I came of age during the protests of the late 1960s and early 1970s, marching on behalf of others' causes: against the war in Vietnam and for civil rights, student freedoms and – most powerfully for me – environmental preservation. When I marched for the women's rights movement, however, that was different – it was personal.
Saving the planet depends on women achieving full human rights, and that begins with reproductive rights.
Women then were starting to break through the glass ceiling, learning from each other that the obstacles we thought we were facing alone were in fact common to all women, and that together we could do something about them.
At the time I didn't realize that my two most passionate causes were intimately connected. Global sustainability seemed to me then to require chiefly regulations based on scientific research, and to many people it still does. Meanwhile, I saw friends with enormous professional ambition and talent derailed by unintended pregnancies. In those days, they had to leave school. Their contribution to the world of work and public policy was deferred, if not diminished.
This remains true in much of the developing world, where women's low status often isolates them in the home and deprives them of the bases for autonomy and self-determination: education, health care, property and legal rights, and access to training and credit. But how can "sustainable development" be defined as either sustainable or as development if it does not provide these things to half the population? Saving the planet depends on women achieving full human rights, and that begins with reproductive rights.
Two groundbreaking studies, one from the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research and one from the Futures Group, found that simply by meeting the current need of 222 million women worldwide for access to voluntary family planning, we could reduce carbon emissions by 8 to 15 percent. That is equal to stopping all deforestation this very day – an enormous step toward curbing global warming.
The critical fact here is that the savings would arise only partly from fewer people burning fossil fuels. Most of it would happen because, as I learned in college, women who control the number and timing of their children also control much else in their lives – and what most women want is a good future for their children.
It almost goes without saying that the reach of this universal desire expands with a woman's capacities. Access to voluntary family planning programs lets all women wait to bear children until their resources permit them to give a child the adequate food, education and health care that every parent wants to provide.
In the developing world, women fetch the water, produce up to 80 percent of the food, and gather the fuel to cook it, and they make many of the family's purchasing decisions. In development-speak, women are at the center of water security, energy security and food security at the household level.
The more women know about environmentally friendly ways to do these things – and the more autonomy they have in deciding how to do them – the better for the planet. Women who learn about the climate crisis, for example, understand immediately that they are on its front lines: drought and floods from climate change threaten their household security. Studies show women are 14 times more likely to die from storms and other extreme weather as men – 14 times! – because women look after children, the elderly and the sick, and that can immobilize them during emergencies.
When I began my career, all the environmental leaders I knew about were men. Now women advocates are running the show at all levels, from grassroots activism to the top environmental positions in governments everywhere. Women have filled those ranks in part because they were able to learn about their own health needs and what they might do to guarantee their families' future.
I want my three daughters and other people's daughters to have similar opportunities. That is why the 1.3 million members of the Natural Resources Defense Council are pressing for strong financial commitments from the world's decision makers to invest in women – their education, their health care, their overall empowerment – even as they invest in comprehensive change to the ways we produce energy and transport ourselves. The two are inextricably interlinked, because we now know that what is good for women is good for the planet.
If you ask most people what tools are essential to combat global warming, most will mention emission controls, wind power, fuel-efficient cars, solar energy, biofuels and so on. Those are technical approaches and they are certainly critical. But no technological fix will curb global warming if we don't empower the world's women.
Frances Beinecke is the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which uses law, science and the support of 1.3 million members and online activists to advance comprehensive solutions to today's biggest environmental challenges.