Interesting perspective on population growth and climate change

What population bomb?

2011-10-05 08:53

One of the most frequent comments I get when I write about climate change is that
the solution to the problem is simple: people need to have fewer children and
developing countries have to lower their birth rates. In the month when the UN
projects that the Earth’s human population will reach seven billion, this may
well sound like a reasonable suggestion.

The argument echoes Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb in which he claims

“The causal chain of deterioration is easily followed to its
source. Too many cars, too many factories, too much detergent, too much
pesticide, multiplying contrails. Inadequate sewage treatment plants, too little
water, too much carbon dioxide – all can be traced easily to too many people”
(my emphasis).

So is getting global population growth under control
really the most important step in our battle against climate change and against
environmental deterioration in general? At first sight, the equation seems
fairly straightforward: more and more people consuming more and more
non-renewable resources and producing more and more pollution, including
greenhouse gasses, will eventually exceed our planet’s finite capacity to cope.
Game over.

Take a closer look at the actual figures, however, and the
situation isn’t quite so uncomplicated. It turns out that population growth
rates peaked globally in the 1960s and that the period of very rapid growth is
over. Demographers expect the world’s population to reach nine billion by 2050
after which it is projected to start levelling out on a more stable

Family sizes are also decreasing. The UN predicts that, on
average, women in the developing world will have only 2.05 children by 2050,
down from about 2.7 today.

Perhaps most importantly though, doing a
simplistic head-count and lumping every human being on the planet into one pot
blatantly ignores the crucial question of exactly who is doing all of the
over-consuming and polluting. Although they are home to only about 20% of the
world’s population, industrialised countries are responsible for some 80% of the
accumulated CO2 build-up in the atmosphere.

Developed countries may have
very low population growth rates, but they have much larger per capita carbon
footprints than their developing counterparts. Conversely, those countries that
still have relatively high birth rates, for example many in sub-Saharan Africa,
have the lowest carbon emissions on Earth. Yes, China has growing per capita
carbon emissions, but these days its birth rate is among the world’s

When looked at this way, Ehrlich’s population bomb appears more
like demography’s equivalent of George W Bush’s mythical weapons of mass

There is a much more valid correlation between culpability
for climate change and affluence. The largest cause of climate change by far, is
not population growth, but the carbon-intensive development path based on
burning fossil fuels for energy chosen by economic and political elites across
the globe both in developed as well as developing countries.

worldwide economic inequality is mirrored by an inequality in greenhouse gas
emissions. The rich emit most of the CO2 and the poor majority faces the brunt
of the devastating impacts.

The challenge of the 21st Century is to halt
climate change by reducing the carbon emissions of the rich while eradicating
inequality by bringing sustainable development to the poor without causing their
carbon footprint to increase beyond control.

Yes of course we want a
stable human population that is in equilibrium with the planet’s ecosystem. What
we don’t need is coercive, top-down population control programmes, but access to
affordable, high quality and voluntary reproductive health services, including
safe birth control and abortion for poor women. When given the economic and
social freedom to make informed decisions, most women chose to have fewer
children. What many poor women lack to make that choice is social, political and
sexual justice.

The real solution to climate change involves policies
and actions that prioritise energy conservation, environmentally-sustainable
technologies and replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources. Laying
the blame for climate change on poor women and their children – the very people
who are least responsible but likely to suffer the most severe consequences –
amounts to a criminal neglect of our collective responsibility to make these
solutions a reality.

Andreas has a PhD in geochemistry and
manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop
at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy
. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath



One response to this post.

  1. Posted by klem on October 5, 2011 at 2:15 pm

    I’m mystifies about this. When I was a kid in the 1960’s- 70’s, the UN predicted by the year 2000 there would be 40 billion people on earth unless we reduced our reproductive rate and began educating people in the third world. If we did not do this thre would be world wars and the worst famines in human history. So we did that, threw lots of money at the Un and other organizations and low and behold today we have only 7 billion people by the year 2011. Wow, the UN was correct, we began education and reducing reporductive rates and the population programs were a success. Now the UN is saying that 7 billion is too many, that by the year 2050 we’ll have 9 billion and we need to reduce our reproductive rates and educate people in the third world. If we do not do this there will be world wars and the worst famines in human history. Hmm, do you see a pattern here?

    I’ve been listening to this same warning pretty much all my life now, this warning has been generating money for these organizations for decades. The so called population bomb just one of those finacial gifts that keeps on giving.



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