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Population Growth, Climate Change Putting More People at Risk

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The suffering in the Philippines right now in the wake of Super Typhoon Haiyan is simply heartbreaking. The death toll is expected to reach at least 4,500. More than half a million people were left homeless. And at least 2.5 million people need emergency food rations, according to the World Food Program. By comparison, 2 million needed food aid after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

Unfortunately, catastrophes like Haiyan are likely to become more common in the coming years.

Whether you believe in man-made climate change or not, intense storms are happening more often. Haiyan - by some estimates - is the strongest cyclone ever to make landfall. Meanwhile, the oceans are rising. As the sea level rises, so does the threat to populations in low-lying areas such as the Philippines.

Many of these populations are growing rapidly, putting more and more people at risk. Women in the poorest quarter of Filipino households on average have more than five children.

And the Philippines isn't alone. Kiribati - a tiny Pacific island - is growing so quickly that its population is outstripping the nation's ability to cope. Sea-level rise could submerge the entire country within the next 60 years. In fact, many of the world's largest - and most rapidly growing - cities are also at risk.

What can we do about it? Moving everyone away from the coast isn't particularly feasible - though Kiribati is working on it. That plan might make sense for Kiribati - which only has 100,000 or so residents. But when one study estimates that nearly one in 10 people on our planet lives in low-lying areas threatened by rising seas, bringing in the moving trucks seems a little less reasonable.

We can't move everyone. But those of us in the developed world can move to lower-carbon living - and stop doing our part to make climate change worse. And we can help the world's most vulnerable people become more resilient. One simple tool - birth control - can play an important role in accomplishing both these goals.

It's simple math: The more people you have, the more carbon emissions you get - especially in resource-hogging nations like the United States. Environmental activists have raised a lot of stink over projected carbon emissions from the planned Keystone XL pipeline - and rightly so. However, by expanding access to voluntary family planning and slowing world population growth from the most likely scenario - 9.6 billion people by 2050 - to a smaller 8.3 billion, we could reduce carbon emissions equal to up to 377 Keystone pipelines. Every year.

Even if every one of us stopped using all fossil fuels this minute, millions of people in the Philippines and beyond would still be threatened by catastrophic storms like Haiyan. Our actions have put them at risk. We owe the most vulnerable people in the world the tools they need to survive and thrive in a changing climate.

Right now, more than 222 million women in the developing world - many in areas at high risk of climate change-related effects - want to avoid pregnancy but lack the modern birth control they need to do so. This isn't a matter of self-actualization or a fulfilling sex life. It's simple survival.

When women can time and space their pregnancies, they and their children are healthier. Being resilient in the face of adversity - including climate change - requires physical strength. It's hard to adapt if you're weak or sick.

Contraception also reduces poverty. With adequate income, parents are better able to provide their children the resources they need. In the face of climate change, additional income might help a farm family supplement food lost in drought or flooding, or migrate to a more productive plot of land.

Birth control also helps reduce impact on the local environment. When local populations grow quickly, the land they live on might not be able to regenerate fast enough, leading to food and water shortages, deforestation, and even civil conflict over scarce resources and opportunities.

It's easy to feel hopeless in the face of the devastation in the Philippines. But there is plenty we can do. We can give to charitable organizations helping save lives on the ground. We can curb our own carbon emissions to stop adding to the problem. And we can ensure every woman around the world who wants it has access to contraception. Because in a world that's changing, families deserve plans they can count on.

John Seager is President of Population Connection, the nation's largest grassroots population organization. The organization's website is populationconnection.org.