May 8, 2021

Opinion: Linking reproductive rights and climate solutions is the only way forward

by  Kristen P. Patterson

The time is ripe to include women’s reproductive rights as part of our climate solutions toolbox.

This Mother’s Day, I’m asking myself tough questions about what it means to be a mom, a woman and a climate advocate in this critical cultural moment. After 20 years of working at the intersection of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and environmental conservation, I find there is still a strong hesitancy among some SRHR and climate advocates to link reproductive rights and climate. With the 26th Climate Conference of the Parties (COP) slated for this November—just as the pandemic has brought our world’s climate and health crises into sharp relief—the time is ripe to include women’s reproductive rights as part of our climate solutions toolbox. Doing more, together, is the best path to a more healthy, equitable climate future for women and girls around the world, particularly the most vulnerable among us.

This hesitancy to link reproductive rights and climate dates back a few decades, and relates to a taboo around “population.” Beginning in the 1950s, the United Nations started hosting once-per-decade world population conferences, with a goal of encouraging countries to implement population programs to address rapid population growth that would inhibit economic development. The programs designed to address the “population problem” focused on promoting family planning, with women targeted to use contraception. A few countries, notably China and India, resorted to coercive policies that forced contraceptive use. In 1994, at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, advocates understandably promoted a shift away from family planning as the sole solution to concerns about population. 

Advocates also embraced reproductive health as much more than just family planning, to include sexual rights, sexually transmitted infections like HIV, safe motherhood and safe abortion (Newman et al 2014). The era of sexual and reproductive health and rights was born, and to this day, some SRHR advocates believe that any linkages with population or other sectors such as environmental conservation or climate change detract—and distract—from the message of SRHR for all and are tantamount to blaming women in the developing world for climate change. This mentality was on display at the celebration of the 25th anniversary of ICPD, held in Nairobi in 2019, where a fellow advocate who works at the intersection of SRHR and climate told me that she was shocked by the scant attention given to SRHR, population and climate change. 

I share the feeling of dismay that our professional community can’t seem to blend these vital, complex and interconnected parts of an equitable and sustainable life on Earth. My passion for working at the nexus of reproductive health and climate solutions springs from my service as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger after college. I lived alongside Nigeriens for two years in a rural village, Sabon Gida, 500 kilometers east of the capital. I learned Hausa, lived in a mud-brick hut, and became close friends with many of the 800 Hausa and Fulani residents. I focused on agroforestry, and we certainly planted a lot of trees. But my friends and village leaders wanted to do more than restore their natural resources. They were concerned about keeping their children healthy (25 percent of children in Niger died before the age of five in the mid-’90s) and wanted to rehabilitate the main village well which served as the primary local water source for people and livestock. As I worked to respond to their diverse needs and connect them with local resources and extension agents, the seeds were sown for me to become a life-long advocate of holistic approaches to community-led development.

In the mid-1990s, we didn’t talk about climate change—but after facing years of desertification along the edge of the Sahara Desert, my friends recognized that they needed to address multiple health and environmental challenges in order to become more resilient to frequent shocks and stresses that are common in Niger, including droughts, locusts, and disease outbreaks like meningitis. Planting trees and restoring depleted soil went hand-in-hand with improving health and access to clean water. 

Most of my closest female friends were about 10 years older than me. I was single and childless at age 22, while they had gotten married at age 16 or 17 and had their first child soon after—girls in Niger marry earlier and give birth to their first child at a younger age than anywhere else in the world. As Vanessa Nakate, a Ugandan climate-justice activist wrote recently, “Girls who have been to school grow up to be empowered women. They are not forced into early marriage, and they tend to have healthier, smaller families, reducing emissions well into the future.” Unfortunately, there wasn’t a single school in Sabon Gida.

My friends were strong, smart women, yet all but my friend Mantou lost multiple children to ailments that were preventable or treatable in other countries with more resources than Niger. My friends and other women in Sabon Gida were eager to learn more about what they called maganin hutu in Hausa—“rest medicine.”

