Dear Copenhagen: What about Women?

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As the global architects of a new treaty to combat climate change meet in Copenhagen this month, they continue to work from a conspicuously incomplete blueprint. Last Thursday morning, George Soros made it very clear that significantly greater resources must be allocated to mitigate the impact of climate change on the world's poorest people, who are the most vulnerable to its affects. This is a welcome development. But still absent from the climate change talks is the call for greater support to give hundreds of millions of poor women what may be the single most important tool for helping their families weather the uncertainties of climate change: modern contraception.

The world's population now stands at 6 billion, double what it was just 50 years ago. In four short decades, it is expected to rise to 9 billion. What this projection doesn't convey is that if current trends continue, the countries that will experience the bulk of this growth are those that already are facing the greatest environmental pressures. The Economist recently asserted that, in effect, the so-called population "problem" is solving itself, pointing to continued declines in birth rates in specific countries. That is simply not the reality in the world's poorest countries, and certainly not for the more than 200 million women who want but currently aren't able to plan their families using modern contraception. But the conversation that needs to be had in Copenhagen about including provisions for increased access to family planning in a progressive climate policy is much deeper and more nuanced than the simple equation of "fewer people equals lower carbon consumption."

When my organization set up its first overseas office in Bangladesh in 1973, a Bangladeshi woman gave birth, on average, to six or seven children in her lifetime. We listened to what local women had to say about this and worked with the Bangladeshi government to make contraceptives more available. We also trained health providers to improve maternal health care, while civil society structures worked in parallel to improve women's roles and status. Thirty years later, the typical family has three children, and is in a much better position to lift itself out of poverty, including investing in children's education and earning potential.

No one is claiming, of course, that family planning alone is enough to protect the Bangladeshi people from dangerous flooding, from rising sea levels, tornadoes and other weather events related to global warming. But it is certainly arguable that parents with smaller families are able to build their resilience to food and water shortages and the other deadly effects of disaster, just as bolstering levees and shoring up low-lying deltas can help protect the most vulnerable.

Today, across most of North America and Europe, in the face of a downturned economy, couples are able to delay childbearing as way to weather financial uncertainties - just as they are able to plan the timing and spacing of children for any other reason. These are individual decisions and personal freedoms we and others in developed nations enjoy, and have for decades, because we have access to such options. Yet in many parts of the world, women and couples who want the freedom to plan how many children to have, or how many years apart they want their children to be, don't have the basic information or tools they need to take charge of their own chosen destinies.

Heading into the Copenhagen talks, we saw familiar battle lines drawn between developing nations and industrialized nations, which produce a disproportionate amount of carbon emissions. Meles Zenawi, the prime minister of Ethiopia and Africa's point man in the Copenhagen talks, is among those who have called on wealthier countries including the U.S. to provide climate aid to compensate for the lopsided burden - including devastating drought - that developing nations are already shouldering. These compensatory packages should include aid for family planning.

Until family planning and the voices of the world's women are integrated into the larger conversation about climate change, we will continue to traffic in partial solutions. Humanity's best hope in the face of what may be irreversible global warming lies in building the resilience of women and their families to withstand its worst effects.

It's not too late to draft a new blueprint.