The Population Quandary … in the Climate Context

For decades, population hogged the spotlight, even when the glare was harsh. But all eyes are on climate change these days, though it appears that population concerns are rising anew, along with the atmosphere’s concentration of greenhouse gases.

Once upon a time, before global warming had become, as Jon Foley puts it, “the mother of all environmental problems,” (and he didn’t mean that in a good way), overpopulation was a pre-eminent concern of many green-minded scientists and activists. A famous book in the late 1960s gave rise to our greatest nightmare.

By the 1980s and 1990s, however, the politics of population turned ugly and environmental organizations began to back away from their campaigns. Some religious groups, pointing to the coercive measures adopted by China, attacked the “population stabilization” cause, and anti-immigrant elements in the United States co-opted it. As recently as the mid-2000s the issue had badly splintered the Sierra Club.

Since then, new fronts on the debate have opened up, with British science writer Fred Pearce asserting that concerns about overpopulation pale in comparison to challenges posed by overconsumption.

But Alex Renton, a journalist who specializes in development issues, makes another argument now being heard more often: It’s precisely because of our carbon intensive lifestyles that “population stabilization should be intrinsic to any climate change strategy.”

This line of reasoning was buttressed in a new paper published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, PNAS. The authors of that study found that “slowing population growth could provide 16-29% of the emissions reductions suggested to be necessary by 2050 to avoid dangerous climate change.”

So where does all this leave us now, as experts tell us the world reaches the seven billion mark next week? Assuming climate change remains the “mother of all environmental problems” for the foreseeable future, then that framework will likely drive the debate over population.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.
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3 Responses to The Population Quandary … in the Climate Context

  1. JeffN says:

    Usually when “population control” is mentioned, it’s as a sort of vague concept rather than as a policy- which is smart because so many of the policy ideas that spring from it are either poorly thought out, bigoted, or idiotic.

    Alex Renton, for example, wrote (in your link): “This brings me back to my original proposition: why not curb the populations of the rich countries? We don’t generally want so many children, so we might well trade away our right to have more than two for something attractive. After all, based on current emissions and life expectancy, one less British child would permit some 30 women in sub-Saharan Africa to have a baby, and still leave the planet a cleaner place.”

    This one-for-30 formula would only work as an emission reduction policy given two conditions- 1. the 30 African women agree to raise their children in the abject poverty that makes their baby’s “cleaner” than one Brit and 2. Britain’s population must actually decline- none of the 30 African children would be allowed to move to Britain and emit greenhouse gasses like Alex.

    So, properly understood, “population control” means people in developing nations won’t be allowed to live like Alex. I don’t think they’ll go for that and I don’t blame them.

  2. Tom Fuller says:

    The mother of all problems? Hmm.

    The mothers of the children who will bring the population to 9 billion later this century have been born. The problem for those who believe this is a grave concern need to ask themselves, what will it take to persuade those mothers to have 2 children instead of 5?

    If they are educated, live in a rapidly developing society, and can see that a) their children will have a chance for a good life and b) it is in their interests to invest in creating the best conditions for 2 children rather than hoping that 1 out of 5 will do well enough to support them in their old age, things will go well.

    This strategy has been remarkably successful–without exception, actually–everywhere it has been tried. I would suggest continuing with it and extending it as far as possible.

  3. Michael Ioffe says:

    It is wrong to mix population problems with climate change at least for one reason.
    Carbon dioxide and others GHG do not playing so huge role in global warming, as today science of climate change explain.
    Human activities changed evaporation of water and reflection back to space direct sun radiation on continents.
    It is main reason for climate change.
    Restore trees in forest on continents, which evaporate more water, than any others vegetation and we will return to more stable earth climate.
    To understand this point, please imagine earth with no continents-only one equaly deep ocean.
    Will be in this case changing in climate, if solar constant and other reasons will be the same?