A Climate Gag Rule on Population?

John Seager, President and CEO


In 2015, Florida Governor (now Senator) Rick Scott’s administration banned state employees from official use of the phrases “climate change” and “global warming.” This “climate gag rule,” as it was dubbed, prompted a Democratic state senator to mockingly substitute the phrase “atmospheric reemployment.” While 97% of scientists now accept the reality of human-caused climate change, many GOP legislators, including Scott, remain intransigent and oppose Biden’s decision to rejoin the Paris Agreement.

These obtuse obstructions are well-documented. But there is another, far-less-noticed barrier to climate progress. How does one explain the media’s widespread refusal even to acknowledge the central role that global population stabilization could play in reducing the emissions that are driving climate change? There is sound science that demonstrates up to 40% of needed emissions reductions could be achieved by addressing population growth. Yet a review of news coverage regarding climate change reveals that less than 0.1% of such reports even mention population growth.

We’ve come to expect refusals to accept facts from Far Right organizations that are at war with science. But why does the news media fail to cover the population climate connection? It raises a serious question: Is there an unwritten climate gag rule on population?

If so, we mustn’t equate it with Trump’s odious Global Gag Rule that was recently lifted by President Biden. That vile official edict was the direct cause of much suffering. Let’s not conflate the callous infliction of human misery with omissions in news coverage. Yet it’s important to ask why progress on climate change is being suffocated by silence.

It’s not because coverage of climate solutions is boring. For example, in reporting that the “role that soil plays in climate change is often ignored,” The New York Times has covered efforts “focused on reducing or eliminating the amount of tillage done on farms.” Tillage is important. So is population growth. In fact, the population story is endlessly fascinating because it is the story of all of us. Despite the many reporters assigned to the climate beat, links between population and climate seem banished from the news.

Doubtless this relates to the fact that, as The New York Times noted last year, “Fifty years ago, there was mainstream alarm about population growth, which led to sterilization campaigns and other gruesome policies.” There is vital truth here, but a glaring omission as well. Some of the same attention that was used by some to justify horrific abuses also led to remarkable advances in other quarters. This progress resulted from growing recognition of the rights of women to determine their own reproductive lives. Given a real choice, we now know that most women choose smaller families.

While some have commendably responded to population challenges by upholding reproductive autonomy through voluntary programs such as Title X and international family planning, others used population alarms as a pretext for trampling individual rights and destroying lives. In the U.S., 70,000 people, mostly poor women of color, were forcibly sterilized during the first seven decades of the 20th century. This was done under color of law as the U.S. Supreme Court approved this vile practice in the 1927 Buck v. Bell ruling. This ranks among the worst decisions in our long history—one that has never formally been reversed, but is thoroughly rejected today. Just a few years ago, the California state penal system was found to be pressuring female inmates into tubal ligations. When the news broke, the often fractious California state legislature voted unanimously to bar the practice. Recently, there have been highly disturbing, credible reports of similar acts of medical abuse in Georgia. Eternal vigilance is necessary.

We must never paper over historical abominations or present abuses. Even the most vital goals imaginable have been used at some time or another as pretexts for heinous acts. During World War II, one of our greatest presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt, issued a terrible order which interned Japanese Americans in concentration camps. This did not apply to German Americans or Italian Americans despite the fact that we were at war with all three nations. And the Supreme Court, in a 1944 decision authored by a leading First Amendment advocate, Justice Hugo Black, approved this awful action.

Decades later, Congress sought to make what amends it could for these internments of patriotic Americans, just as North Carolina and Virginia have done what little they could at this late date to redress forced sterilizations that destroyed the lives of so many. But FDR’s reprehensible action doesn’t negate the need, then and now, to combat fascism and other authoritarian assaults.

Vile acts of forced sterilization mustn’t result in ignoring the role of population growth in driving climate change. There are 218 million women in the Global South who don’t want to be pregnant, but who have an unmet need for contraception. Presently, women in developing regions have 111 million unplanned pregnancies annually. It makes no more sense to deny the impact of rapid population growth on our global climate than it does to deny inalienable rights to reproductive autonomy.

We must stick to the facts. And the fact is that per capita emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) are 155 times higher in the U.S. than they are, for example, in the African nation of Niger. When it comes to the fate of our planet, the only truly acceptable goal in terms of fossil fuel emissions is zero. Here at home, we mustn’t ignore or downplay the fact 37% of all U.S. births are unintended, according to a 2012 CDC survey of new mothers. We should increase our investment in international and domestic family planning.

If we’re going to save this planet as we know it, we’re going to have to confront all manner of inconvenient truths, to borrow the title of Vice President Gore’s fine book. We must dramatically modify our high consumption lifestyles and flat-out end the use of fossil fuels as soon as possible. Similarly, we simply can’t afford to take population off the table when it comes to fighting climate change. We must follow the science by recognizing that greater investments in reproductive health programs can play a key role in stopping climate change by moving us toward needed population stabilization.

Population Connection will be pressing the news media to follow the science. We ask why they refuse to cover the critical role that population stabilization can play in reducing harmful atmospheric emissions. And we’ll keep on asking. Certainly, the topic is neither boring nor irrelevant. Check out Population Connection magazine for proof. It can, however, be fraught and lead to angry reactions. Facts have a way of doing that.

We’ll never paper over gross missteps and egregious human rights violation by some under the population banner. At the same time, if we want to preserve and enhance lives and protect our natural world, we must confront the facts of life when it comes to population stabilization as central to fighting climate change.

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