Agrowing number Latin Americans have felt the touch of a climate change. Earlier this year, torrential rains killed dozens in northern Chile, one of the driest regions in the world. In Brazil, the worst drought in the nation’s history forced water rationing and triggered rolling blackouts. In Peru, disappearing glaciers deprived cities and towns of freshwater once promised by the slow melt of snow and ice. All over the region, the pressures of climate change have forced affected communities to contemplate new ways to adapt. For some, that means strengthening infrastructure or adapting agricultural techniques. For others, it means having fewer children or waiting a little longer to start a family.

“Meeting the need for family planning services in areas with both high fertility and high vulnerability to climate change… can reduce human suffering and help people adapt to climate change.”

In Peru, dwindling water resources in rural areas have forced some to migrate to city slums. Thrust into a new environment, many are struggling to provide for their own. Even if both parents want to work, mothers must often stay home to care for the children. Roger-Mark DeSouza, Director of Population, Environmental Security and Resilience at the Wilson Center, explained, “They’re not able to be economically productive. They feel they have too many children, and they would like to be able to make decisions over their destiny.”

By expanding access to family planning and reproductive health services, governments can empower women to enter the workforce. That in itself is a worthy end but, importantly, this will also slow population growth, which in turn will ease demand for scarce resources like clean water. In its latest report, the IPCC noted, “Meeting the need for family planning services in areas with both high fertility and high vulnerability to climate change… can reduce human suffering and help people adapt to climate change.”

In his recent encyclical on climate change, Pope Francis took an opposing view, chiding those who blame our current environmental crisis on “population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism.” There is no doubt that if we want to limit carbon pollution, we should consume less, but it’s hard to ignore the effect of the growing number of consumers. Slowing population growth is key to slowing climate change, and it is also far cheaper than nearly every other proposed solution.

It would cost less than $10 billion a year to provide family planning to the 225 million women worldwide who currently lack access modern contraception. This, it is estimated, could yield nearly 30 percent of the reductions in carbon pollution needed to avoid catastrophic climate change. In the sustainable development business, that’s what’s known as a good deal. DeSouza explained that expanding access to family planning is “quite a transformative approach that’s low-cost and has a quick return on investment,” adding, “And it’s what people want.”​


Jeremy Deaton writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture. You can follow him @deaton_jeremy.