Nick is a Justmeans staff writer for the Climate Change and Energy & Emissions categories, with a background working on climate and energy issues both on the ground and online. Nick is particularly interested in the interplay between the written word and the creation of on-the-ground change, which he examined in-depth in his senior thesis while at Pacific University. Since graduating from col...
Climate Change and World Population Day
As June 11th marks World Population Day, this is a fitting time to delve into how (if at all) efforts to deal with a growing global population should be part of reducing the causes of climate change. It's a touchy subject, which many people on all sides of the debate feel very strongly about. There is likely no simple answer: while the size and growth of human populations certainly can contribute to climate change, arguments that try to single out population growth as the main cause of climate change and other environmental problems are over-simplistic and frankly quite wrong.
In the end, the most important thing may be how NGOs, governments, and individuals respond to the population challenge. Old arguments about population growth which center on the developing world and carry a distinctly racist tinge must be put aside, and have no place in discussions about climate change. A fresh look at the population issue shows that growing consumption levels are a much more serious cause of climate change than growing populations, and that populations in the developing world are more likely to be stabilized by increasing the power of women than by any type of repressive population policy.
It must be acknowledged from the beginning that historic concerns over population growth have ties to theories that are more than a little racist, elitist, and anti-humanitarian. Thomas Malthus, writing about population in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, supposedly concluded that helping the poor should be discouraged because it would only encourage poor families to go on reproducing. Garret Hardin, an ecologist whose most influential papers were published in the 1960s and '70s, extended this argument to suggest population growth was the fault of developing countries, and that aid to the world's poor should be discouraged.
Hardin's early writings on population came well before widespread concern about climate change. Yet the recent years have seen a resurgence in the sustainability community's concern with population. This time climate change is at the root of the matter: you can't curb climate change, the claim goes, unless you reduce the number of people contributing to it.
On the face of it the argument makes sense, but reality is more complex. A country's carbon emissions depend partly on how many people live therebut even more on how much energy those people consume, and on whether that energy comes from fossil fuels or cleaner sources. It isn't large numbers of people per se that's the cause of climate change: it's large numbers of people burning large amounts of fossil fuels. China serves as a case in point. The most populous country in the world, China has also become the largest annual producer of carbon emissions. Yet that isn't because China's population suddenly started growing; it's because a very large population which once consumed relatively little is fast becoming more and more reliant on fossil fuels.
Still as developing countries increase their consumption of fossil fuels, it will be a challenge to meet the needs of new consumers without cooking the planet. In that sense slowing population growth could help reduce the causes of climate change. This does not, however, mean embracing the arguments of Malthus and Hardin. Quite the contrary: it turns out the best way to reduce population growth is through the very humanitarian goal of improving the lot of women and girls around the world. In most societies women have traditionally shouldered the brunt of child-rearing work and responsibilities. Increasing the options for family planning available to women and ensuring multiple lifestyle options for women therefore make for more egalitarian societies while tending to limit population growth.
To summarize, while population growth can be a factor in climate change, population is less important than consumption. Climate advocates concerned about population need to understand the racist history of population theory, in order not to repeat the mistakes of Malthus and Hardin. In the end the best way to achieve lower population growth is by improving the family and political power of women and girls. Such efforts, desirable for humanitarian purposes anyway, are truly the best way to stabilize population growth and its potential to add to climate change.
Photo credit: Medindia