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Climate change: a form of contraception?

Updated Tuesday, 15th June 2010

Katie Chau, consultant from the International Planned Parenthood Federation, talks about the links between sexual and reproductive health and climate change.

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Katie Chau Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: OU Copyright The Open University

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My name is Katie Chau. I am a consultant with the International Planned Parenthood Federation and I work on young people and advocacy. My interest in climate change and family planning started at different moments. I started, my first interest was in family planning and working more specifically on broader aspects of sexual and reproductive health and rights. And this started really when I was 21 and I was finishing up my first university degree studying international development studies and was offered an opportunity to work in West Africa, in Benin, specifically on an HIV programme.

And from that moment on I just realised the importance of looking at sexual and reproductive health in terms of a priority for development and then a few years ago, actually only about two years ago, while I was working really in depth on different issues of sexual and reproductive health I started to be introduced to the linkages between climate change and sexual and reproductive health. And this was because climate change is also a huge development priority and it affects developing countries, so I started to explore the linkages between these two issues and how they relate to one another.

It’s really complex. There’s not A+B=C in terms of climate change and family planning. We do know that in countries that are most affected by climate change, mainly in Sub-Saharan Africa, in south Asia, these are countries that are also experiencing high demands for family planning and there are huge populations and lots of population growth. So the clear connection is in terms of adapting to climate change. People who are experiencing the negative effects of climate change need to have every type of solution or resource available to them to adapt to the environment that’s around them, and having control over their sexual and reproductive health, being able to control the number of children that they have is of primary importance in order to adapt to the climate around them.

On the other hand, in terms of mitigating or preventing future climate change, that relationship is a little less clear because countries that are contributing the most to greenhouse gas emissions are also the countries that have the smallest population growth rates. So addressing kind of family planning needs may not go so far into mitigating future climate change when you’re looking only at developing countries. But then it’s also important to know that in countries like the US, in Europe and the UK there is still a need for family planning, and there’s an unmet need. There are people, women around the world who want to space their children, to limit the number of their children, and they’re not accessing modern contraception. So meeting that need both in developed and developing countries can also help to adapt and also mitigate climate change.

So it’s not about limiting the number of children per family, or limiting per se the total population in a country but it’s about providing people and individuals with the ability to choose what’s best for them based on the context that’s around them. With the International Planned Parenthood Federation we are working towards bringing about more awareness of the importance of integrating voluntary and rights-based family planning into climate change responses, and I’ll be going to Copenhagen in a few days to be working on these issues with a group of young activists from around the world.

It’s really exciting, people from every country, and we’re really trying to hope to bring awareness about the importance of linking these two issues but definitely from a human rights perspective, because we’ve seen in the past that rhetoric around population control is very detrimental to development and what we’re saying is that meeting the needs that already exist for sexual and reproductive health services using a human rights framework and making sure that people’s choices are respected can go a very long way to responding to climate change.

When you look at climate change and when you look at family planning and sexual and reproductive health, both of these issues are so important around the world and I’m motivated to keep working on promoting both issues together and looking at them in a related way because I think there’s a tendency to address issues in silos. We look at the environment and we talk only about the environment, we look at health and we talk only about health, but we know that everything interacts together and you can’t look at the human side without looking at the environmental side, and vice versa. So why I’m so motivated to continue working on these issues is that I see the linkages as being very clear and I really want to help bring these kinds of issues together to make more effective responses.

Over the next year, five years and ten years I do see myself continuing to work on environmental issues with a focus on connecting to family planning and sexual and reproductive health. Within a year’s time I’m hoping that my work within the International Planned Parenthood Federation would have moved forward. We’re hoping to organise several activities bringing experts and different people from around the world to further explore the issues of family planning and sexual and reproductive health with climate change, so I’m hoping that that will really advance over the next year.

In five years’ time it will be 2015, and that will see the expiration of the Millennium Development Goal Framework. It will also be the expiration of the International Conference on Population Development’s programme of action, and what we’ll see in 2015 is a new opportunity to define and decide what is going to be the new international development framework that will guide our work around the world. So I’m hoping that in five years’ time the work that we’ve been doing now, and that partners of mine around the world are working on, will really inform that new development agenda, and in that new development agenda the linkages between voluntary family planning, sexual and reproductive rights and environmental issues such as climate change will become very clear and priorities for countries around the world.

In ten years’ time I hope that all this work will have been successful in the past year and five years and that we’ll have many successful lessons learned and be speaking about issues beyond the linkages and beyond these issues of voluntary family planning and climate change. I’m hoping that in ten years’ time we will have been able to progress and talk about new issues because we will have already seen advances on these linkages.

I’m an optimist. I think that we have the capacity to really deal with climate change. I know it’s a very complex issue and I know that we’re already feeling the effects of climate change and environmental degradation. Why I’m an optimist is because people are speaking about this around the world. We may not all agree, but the most important first step is that we’re talking about it, is that we are debating, that there’s an interest to do research to find out more, and I’m hoping in my optimistic view that these discussions and this research will lead to effective solutions and also greater commitment to really address climate change, to address sexual and reproductive health, to address family planning in a very effective and committed way.

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