Posted by: davidjolson | 12/18/2009

After the hype, Copenhagen provides cold reminder of political reality

The following is a special guest blog by Leo Bryant, advocacy manager for Marie Stopes International of the United Kingdom, a member organization of the Global Health Council, from the 15th UN Climate Change Conference (COP15). The opinions expressed here are solely his own and not necessarily those of the Council. Get more information on MSI on its website:

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — My experience of the conference against global warming had an aptly chilly start — seven hours of queuing outdoors in the Danish winter. To my surprise, informing the guards that I had to give a scheduled presentation on the integration of rights-based family planning into climate change adaptation efforts yielded neither fast-track entry nor sympathy. COP15 had accredited over 40,000 delegates to attend a conference venue with a capacity for 15,000 and the consequences were dire. A huddled line of NGO workers, journalists, academics and civil servants stretched over a kilometre, waiting for hours in sub-zero temperatures in a queue that didn’t move – with incredible good nature – to participate in the conference that they hoped would save the world. If this conference was any indication of COP15’s ability for organisation, the world’s prospects were looking very bleak.

After more than six hours without food or water in intermittent snow, I was finally allowed entrance to the official registration hall. Although I had missed my presentation by several hours, queuing in the warmth now felt like relative luxury. And I have never felt so grateful for a cup of tea in my life. I eventually received my registration pass and, while saddened and angered to have missed the opportunity to discuss the ecological relevance of family planning with other NGO reps, I still had a session to look forward to tomorrow with Members of Parliament (MPs) from around the world.

The next day, entrance passed more smoothly for me (although this was not the case for many others and some were talking of seeking legal redress with the UN). At a lunchtime talk arranged by a Danish sexual reproductive health and rights organisation Sex&Samfund, I had a chance to address almost fifty MPs on how rights-based family planning programmes can make a difference in meeting the ecological challenges faced by countries worst affected by climate change.

I read from an official adaptation strategy document of the Rwandan government. “Adaptation” refers to efforts designed to help countries to cope with worsening climatic conditions, as contrasted with “mitigation” efforts to reduce carbon emissions. The document explained how rapid population growth in Rwanda – which has a contraceptive prevalence rate around 10% – is causing soil erosion as agrarian land use in high population density areas intensifies. The identified consequences include declining agricultural production, landslides and migration to less hospitable areas that are increasingly prone to flood and drought due to extreme weather.

After referencing a few examples of how rapid population growth is exacerbating the challenges of climate change – such as in Bangladesh where rising sea levels are contaminating fresh water sources with salt even as a growing population demands ever more drinking water – I returned to my seat. Attempts to discuss the macro-level consequences of the ongoing failure to ensure universal access to family planning can often be met with hostility, so I was anxious to learn how the MPs around my lunch table would react to the suggestion that slower population growth rates could assist in adapting to environmental challenges.

A veteran MP from Guatemala spoke first. “You spoke well,” he said with a kind but dismissive wave of the hand. “We agree with the need for family planning. But there are those who say that we must use it to reduce our carbon emissions. There are more than thirty vectors and pathogens in Guatemala being found at higher and higher altitudes because of warmer temperatures. Soon nowhere in Guatemala will be safe from these diseases and it is the indigenous people in the mountains who will die. Why? Because in Europe and America they pollute. And they tell us we must reduce our carbon. I ask you, where is the justice?” His age prevented him from shouting his last four words but he shook with emotion when he spoke them. I considered an argument I had seen recently in the papers – that family planning could reduce Guatemala’s carbon emissions by limiting the number of Guatemalans – and just how offensive it seemed at this point. His invocation of moral justice felt frankly unassailable.

Fortunately, an MP from Bangladesh came to my rescue. “In Bangladesh we believe family planning is very important,” he began. “We have very high population density and not enough land or natural resources. We do not want the density to increase as it will be more difficult when the glaciers in the Himalayas melt and we lose rivers. We want family planning everywhere and we want development programmes and resources to adapt. For this we need your support.” I was relieved the conversation had returned from carbon emissions to adaptation but was also keen to avoid the role I appeared to be heading for of representing Western donor interests.

“I work for Marie Stopes International” I told them, “and we would like to assist in countries struggling to adapt to climate change but there is little recognition that family planning has anything to contribute. What would you suggest we do?” I hoped that this might turn the conversation towards the means of integrating family planning into environmental sustainability and land management programmes. The MP from Bangladesh read my mind: “We don’t want family planning to be counted as an adaptation strategy” he said. “Yes it would help with the demand for natural resources but that is not the point. Donors would just say that the money they already give for family planning counts as adaptation support and then leave it at that. We need more resources for adaptation and for family planning.” Thus, my carefully crafted advocacy strategy was undone by a dose of political reality from the South.

Back in my hotel room reflecting on what I had learned, the cold logic of the argument for using family planning to reduce carbon emissions remained hard to refute, but it clearly raised moral questions and what’s more had no traction amongst the politicians I had met from the South. On the other hand, the argument for using improved access to family planning services to help adaptation to local environmental challenges (which I had thought was quite novel) seemed already an accepted concept, a t least in Bangladesh and several other countries. But a tired cynicism for the way bilateral donors are perceived to avoid genuine, overall increases in financial support was obstructing innovation for a multi-sector approach to supporting communities better cope with their local environment. People in the world’s poorest countries are under no illusion about who is responsible for their worsening climatic conditions. Unless, post-Copenhagen, donors find new commitment to genuine increases in ODA that reaches both environmental management and family planning, innovative programmes integrating reproductive health, women’s empowerment and environmental sustainability are unlikely to become a large-scale reality.

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  1. The response you describe, including the problem of relabeling aid without providing new money, is a real one for this conversation. But to address this and the larger problem of equity in effort for solving the problem caused by the developed countries, I think it is incumbent on FP and pop organizations to have meaningful looks at programs at home. How would/do cases for FP in climate terms go over in developed country contexts? Is climate an additional rationale for programs aimed at reducing unplanned pregnancies in high consuming countries? Certainly from an emissions perspective, the greatest per capita reductions are to be found there. If groups had a portfolio of climate related FP efforts for developing and developed countries, would that give additional credibility that facilitated wider adoption?

  2. Thanks for reflecting on your message with MPs in Copenhagen. I hosted a forum on population and climate change linkages at the Uganda International Conference on Family Planning. The meeting brought together 25 African professionals from population organizations, I was actually surprised by the lack of controversial discussion on the sensitive points that you noted. I wonder how much the hyper-political environment of Copenhagen and particularly the adaptation funding debates colored your discussion? It would be great to hear about MSI’s advocacy plans related to climate change now that COP15 is over.

  3. For many of us in the south who are advocates of population and reproductive health programs, it is difficult to link our work to climate change.

    For almost 3 decades I have worked in, written about and advocated for reproductive health and rights in my country and the region. I have no doubt that population issue has direct bearing on environmental degradation in our respective countries. But this does not amount to or contribute to climate change. Climate change is happening due to the irrational and unsustainable consumption pattern of the industrialized world. And only the industrial world can address that.

    By linking our work to climate change, we may lose our credibility both at the policy level and at the communities we serve in.

    I am in full agreement with the gentleman from Guatemala. sahlu.

  4. My Dear. Great job.
    Ofcourse, what a great site and informative posts. – africatime rwanda

    Anyhow keep up the good work.
    Yours faithfully,!

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