family have larger carbon footprints than little people in developing countries. Most importantly, there is the lingering notion—imprinted by China’s repressive one-child policy—that family planning is “population control” imposed by governments against the rights and wishes of families.


But ever since the 1994 U.N. conference on population, international family planning policy has been focused on enabling women and men to make their own decisions. We’ve learned about the direct relationship between education and economic opportunities for women and smaller, later, healthier families.


It turns out that every society that offers a range of contraceptive options and information to women has a fertility rate of two children or fewer—and this includes developing countries such as Iran and Thailand. Today the average size of a family has shrunk from five children to two and a half. But there are still hundreds of millions of married women who don’t have access to services or information.


Kathleen Mogelgaard, who works on population and climate change for Population Action International, believes, “The beautiful thing about making this linkage is that so much of this (environmental debate) is about telling people what they cannot do. They cannot cut down forests or consume fossil fuels. This is one way to address the challenge by giving them what they want.”


There are nearly 7 billion people in the world today. Scientists project 9.5 billion people by 2050. In fact, there could be 8.5 billion or 10.5 billion. Depending on what we do. As the UNFPA’s Thoraya Obaid says, “There is no investment in development that costs so little and brings benefits that are so far-reaching and enormous.”

There are people still uncomfortable with the notion that there can be too much of a good thing: humans.


But Engelman replies, “Our impact on the Earth is overwhelming. To say it has nothing do with our numbers is laughable.”


In Copenhagen, talk is centered on technological fixes and political trade-offs. Responses are crafted by scientists, governments, meteorologists, finance experts. The silence on population is rooted in the belief that the human problem is the most intractable. But maybe it isn’t.


What if we can lighten the burden on the planet while widening the chances for women? That’s my kind of offset.


Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe. Her e-mail address is ellengoodman1@me.com.

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