Children are the cause of climate change says the United Nations

The United Nations is using false logic to claim that fewer people in the developing world will help fight climate change.
Brian Lilley | Nov 21 2009 | comment  



Lock up your baby prams and strollers, or at least don't take them out in the daylight hours. Children are, according to one United Nations agency, the new enemy of climate change.

The latest report from the United Nations Population Fund was released on Wednesday at news conferences in Ottawa and other key venues where policy makers could be made aware of the news: more babies will undermine attempts to stop climate change.

Strangely, much of the news conference, like the material put out by the Population Fund, was taken up with detailing the ways the world's leading population control agency works to combat maternal deaths and serious complications from childbirth, both admirable goals. Yet the crux of the report is that, while we need to save those who do give birth, we need fewer of them. In the eyes of the UNFPA, it is the babies of maternity wards present and future that are the culprits in climate change: "Each birth results not only in the emissions attributable to that person in his or her lifetime, but also the emissions of all his or her descendants."

Before world leaders head to Copenhagen to try and hammer out a deal on climate change, UNFPA wants them to consider population growth as a contributing factor to be dealt with. Its report says: "No human is genuinely ‘carbon neutral,' especially when all greenhouse gases are figured into the equation. Therefore, everyone is part of the problem, so everyone must be part of the solution in some way. The world's Governments and peoples will need to work together on every aspect of the factors that increase greenhouse-gas emissions. One such factor is the earth's growing population."

Silly me; I thought that people of the world working together was the cause of population growth.

Seriously, though, the simplicity of the logic behind this report might win you over. If people are causing climate change and we wish to stop it, then we should have fewer people on the planet.

According to a report prepared for Britain's Optimum Population Trust, spending just $7 on basic family planning would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by one tonne, while achieving the same reduction by using alternative low carbon energy sources would cost $32. Again, this makes sense; who wouldn't want to save $25 and avoid having to look at an unsightly wind turbine if all it will take is mailing boxes of Durex to the third world?

It's a theme advanced by some very powerful people, including Jonathon Porritt, an advisor to prime ministers, Prince Charles, and Tim Flannery, the Australian scientist who not only backs reducing Australia's population, but also recently let slip that the Copenhagen negotiations are not really about climate change.

Yet the logic is fundamentally flawed.

The UNFPA study suggesting a greater family planning effort to prevent future children from being born and therefore reduce carbon emissions, actually shows that unplanned pregnancies are higher in Western industrialized countries. It says:

"Rates of unintended pregnancies are actually higher in the industrialized countries than in the developing ones, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which studies the phenomenon in both blocs. In Europe, Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and the United States, an average of 41 per cent of all pregnancies are unintended. In the developing countries, an estimated 35 per cent of pregnancies are unintended."

I can't speak for all of those developing countries, but I can say that in Canada, young people can hardly ride the bus or head out to a bar to meet their friends without being confronted with "family planning" messages and often have access to free contraceptives if they are at university. Yet despite all of this, the rate of unintended pregnancies -- the type the report hopes to reduce in a bid to fight climate change -- is higher where there is greater access to basic family planning. The facts do not support the hypothesis, but the report goes on: "Preventing unintended pregnancies could contribute to population stabilization in the long run and may in turn contribute to a reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions in the future."

Then there is the problem of emission levels. The report admits that the populations a family planning program would target -- the developing nations -- emit far less greenhouse gases than people living in, say, Kansas. So if someone living in a little village outside of Nairobi emits a sliver of a fraction of the amount their cousin in Topeka emits, why would the Population Fund target the Kenyans instead of the Americans with their family planning model? It's an important question, but one the report dances past, simply stating that the carbon footprint of the one billion poorest people in the world is 3 per cent of the global total, and since climate change will impact the poor of the world most severely we should have fewer of them.

Well, okay; the report does not actually say, "Let's have fewer poor Africans", which would be a noble goal if it meant lifting Africans out of poverty; but the report does say the poorest countries who contribute the least to carbon emissions should be the target of the family planning model for dealing with climate change. Ergo, the United Nations thinks one solution to climate change is fewer poor Africans. Not very enlightened now, is it?

There is another problem with the idea that sending condoms and other family planning paraphernalia into the developing world will reduce the population in the way that well-meaning Western researchers think it will. Simply this: it hasn't worked with AIDS.

When Pope Benedict came out against condoms as the way to prevent AIDS in Africa saying their use would only make the situation worse, the reaction was swift. The leader of the Catholic Church was condemned as someone who was out of touch and driven by agenda. Yet who should leap to the pope's defence, but Dr. Edward Green, director of Harvard's HIV Prevention Research Project. Dr. Green's research found that in areas where access to condoms was more prevalent the incidence of HIV infection was also higher.

Not a fan of the condom and AIDS example? Consider then how well Britain's aggressive plan to reduce teen pregnancy has fared. Despite having family planning education throughout the school curriculum, teen pregnancy rates in Britain are the highest in Western Europe. According to a report in The Daily Telegraph, teen pregnancy rates in Britain have risen by one-third over the last decade.

The UNFPA report promises solutions that don't work for a problem that doesn't exist. If the organization truly believed that having fewer people was a solution to climate change, it would be advocating getting rid of those pesky people commuting into Topeka, Kansas or Ottawa or any of the many North American towns surrounded by suburbs with massive carbon footprints. That idea however, is not an easy sell to the donor countries that support the UNFPA. If you want to understand why the report puts forth the solutions it does, you need to follow the money. As for those illicit prams and strollers, keep them out of sight lest the climate police coming snooping for surplus children.

Brian Lilley is the Parliamentary Bureau Chief for radio stations Newstalk 1010 in Toronto and CJAD 800 in Montreal, Canada. Follow Brian on Twitter to get the latest as it happens.



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