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Center for Biological Diversity:
Population and Sustainability

E & E News, March 12, 2014

Why don't climate change adaptation strategies include population growth?
By Elspeth Denherth

While developed nations are largely responsible for global warming, the burden of climate change is often placed on the shoulders of the world's poorest countries -- where, research shows, population growth can exacerbate vulnerability.

Yet despite this clear link, population-related susceptibility is rarely included in climate change adaptation efforts, according to experts.

"If you're not considering population dynamics and access to reproductive health needs, you're not designing the best possible climate change adaptation approach that will bring you the best outcomes," Kathleen Mogelgaard, an environmental change and security program consultant at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said yesterday at a Wilson Center panel discussion titled "Double Dividends: Population Dynamics & Climate Adaptation."

As fellow panelist, University of Maryland research professor and Population Reference Bureau visiting scholar Monica Das Gupta, explained: The impact of climate change is hardest on countries in the developing world because they are geographically located in warmer areas, tend to depend heavily on agriculture and have low incomes that make adaptation significantly more difficult.

And although there are numerous ways to mitigate climate change, she said, those options are typically beyond the financial and administrative reach of poor countries, while the potentially affordable options -- like improving disaster management and population health systems -- require considerable administrative and technical capacity.

Therefore, she said, the most tractable option is reducing fertility, which is relatively inexpensive and simple to implement.

"Low fertility reduces the subsequent additions to global warming emissions, which benefits them given their geographical location and helps reduce poverty and increase the pace of economic growth so they have more resources to cope with climate change and fewer people living in places that are extra vulnerable to climate change," Gupta said.

More than a 'higher sea wall'

Mogelgaard pointed out that one of the reasons climate change adaptation efforts are void of population-related measures is a lack of literature in peer-reviewed publications linking the two concepts together.

"If it is reflected in things like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment reports, it will help boost legitimacy and better mainstream these ideas within the scientific community that is focused on climate change," she said.

Moreover, she added, there aren't many tools and training for scientists dealing with the physical aspects of climate change to help them understand the social dimensions related to population dynamics and reproductive health.

"When we're looking at the way climate change vulnerability assessments are done, they rarely include detailed population trends or reproductive health needs and, certainly in the vulnerability assessment tools I've seen, there's not a lot of room for consideration of scenarios about how population might change in the future," she said.

Because not many climate change adaptation programs with reproductive health elements currently exist, there is little evidence to demonstrate the success of these types of measures when put into practice, according to Mogelgaard.

"We need to do more to be able to design, implement and document adaptation programs that have a reproductive health component," she said.

"Adaptation is not just about building a higher sea wall."


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