Ten years later, when I gave birth to my first child, I finally grasped the absolute perfection of the translation of contraception into Hausa. In present-day Niger, demand for and uptake of contraception still faces many cultural hurdles, but during my time in Sabon Gida, many husbands were supportive of their wives using contraception because they could see the benefits of spacing births for both their wives and their children.  

Accessing contraception during my years in Niger was hard. Women had to walk on sandy paths (usually carrying their youngest child on their back) nearly four hours roundtrip to the nearest health clinic, which sometimes was out of stock. The consequences of failing to resupply contraception were stark: maternal and child health tragedies were a weekly occurrence in Sabon Gida. An acquaintance on the other side of the village, Salama, died during childbirth. Another woman experienced an obstetric fistula; her baby died, because she was taken to the nearest hospital—65 kilometers away—too late, by donkey cart, after 48 hours in labor. And I still think of Amadou regularly, the son of my two closest friends, Haoua and Gado, who asked me to name him. Amadou died of whooping cough soon after his first birthday because he had missed a round of vaccinations, which required the same punishing walk to the health clinic.

My experience of motherhood—though I’m a white woman living in the U.S.—has been deeply influenced by my time in Niger. I carry my friends’ stories and those of other women in Sabon Gida with me still, as if it was yesterday; their influence on my life’s work cannot be understated. 

It’s time for the world to recognize that reproductive health is a key component of climate mitigation, adaptation and resilience. In addition to reproductive and primary health care challenges, climate change is now a main character in the lives of every person in Niger. Climate impacts worsen each year, and with the world’s highest fertility rate, Niger’s population has more than doubled from 10 to 23 million in the past 25 years. More than perhaps any other place in the world, Sahelian countries like Niger exhibit the intertwined challenges of SRHR, rapid population growth and climate change. Evidence shows that boosting women’s rights to decide whether and when to have children enhances equity, slows population growth at a global scale, and contributes to climate mitigation.

I like to think that bridging sectors and bringing more advocates to the table to support universal reproductive rights and climate action will help save lives. The publication of Project Drawdown’s seminal book in 2017 raised awareness for the first time among thousands of climate advocates of the importance of enhancing equity through education and women’s reproductive health, and the cascading benefits such investments have as climate solutions. As the inaugural director of Drawdown Lift, I’m eager to collaboratively identify, promote and advance interdisciplinary solutions-based approaches that alleviate extreme poverty and address climate change. 

The evidence calling for advocates and other stakeholders to let go of the population taboo is growing. Connecting human health, population and climate change is essential—we need advocates who deeply understand that our lives are entwined with nature, and defending both is the way forward. Ensuring that people in places like Niger and across the Sahel have full access to (and knowledge about) reproductive health services and programs that boost their resilience to climate change—as well as quality education—should be non-negotiable.

This opinion piece was originally published by Ms. Magazine on May 8, 2021. Hear more on the link between reproductive justice and environmental justice on the recent episode of “On the Issues With Michele Goodwin”: Climate Change Is Real. Now What? (with Osprey Orielle Lake and Nourbese Flint).

