Thursday, June 14, 2007

Population and Climate Change

It would appear the the United States government is at least starting to listen to the scientists and the rest of the world in acknowledging that climate change/global warming is happening and that it is indeed a problem. It's about time! Although, if you paid any attention to the media in the last week, our very own NASA administrator apparently isn't too concerned.

What I find interesting about the public debate is, with all of the options being considered to address global warming, we continue to ignore the largest single contributor to the problem - population growth. In my opinion, population growth is the largest single threat to our planet. We are already consuming more resources than the planet can renew. We are detroying entire ecosystems, driving biological diversity down. And of course, our consumption is producing output which is warming the planet at an accellerating rate. This is acting as a feedback loop, further destroying eco-systems and the resources on which all life depends. When will the population discussion enter the national and world debate?

In a recent study, researchers determined that if couples had two children instead of three they could cut their family's carbon dioxide output by the equivalent of 620 return flights a year between London and New York. Note that the 620 flights is based on the per capita footprint of people in the UK. The per capita footprint in the US is much greater. Anyway, a reduction of this magnitude would result in a huge decrease in a person's carbon footprint, but it only covers a fraction of the story. This analysis considered the carbon used by a family in a year, not the future impact of those children and their children and their children. Population growth, when couples have more than two children, is increasingly non-linear. Thus, the resource usage and impact on the world is non-linear as well.

Our government discusses how China is a regressive regime, yet this is one aspect that they appear to understand to a much greater degree than the United States. They understand that their population growth is a risk to the national and world resources. This is why they have limited offspring to one child in most cases. While not a perfect policy, and one that has a number of interesting side effects, it does at least acknowledge the true problem of population growth and tries to take some drastic action to address it. It is interesting that the country taking the most drastic measures to save the planet, whether perfect or not, is getting strong criticism for the policy (violating the human right of reproduction). When will the rest of the world take population growth seriously?

I am sure that I will be called a communist and/or much, much worse for making such an argument, but I have a slightly different view of freedom. My freedom says that I should be free to not have my world destroyed by you. Should you be free to destory your neighbors world? Its time that the world community starts working and acting as a community. That means that my actions should be measured for not only what they mean for me, but also the impact on others. People speak of their freedoms as if they never have an impact on others. We now know that in the global environmental crisis, nearly every action has an impact on everyone else.

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John B. said...

I think that you are right about the need to consider population growth among the factors leading to climate change. I would favor some sort of voluntary program, perhaps with government/NGO funding to slow and possibly reverse growth. It is especially important among the world's richer countries. I'm not sure it will happen in the current political climate, though.

wolf21m said...

John. Thanks for the comment. I agree that a voluntary program is a much better plan. My main point is that we need to have the population discussion. On that, we appear to agree. It seems that everyone is afraid to have the discussion. I agree with you that the current political climate is not likely to address this in teh short term.

New England Coalition For Sustainable Population: said...


No doubt there is urgent need for environmentalists (and everyone else for that matter)to re-engage with the population issue.

Of course, its always a complicated function of I=PAT...

For more information visit

Thanks for this brave post.