It's a privilege and an eye-opener to be in Copenhagen as a participant in the U.N. Climate Change conference. Every street corner is buzzing with energy. "Save the Himalayas" and "Scouts Protecting the Environment" demonstrations compete with "Hopenhagen," a city center exhibit erected by large corporations (Coca-Cola, Gap, etc.) trying to make the case that they, too, are on the path to sustainability.
The agenda, topped of course by the debate over reducing carbon emissions, is ambitious: how to fairly create green jobs to replace polluting jobs, whether OPEC countries should be paid to produce less oil, how much and under what circumstances should "reparations" be made to developing countries by the rich nations to pay for the pollution they produced on their way to prosperity, how to protect the rain forests and their people, etc.
No one, absolutely no one, is talking about family planning.
Voluntary family planning programs yield very inexpensive and highly effective "green" outcomes, says a 2009 study out of the London School of Economics. The study found that each $7 spent on basic family planning would reduce carbon emissions by more than one ton -- a more cost-effective approach than most low-carbon technologies. And it concludes that "an optimum mix of carbon-reducing methods includes family planning as one of the primary methods."
This equation -- "fewer emitters, lower emissions, less cost" -- is convincing enough, never mind the overriding moral imperative we have to affirm the human right to reproductive health and freedom.
We have all seen the toll of the rising seas, killer tsunamis, severe droughts and devastating hurricanes. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has thoroughly documented how poor women worldwide bear the brunt of these changes. They are less able to relocate, more tied to agricultural work, get less pay and have fewer educational opportunities. They also shoulder the greatest burdens in bearing and raising children.
The story of Beatrice Adongo, an impoverished, 45-year-old Ugandan woman, illustrates the point. After giving birth to 13 children, she finally learned about birth control. "I delivered these children because I didn't know there was another way," she told a McClatchy reporter this week. It doesn't take much to imagine a different set of choices for her, and a far different carbon impact on our planet, if she'd had access to family planning services.
After the conference, I'll be heading to Finland to visit the birthplace of my great-grandmother. Poverty forced her to flee her homeland at age 18, all by herself, with $50 in her pocket. Her life on Michigan's Upper Peninsula was better than it might have been in Finland, but she was still extremely poor, and never learned English. She had nine children, and, like Beatrice Adongo, never had access to information about birth control.
Such women inspire me every day as I work to ensure that affordable reproductive health care services and information are available to all who need them. These needs must be met worldwide, both for the sake of women's lives and to sustain our planet.
It's not only a smart, "green" thing to do, it's a just and equitable thing to do for humankind -- especially for women.
Sarah Stoesz is president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota. She was in Copenhagen on behalf of the Blue Green Alliance, a coalition of labor unions and environmental organizations.