Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Population Elephant

The are enough "elephants" in the room whenever climate change is discussed that it is amazing that there are ever any rooms big enough in which to hold these conversations. One such elephant that few want to discuss but all acknowledge is critical to understanding cumulative impacts and social vulnerability is population.

As part of the background conversation, the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF) has documented the critical need for nations to examine population dynamics when it comes to vulnerability and enhancing our ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions. Vulnerability describes the different ways in which groups (of people usually) are particularly susceptible to small changes in environmental systems. Resilience is the ability of those affected to adjust and accommodate changes as they happen.

For example, if you have two families, one upper middle class and one living paycheck to paycheck at minimum wage jobs, the same percentage cut in income of both families will be felt by each very differently. For the middle class family, sacrifices may have to be made and whatever savings they have accrued over the years may erode depending on how long the crisis lasts. But this is nothing compared to the working class family for whom a similar income cut will be catastrophic because they had been living at the margin before the crisis hit. It doesn't take much to push the working class family into insolvency because they are that much more vulnerable to the same changes occurring around them than the middle class family. Because of their education, mobility, and savings, the middle class family is likely to be more resilient than the working class family.

According to the UNPF, policymakers need to be finding out more about these vulnerable populations including: who is vulnerable; where they live; and what people and governments can do to build resilience. These are sensitive issues that touch on population size, family size, education, social safety nets, access to healthcare and issues of mobility. Bringing it back to the negotiations at hand, they have stated:

"...the results of the negotiation process should create a framework that puts people on maps, together with geography, infrastructure and climate related risks in a way that bridges social and physical approaches to adaptation."

It is widely acknowledged that one inevitable effect of changing environmental conditions will be the mass movement of people from marginal areas where they can no longer reasonably make a living. What is yet unclear is whether these movements will be proactive in advance of forced migration or whether they will be the result of environmental and humanitarian crises.

The hope of the UNPF is that linking population concerns and climate change now at the stage of planning and adaptation "will help to make the process of urbanization more will help to ensure that migration is more anticipatory and adaptive, and minimize displacement." Of course, moving people, even out of marginal lands that are susceptible to environmental catastrophes can be a difficult and sensitive subject (remember the Buffalo Commons idea in the Great Plains a decade ago). People with deep social roots in a place may resist even as the viability of their existence in that place continues to erode. The challenge will be to balance well-meaning policy options with a sensitivity to social ties to place.

In terms of resilience, a theme which has come up over and over again is the emphasis being placed on the education and empowerment of women. By empowering women, it has been shown that family size goes down, the average age at which women start to give birth goes up, and overall family well-being is increased. Perhaps not surprisingly, the same cannot be said for the education and empowerment of men. Helping women in particular have greater choice about their lives or helping provide more opportunities for the urban poor helps individuals, communities and households build resilience and be able to better adapt to the impacts of climate change. BlogBooster-The most productive way for mobile blogging. BlogBooster is a multi-service blog editor for iPhone, Android, WebOs and your desktop

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