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By Candice Bernd
October 26, 2011
Caption : Sustainable development and the empowerment of women have become top priorities at the United Nations as population reaches seven billion.      

The stork has been busy lately.

The United Nations said recently that it expects the fabled bird to deliver the world’s seven billionth baby sometime yet this month.

“For that child, and for all of us, we must keep working to fight poverty, create decent jobs, and provide a dignified life while preserving the planet that sustains us,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon told the London Independent. “That is why the sustainable development agenda is the agenda for the 21st century.

“Above all, that means connecting the dots between challenges such as climate change and water scarcity, energy shortages, global health issues, food insecurity and the empowerment of the world’s women.”

With a failing world economy that leaves billions subsisting on less than $2 a day, endless consumption by developed nations is becoming an ever-increasing problem on a planet with finite resources. Scientists predict climate change factors will exacerbate food insecurity through desertification and create millions of climate refugees in the coming decades.

That’s knowledge that should set the precedent when the world’s wealthiest 10 percent owns about 42 percent of global income, according to a 2011 World Economic Forum.

That’s knowledge that the world’s youth and unemployed are taking to the streets in the 99 Percent movement.

Some researchers have called into question the UN’s projection that the world will see seven billion this month, citing unreliable census data and uncertainty about whether future birth rates will continue to rise—another factor that could be impacted by climate change, which has become a significant variable in answering questions about future population stabilization. At worst, the UN’s projection could be a year early.

“Going forward it’s certainly an unknown whether we’re going to keep being able to support more and more people,” says Brigid Fitzgerald Reading, a staff researcher at the Earth Policy Institute.“The United Nation’s population projection … at this point doesn’t really take into account how what we’re doing to the environment currently may affect our population growth.

“And the reason they do that is because we don’t really know how … those things are going to happen, but that doesn’t mean that continued environmental degradation and climate change and the health consequences of those things won’t take a toll.”

Reading said while women in developing countries typically have higher birth rates, the environmental burden does not rest with them, often the primary victims of climate impacts they didn’t cause.

More than 200 million women worldwide don’t have access to family planning even though they want to plan their families, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

“These macro-level dilemmas really are a reflection of a micro-level problem,” said Susan Cohen, director of government affairs at the Guttmacher Institute. “Unlike these really big, complicated issues, on this one there’s a universal consensus and the solutions while not simple, are relatively straight-forward.”

Cohen lamented the attacks on family planning within the United States, which has relatively low birth rates but vastly higher consumption habits.

“[Family planning] is controversial only within certain factions of the United States Congress who have targeted it for disproportionate cuts, and they want to slap on restrictive policy measures that go back to the bad old days,” Cohen said. “So far they have been rebuffed by the evidence and by the reality that these programs work.”.

Population Action International is helping to document the stories of women in poorer countries struggling to care for their families while dealing with crop failures and water scarcity.

“Women are especially affected by climate change,” said Roger-Mark De Souza, director of the climate program at Population Action International. “In addition to caring for their families, they’re usually responsible for collecting fuel, water and food, and climate change can make those tasks even more difficult.”

About 85 percent of the world’s young people live in developing countries, and about a third of the world’s population is between 18 and 24 years of age, according to The YP Foundation.

Ishita Chaudry, who works with young people for the foundation, said these economic inequality factors are part of the reason why youth around the world, especially women, are at more risk of unintended pregnancies and contracting sexually transmitted diseases.

“Reaching the seven billion mark, I think while it is a reminder of the incredible resources we have as human beings collectively, it is also an opportunity for policy makers and governments in others countries to really reinvent their strategies on how we use these resources to reduce inequality,” Chaudry said.

Empowering the world’s women could be the key to at least a portion of the climate crisis we’re facing. Millions of women around the world lack equal access to the education needed to fully understand that their potential in society goes beyond just that of reproduction

“We don’t need population control,” Reading said. “It would change the picture for population just to provide adequate family planning resources for everyone.”

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