Population Growth and Climate Vulnerability are Linked, and so are Effective Interventions, new NGO Report Finds

On the eve of World Population Day, the Washington, DC-based NGO Population Institute published a report on “Population and Climate Vulnerability”, which demonstrates important connections between population growth and society’s ability to manage climate change impacts.

Climate vulnerability is a measure of how badly climate change will affect human populations and ecosystems.  World Population Day is an annual observance established by the United Nations to highlight the importance and urgency of population issues.

The new report finds that in the 80 most climate-vulnerable countries, population is growing on average at twice the global rate. The combination of severe climate impacts and faster growth strains governments’ ability to provide basic services for climate adaptation and resilience, which further aggravates climate impacts and vulnerability.

In many of the most climate-vulnerable countries, rapid population growth is linked to gender inequality, including a lack of access to family planning and reproductive health services. The most climate vulnerable countries suffer some of the worst gender inequality, with rights, economic and educational opportunity, and health care access of women and girls curtailed. Gender inequality undercuts climate change resilience and adaptive capacity for individuals, households, and communities in the near-term, and is also a factor in ongoing population growth which exacerbates climate vulnerability over the long-term.

In the 80 most vulnerable countries, the average Gender Inequality Index is 0.521 (for comparison, the US GII is 0.179). These countries have about twice as many girls aged 15-19 giving birth each year compared to the global average. Their unmet family planning needs are nearly double the global average, and their maternal mortality rates are 25% higher.

The nexus between climate vulnerability and population growth is playing out domestically as well as globally,the report finds. Though less climate-vulnerable than many countries, the U.S. has disproportionately faster population growth in places more exposed to wildfires, hurricanes, and sea-level rise, including Florida and Texas, two of the fastest-growing states in the country.  While a majority of U.S. workers in sectors with significant occupational exposure to climate change are men, women in the U.S. are at higher risk of gender-based violence after natural disasters, and experience more severe consequences for their health and employment from climate impacts.

Both in the U.S. and globally, governments and donors are demonstrably failing to make sufficient investments in reproductive health and rights that could bridge unmet needs and further strengthen climate change resilience and adaptive capacity.  But this also presents an opportunity to devise holistic strategies to address the linked challenges of rapid population growth, gender inequality, and climate change vulnerability, the report finds.

“World Population Day offers an opportunity to reflect on population trends and what they mean for our future,” said Kathleen Mogelgaard, president and CEO of the Population Institute. “How population trends affect our ability to contend with the climate crisis is an area that tends to get overlooked.  But our report showcases examples of innovative, impactful, multisectoral efforts that model how the linked challenges of climate change vulnerability, gender equity, and reproductive health and rights can be addressed together.”

The report profiles innovative CSO and policy initiatives in the Philippines, Uganda, Niger, Guatemala and the US that do this by centering local groups, women, and youth on the front lines of climate impacts.  It argues that their approaches should be replicated and scaled up.

“Across Uganda, families and communities experience intertwined and interconnected challenges of rapid population growth, gender inequity, and climate change vulnerability,” said  Charles Kabiswa, executive director of Regenerate Africa. “Multisectoral strategies offer hope for long-term, collective benefit for healthy and resilient communities.”

“[Filipino] residents and policymakers alike believe that with sexual and reproductive health and rights, families and communities are healthier,” said Joan Castro, executive vice president of PATH Foundation Philippines“This contributes to building climate change resiliency, and [helps] slow population trends that exacerbate poverty and climate change impacts.”

“Once women have access to health and family planning services, and they are empowered in their rights, it is a natural next step that they are willing to participate in natural resources management an income-generation activities,” said Ingrid Arias, director of development at Fundación para el Ecodesarrollo y la Conservación(FUNDAECO) in Guatemala.

In Niger, the world’s most climate-vulnerable country, temperatures are rising faster than other parts of the world, which will cut agricultural yields in a country where 2.5 million people are already acutely food-insecure, and nearly half of children under five suffer from chronic malnutrition. There Sani Ayouba co-founded and directs  Jeunes Volontaires pour l’Environnement (JVE), which works with young people and local CSOs on the front lines of these impacts to affect change on both the reproductive health and climate fronts, often against resistance from national politicians.  “Their perspectives need to be heard,” he said, “and frankly, they know better.”

The Population Institute report also features an assessment conducted by the Center For Biological Diversity (CBD) of climate plans in 21 U.S. municipalities. It found that only two plans indicated any awareness of gender differences in climate vulnerability, and only one, Boston’s, had any specific strategy to address them.

“In a society fueled by capitalism and consumption, a growing population means increased use of extractive systems,” said Kelley Dennings, CBD population and sustainability campaigner. “The status of women is inextricably linked to the health of our environment and climate. Through empowerment strategies like gender justice, reproductive freedom, education and equity, women are better able to adapt to climate change and become more engaged in climate solutions.”

“A deeper look into population growth trends includes investigating gender inequity and deficits in sexual and reproductive health and rights, both of which also serve to exacerbate vulnerability and limit adaptive capacity,” the Population Institute report concludes.  “Climate change adaptation strategies [could] incorporate consideration of these trends and their intersections and include interventions designed to tackle them. Examples highlighted in this report…offer insights and inspiration for such strategies…. The malleability of population trends, while not well understood by policymakers and the public, is among the most hopeful…aspects of the needed societal responses to human-caused climate change.”