05/23/2013 08:42 am ET Updated Jul 23, 2013

Family Planning Helps People Thrive in a Changing World

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The tragic tornadoes in Oklahoma provide a terrible reminder of just how vulnerable human beings -- even in this age of technology -- are to weather. And while nobody is seriously arguing that climate change causes tornadoes, most scientists agree that a changing climate could make storms more violent and frequent.

Those likely to face the most devastating effects of climate change are people -- especially women -- in the poorest parts of the world. People already eking out a living will face serious new challenges to their ability to provide for their families.

So how can we best help them?

Could we make sure they have extra food? Climate change is already reducing yields of some crops, and the possible doubling of food prices by 2030 will hit the poorest the hardest. How about helping them move to higher ground? Rising sea levels could displace millions of people living in low-lying nations, flooding their land and destroying their livelihoods.

What about family planning? Is contraception a tool to cope with climate change?

Undoubtedly yes.

Those who are interested in the effects of human population on the environment -- including my organization, Population Connection -- have long supported universal voluntary access to contraception. After all, a 2005 London School of Economics study found that human population is growing fast enough that even if everyone in highly developed countries -- the planet's real resource hogs -- reduced their carbon footprint 40 percent over 40 years, present population growth rates alone would more than erase the reductions.

But today, I'm not talking about strategies to reduce climate change. I'm talking about climate change resilience, or the real survival benefits family planning offers people whose lives and livelihoods are threatened by our changing world.

It's something we need to think about. The International Organization for Migration projects that 200 million people may be forced to migrate by 2050 because of climate change. That's the equivalent of 24 New York Cities, or 74 Chicagos. That's a whole lot of people whose lives will be upended due to flooding, temperature shifts, and the loss of agriculture productivity -- factors they can't control.

Most of these people are extremely poor. They don't have the ability to ship their belongings via moving van and buy an airplane ticket to higher ground. And as with any difficulty in life, what separates those who can cope from those who collapse is resilience, or the ability to recover from or adjust to change.

Having access to contraception makes women, their families and their communities more resilient in a number of ways:

  • When women can time and space their pregnancies, they and their children are healthier. Being resilient in the face of adversity requires toughness. It's that much harder to adapt if you're weak or sick. Studies have long shown that family planning improves the health of women and their babies. When women are able to wait three years between pregnancies, their bodies can recover, and they and the babies they bring into the world are more likely to survive.
  • Family planning reduces poverty. When families are able to choose how many children they have, their children are more likely to have enough resources, including food and education. With adequate resources, families are more able to react to changes in their environment. Extra schooling might open up new job opportunities for a subsistence farmer, or a little extra income might allow a family to supplement the food they grow or migrate to a better place to live.
  • Family planning reduces the impact on the local environment. Many families who are threatened by climate change displacement depend on the land for their livelihoods. If local populations grow too large, natural resources may not be able to regenerate fast enough, and families can suffer from malnutrition and a lack of clean water and fuel wood. Population, health and environment programs tackle this challenge in an integrated way by helping people access basic health care and efficient cookstoves, protect their local environments, and adopt sustainable agriculture techniques.

Right now, around 222 million women in the world -- many in areas most at risk of experiencing negative consequences of climate change -- want to avoid pregnancy but don't have access to modern contraceptive methods. Making sure they can isn't just a thoughtful thing to do. In a world that's changing, it's a basic human right and necessity.

So while extra food and higher ground would undoubtedly be welcomed by families suffering from the effects of climate change, ensuring voluntary access to contraception is an important step, too. Helping families have children only when they choose won't eliminate the hardships of climate change. But it would give them a little more power over their futures. And that can mean the difference between barely surviving and thriving.

John Seager is president of Population Connection, America's largest grassroots population organization. The organization's website is