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Abortion: The Third Rail of Climate Policy?

Earlier this week, Thomas Wire of the London School of Economics published a study concluding that improved family planning is one of the most effective methods of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions we’ve got. This is something that sustainable-growth advocates have realized for a long time, but the actual numbers are startling: Reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies out there—calculated on the basis of “unmet need,” or women who want contraception but currently don’t have access —is roughly five times as cost-effective as deploying low-carbon technologies like wind, solar, and carbon sequestration. (Treehugger has a good summary.)

So, today, David Fahrenthold of The Washington Post asked around Washington to see what nonprofit and government types thought about this bit of research. As it turns out, the environmental establishment wanted nothing to do with it.

"I don't know how to say 'No comment' emphatically enough," said David Hamilton of the Sierra Club. "I don't want to rain on anybody's parade, but the primary solutions to climate change have to deal with what we do with the people who are here."

And from the administration:

The Obama administration declined to comment when asked about the family-planning idea. At the United Nations, which is overseeing global negotiations on reducing emissions, an official wrote in response to a query that "to bring the issue up … would be an insult to developing countries," where per-capita emissions are still so low compared with those in the United States.

That is how abortion politics have skewed our political universe. Even proposing an increased focus on family planning (which is much less about abortion than non-controversial contraceptive methods like condoms, IUDs and the pill) is so radioactive that no one dare touch it. We saw this happen in health care—the mere prospect of federal money funding abortions became a lightning rod for conservative opposition—and it’s poisoned the environmental debate as well.

The other force at work is how we’re thinking about "population control." Inevitably in these discussions, the right will bring up Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb, which wrongly predicted mass starvation in the 1980s, and use that to dismiss fears of overpopulation. But we shouldn’t be thinking about population solely in terms of a tipping point, which is an impossible thing to pin down. Instead, it’s simply about reducing the number of footprints as well as their size, through increasing access to reproductive choice—a key element of the development agenda, and something the Obama administration itself endorsed eight months ago, by scrapping the gag rule on family planning. Too bad it looks like that's totally off-limits in the American environmental discourse.