More Insights

June 22, 2022
Climate-Poverty Connections Webinars
Key takeaways from Drawdown Lift’s Climate–Poverty Connections webinar series
by Carissa Patrone Maikuri
Drawdown Lift recently hosted a two-part webinar series in which 10 global experts explored how technologies and practices that mitigate climate change can contribute to boosting human well-being and alleviating poverty as evidenced in the Climate–Poverty Connections report. Check out these key takeaways:​​​ 28 of Project Drawdown’s currently available, financially viable climate solutions not only have proven potential to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but also provide clear co-benefits for human well-being for rural and underserved communities in Africa and South Asia.  This means we have a remarkable opportunity to align strategies, funding, and policies to simultaneously reduce climate threats, alleviate poverty, and boost human well-being.  Investments in low-carbon development must prioritize countries that are first and worst impacted by climate change—particularly low- and middle-income countries.  Human well-being co-benefits from the 28 Project Drawdown climate solutions are particularly strong in the dimensions of Income and Work, Health, Food, Education, Gender Equality, and Energy.  World Bank economists estimate that Improving Agriculture and Agroforestry is 11 times more effective at reducing extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa than investments in other sectors.  Providing Clean Electricity is crucial to improving human well-being: People who live in communities with limited access to electricity also tend to experience high food insecurity, lack access to improved water and sanitation, lack access to income and work, and endure disproportionate health burdens.  Adopting Clean Cooking could prevent more than 22.5 million premature deaths between 2000 and 2100.  Women’s and Indigenous peoples’ secure land tenure are imperative when Protecting and Restoring Ecosystems; more than 1 billion people experiencing extreme poverty depend on forests to meet their basic needs for housing, water, and fuel, as well as their primary source of income.    Fostering Equality, which includes Project Drawdown’s Family Planning and Education solution, encompasses rights-based, voluntary family planning and high-quality education, yields co-benefits for all 12 dimensions in the Drawdown Lift Human Well-being Index, more than any of the other five climate solutions groups analyzed in Drawdown Lift’s new Climate–Poverty Connections report. Family planning—ensuring everyone’s contraceptive needs are met in a way that centers rights and bodily autonomy—is not in itself a climate mitigation strategy. Rather, one outcome of family planning, slower population growth, is a climate solution.     In part one of the webinar series, global experts in climate-smart development, environmental health, clean energy, and natural resource management discussed how climate solutions focused on Improving Agriculture and Agroforestry, Providing Clean Electricity, and Adopting Clean Cooking can contribute to improving human well-being and alleviating poverty and yield substantial socioeconomic, health, equity, and environmental gains. Presenter: Yusuf Jameel, Research Manager, Drawdown Lift, Project Drawdown  Moderator: Yolande Wright, Global Director Child Poverty, Climate and Urban, Save the Children Host: Kristen P. Patterson, Director, Drawdown Lift, Project Drawdown  Panelists: Jill Baumgartner, Associate Professor, Institute for Health And Social Policy & Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health, McGill University  Ademola Braimoh, Senior Natural Resources Management Specialist, Agriculture Global Practice, World Bank  Glory Oguegbu, Founder & CEO, Renewable Energy Technology Training Institute (RETTI) and Climate Smart Nigeria Interpreters: Sabrine Bayar and Manel Khammouma     In part two of the webinar series, global experts in cross-sectoral conservation and health initiatives, climate adaptation, girls’ education, and environmental conservation spoke to how climate solutions that Protect and Restore Ecosystems and Foster Equality can contribute to positive socioeconomic, health, equity, and environmental outcomes. Presenter: Kristen P. Patterson, Director, Drawdown Lift, Project Drawdown  Moderator: Cheryl Margoluis, Executive Director, CARE-WWF Alliance    Host:  Carissa Patrone Maikuri, Program Coordinator, Drawdown Lift, Project Drawdown Panelists: Tapas Ranjan Chakraborty, Senior Programme Manager-Climate Change Programme, BRAC- Bangladesh  Portia Kuffuor, Enterprise Development Manager, CAMFED (Campaign for Female Education)  Alice Macharia, Vice-President of Africa Programs, the Jane Goodall Institute   Interpreters: Sabrine Bayar and Manel Khammouma
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March 31, 2022
New Drawdown Lift report: Advancing climate solutions can help alleviate extreme poverty
