Reproductive Justice is Climate Justice

Editor’s Note: For context on this article please reference the Letters to EcoNews: Population Control. Those letters were in response to an article written by Elena Bilheimer in the May 2022 EcoNews issue titled Is Overpopulation to Blame for Climate Change?

Pro-choice protestor. “Bans off our bodies.” Source: Freepik.

Elena Bilheimer, EcoNews Journalist

Dear Readers, 

Thank you both for taking the time to respond to my article. As expected, a topic as complex as this one generates discussion and controversy, and I appreciate having the opportunity to respond to some of the questions and concerns that were raised. Engaging in these difficult conversations is necessary as we work towards creating an environmentally just movement that more accurately reflects the needs of those who have been, and will continue to be, most affected by climate change. 

I want to make clear that my main goal as a journalist for EcoNews is to create content that educates and supports the development of this more environmentally just movement. Locally, EcoNews provides a platform through which we can engage with these topics and learn from each other. It is important to note that EcoNews is an environmental newspaper, and thus the articles that are printed in it often reflect the bias of those whose agenda includes environmental protection and flourishing. However, as stated at the beginning of every issue, the ideas expressed in EcoNews do not necessarily reflect the positions of the NEC and its member groups (see page 2 of every issue).

As mentioned in my first article, although the U.S. is in the midst of an 80 year birth rate decline, our greenhouse gas emissions have been steadily increasing. Perhaps even more striking is that the world’s richest half-billion people, about 7 percent of the global population, are responsible for 50 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. This is in comparison to the poorest 50 percent, who are responsible for just 7 percent of emissions. These numbers make it very clear that overconsumption and pollution are associated with wealth, not the amount of people that exist. 

Deepti Chatti, an Assistant Professor of Environmental Justice in the Department of Environmental Studies at Cal Poly Humboldt said, “People use terms like carrying capacity and other kinds of ideas like that, but there is no linear relationship between how many people there are and how many resources we use and how much pollution we produce. And that’s not because people don’t use resources or people don’t cause pollution, but it’s because of how people live and how people relate to the environment. How much they use and what they use  is so varied across places in the world, across cultures, across political settings, and across wealth categories, so it becomes almost impossible to make a statement about people because that category is not one homogenous group.” It is clear at this point that the earth would not be able to sustain 11 billion people if everyone had the lifestyle and resource use of the average Californian. However, this indicates that the focus should be on finding ways to make the lifestyle of the average Californian more sustainable and less wasteful, rather than trying to tell others what kinds of reproductive choices they should be making.  As the journalist David Roberts pointed out,  “Another way to approach the problem would be, rather than prevent the birth of extremely wealthy people, prevent the creation of extremely wealthy people. In other words, prevent the accumulation of massive wealth.” 

In response to concerns about the growing population in parts of the Global South and the potential impact this will have on the world as living standards increase, a recent study found that even if extreme poverty was eradicated for hundreds of millions of people, global emissions would be raised by less than 1 percent. It therefore becomes clear that even with substantially fewer people and a much lower birth rate, our governments and systems of resource use in the Global North are contributing significantly higher carbon emissions so as to make the potential future contributions of those in the Global South of minimal consequence. As Jade Sasser, Professor of Gender and Sexuality at UC Riverside and author of Infertile Ground recently said, “The thing about it is that focusing on how many babies people have and trying to control those numbers is a way of letting these powerful institutional actors off the hook, which is very dangerous given that for example, as of 2017, the US Department of Defense alone with its 585,000 facilities around the world, was responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than some entire nations, including Sweden and Portugal.”

Concentrating the attention on population can not only obscure the other causes or contributors to climate change, it can lead to scapegoating, as it is much easier to blame people across the world than to look more closely at our own role in the current crisis. Anxiety about population has been embraced by eugenicists and white supremacists alike, and has been used to justify violence by mass shooters in El Paso and Buffalo. While most people agree on the horror of that behavior, it is important to examine both the usefulness and ethical tenability of even more mild population control or population reduction endeavors.  

Efforts to limit population growth either require that people who are already alive cease to exist, or the prevention of new people from being born. The first option is obviously ethically dubious, while the second can easily be misused when it is framed as a method of control rather than as a tool for bodily sovereignty. When access to reproductive healthcare is framed as a way to control or reduce population, these efforts can disproportionately affect women and those capable of getting pregnant as theirs are the bodies that are seen as needing to be managed in order to achieve less people.  While we should be fighting for absolutely everyone to have access to reproductive healthcare, that access shouldn’t come with strings attached or with the pressure to limit reproduction in service of saving the earth. 

Additionally, population control efforts don’t exist in a vacuum outside of prejudice, harmful histories, or unfair systems. Unjust population control efforts involving coercion are still alive today, as exemplified by the forced sterilizations happening on our southern border in an effort to control those deemed undesirable for migration. The real-life implications of race, class, gender, sex, and various other identities also influence who gets access to reproductive healthcare. If we were to hypothetically offer tax credits to those who have fewer children, we would first have to address the myriad of systemic injustices that make it more difficult for marginalized communities in the U.S. to access the reproductive healthcare they need and want, injustices that have only become more pronounced with the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Otherwise, a policy like that would further increase the disparity between those who are privileged with access to reproductive healthcare and those who aren’t. 

Fortunately, there are more useful ways to frame the solution that don’t rely on coercion, control, or pressure. As Dr. Chatti said, “I haven’t seen any evidence that fixating on the number of people in the world is the most effective, or indeed a meaningful way at all, to care about climate change. We should be caring about the way that corporations and organizations that profit from fossil fuels block any substantive action on climate change, or the ways that our economic systems incentivize people to make profit off things that make the world inhospitable and dangerous for many people.” Limiting income inequality has also shown to be extremely useful for mitigating emissions, and increasing reproductive justice allows for people to make their own choices and have the kind of family structures that make sense for them. Reproductive justice is a term that was coined by a group of black women in 1994 and is defined as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” Working for reproductive justice is significantly less controversial than fighting for population control. It is inherently connected with environmental justice, and can be advocated for in our local communities, especially after the overturning of Roe v. Wade. 

Overall, the numbers are simple: our population will stabilize within the century, but as of right now, our carbon emissions will not. This is not a result of the many new babies that have the potential to be born in the Sahel or Bangladesh, but because of decades of purposeful apathy from corporations and governments. If anyone or anything needs to be controlled, it’s these entities. If that isn’t sufficient, focus your efforts on helping further reproductive justice, so that everyone everywhere gets to decide when and what kind of family structure they want. Advocate for those whose rights and choices about their bodies have long been denied due to the systems that are causing the climate catastrophe. We will not save ourselves and this earth with the same efforts of control and coercion that caused this mess, instead the only way to create change is by implementing new systems of interdependency and sovereignty.  As Sasser said in a recent talk, “Reproductive justice is the anti-overpopulation approach. It’s the anti-population control approach. And it is the only comprehensive social movement that truly fights for full reproductive bodily autonomy in all regards, specifically in response to policies that are racist and anti-poor.”


  • When Climate Anxiety Leans Right: Eco-fascism, Buffalo and Roe,
  • I’m an environmental journalist, but I never write about overpopulation. Here’s why.
  • The People Who Hate People,
  • Consumption Dwarfs Population as Main Environmental Threat,
  • Reproductive Justice,
  • Against the EcoFacist Creep,
  • Population,
  • Eradicating ‘extreme poverty’ would raise global emissions by less than 1%,