Addressing climate change and improving the well-being of millions of people experiencing extreme poverty—two grand challenges of the 21st century—can be done together and create critical co-benefits for socially disadvantaged groups in rural areas of low- and middle-income countries, according to a new landmark report released today by Drawdown Lift, a program of the global nonprofit Project Drawdown.  The report, titled Climate–Poverty Connections: Opportunities for synergistic solutions at the intersection of planetary and human well-being, focuses specifically on climate solutions and poverty alleviation in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia—two areas of the world most at risk from the threats of climate change. This first-of-its-kind analysis reveals many ways in which specific technologies and practices that offer proven, substantial benefits for addressing climate change also improve multiple aspects of human well-being—particularly people’s livelihoods, health, food security, education, gender equality, and more. Widespread implementation of these solutions would be transformational in alleviating poverty and increasing resilience to current and future climate change. According to a World Bank report, in the next decade, climate change could push an additional 100 million people into poverty in low- and middle-income countries, setting back decades of progress in poverty alleviation—a situation the pandemic has made even more dire. "We have an opportunity to elevate climate solutions that also boost human well-being and contribute to much-needed socioeconomic development,” said Kristen P. Patterson, director of Drawdown Lift. “Populations experiencing extreme poverty did not cause the climate crisis. It is incumbent upon decisionmakers to strategically invest in climate solutions that help usher in equity and prosperity, and achieve the SDGs.” The report guides leaders and stakeholders—including international and country-level climate and development policymakers, the climate finance community, donors, and NGOs—toward the dual goals of investing in low-carbon development pathways and reducing poverty. "In developing countries globally, efforts to promote climate action will undoubtedly be intertwined with aspirations for economic growth. This report sheds light on policy options and approaches for harnessing this opportunity to deliver human well-being benefits in the race to net-zero," said Mohamed Imam Bakarr, senior environmental specialist at Global Environment Facility and a Drawdown Lift Advisory Council member. The report, which builds on Project Drawdown’s groundbreaking climate solutions research, draws on a review of 450 articles and reports (through 2021) to synthesize the evidence of how climate interventions that mitigate greenhouse gas emissions can also generate substantial co-benefits for human well-being. It was reviewed by a dozen experts in agriculture, gender, international development, education, conservation, climate, health, and other areas. The report’s findings have the potential to improve the lives of millions of people around the world—particularly girls and women—if the recommendations are implemented. "If you’re telling a rural woman to cease using dirty fuels for cooking, know that poverty is the reason she is using them. Climate solutions must be holistic to ensure sustainability. This report presents strategies for solving the climate challenge that address intertwined human needs," said Glory Oguegbu, founder and CEO of the Renewable Energy Technology Training Institute and a Drawdown Lift Advisory Council member. Downloads Download the full report | Download the abbreviated fact sheet Media Contacts Todd Reubold, Director of Marketing and Communications, Project Drawdown Kristen P. Patterson, Director, Drawdown Lift, Project Drawdown About Drawdown Lift Launched in early 2021, Drawdown Lift works to deepen collective understanding of the links between climate change solutions and poverty alleviation, particularly in low- and middle-income countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. The Lift team seeks to help address both extreme poverty and climate change by collaboratively identifying, promoting, and advancing solutions designed to catalyze positive, equitable change. About Project Drawdown Project Drawdown is a nonprofit organization that seeks to help the world reach “drawdown”—the future point in time when levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere stop climbing and start to steadily decline. Cities, universities, corporations, philanthropies, policymakers, communities, educators, activists, and more turn to Project Drawdown as they look to advance effective climate action. Project Drawdown aims to support the growing constellation of efforts to move climate solutions forward and move the world toward drawdown—as quickly, safely, and equitably as possible. A 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, Project Drawdown is funded by individual and institutional donations.
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March 15, 2022
Project Drawdown launches “Drawdown’s Neighborhood”
Across the United States, individuals are working each and every day to reduce the threat of climate change in their cities and communities. Drawdown Stories, a new initiative of Project Drawdown, aims to showcase their work and inspire others by passing the mic to the climate problem-solvers whose voices and stories often go unheard. Launching today, Drawdown’s Neighborhood is a new short documentary series featuring the stories of climate solutions heroes, city-by-city. The series is rooted in the guiding principle of “Climate Solutions in Color,” Project Drawdown’s commitment to “pass the mic” to the climate stories that often go unheard. The first season features individuals, most of whom are from underrepresented groups, mobilizing electric vehicle fleets, retrofitting buildings, and advancing other climate solutions in Pittsburgh, a city with a deep history in coal and steel. In the spirit of Pittsburgh native Mister Rogers, this series showcases the diverse “neighborhood” of people working to help the world reach drawdown, the future point when greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere start to steadily decline. Drawdown’s Neighborhood: Pittsburgh features 11 stories of how people from all over the city are mobilizing to fuel a green future—leveraging Pittsburgh’s innovative spirit for much-needed change. The stories center the voices of women, Black people, people of color, immigrants, and others who are often not represented in the climate dialogue and yet are commonly most immediately and severely vulnerable to the impacts of climate catastrophe.The series features: Clara Kitongo, Program Coordinator at Tree Pittsburgh Sarah Olexsak, Manager of Transportation Electrification at Duquesne Light Company Erica Cochran Hameen, Assistant Professor & Director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at Carnegie Mellon University School of Architecture Richard Tumushime, Head Electrician at Energy Independent Solutions Angie Martinez, Senior Right-of-Way Manager at the City of Pittsburgh Tom Mulholland, Senior Project Manager at Grounded Strategies Brandon Walton, Fleet Manager with the City of Pittsburgh Alexis Cromer, Food Operations Director at 412 Food Rescue Paige Anderson, Project Manager at the City of Pittsburgh, Department of Mobility and Infrastructure Shawn Taylor, Crew Leader at Landforce Veni Mittal, Former Energy Audits Associate at Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh; Community Service Chair at the Green Building Alliance Drawdown’s Neighborhood is hosted by Matt Scott, manager of storytelling and engagement at Project Drawdown. Scott is also the creator and host of Let’s Care, where he has interviewed and learned from 100+ unlikely or underrepresented changemakers since 2017. “I want people to see themselves and their power. As a young, Black, queer person who’s also a storyteller, I’ve been acutely aware of how the climate conversation traditionally hasn’t centered underrepresented voices,” said Scott. “This is not only a problem because Black communities, Indigenous communities, communities of color, and other marginalized groups are often the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, but also because these communities are the most underutilized in surfacing solutions. Representation matters everywhere, including the climate space, and if we want to tap into our full power to address climate change, we need to center those whose power has often been underrepresented and underestimated.” In addition to the featured videos, the Drawdown’s Neighborhood site includes discussion prompts to engage classrooms or communities in dialogue around each episode. And there are resource links to help individuals and others take action to address climate change. Future Drawdown’s Neighborhood cities will be announced later this year. To learn more and stay up to date, please visit drawdown.org/neighborhood. About Drawdown Stories Drawdown Stories identifies and produces multimedia stories as a bridge between the science-based solutions of Project Drawdown and the people looking for their own roles in the climate solutions space. This work provides an entry point for a diverse range of people through tangible examples of climate solutions being implemented today. Our work showcases the various people in climate careers that help make drawdown possible. The guiding principle of Drawdown Stories is “Climate Solutions in Color.” Through Climate Solutions in Color, we work to “pass the mic” to the climate heroes who often go unheard. About Project Drawdown Project Drawdown is a nonprofit organization that seeks to help the world reach “drawdown”—the future point in time when levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere stop climbing and start to steadily decline. Cities, universities, corporations, philanthropies, policymakers, communities, educators, activists, and more turn to Project Drawdown as they look to advance effective climate action. We aim to support the growing constellation of efforts to move climate solutions forward and move the world toward drawdown—as quickly, safely, and equitably as possible. A 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, Project Drawdown is funded by individual and institutional donations.
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