Initiatives to curb climate change must include equity and population stabilization

AP Photo/Noah Berger

The recent Australian election replaced a fossil-fueled focused, climate-denying government with one lead by new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese that promises action on climate change. The Joint Leaders’ Statement from the recent Quad summit said, “We welcome the new Australian Government’s commitment to stronger action on climate change, including through passing legislation to achieve net-zero by 2050 and lodging a new, ambitious Nationally Determined Contribution.”

It is now clear that there will soon be interaction between the U.S. and Australia on climate change and related environmental issues. Indeed, all aspects of the environmental sustainability of our two nations must be considered including, population stabilization hitherto studiously avoided.

What are the reasons for this absence of population policy when the avoidance of one new birth in developed countries provides by far the greatest emission reduction of any lifestyle choice?

President Theodore Roosevelt wrote that a family will inevitably die out if “the average man and average woman are so selfish and so cold that they wish either no children or just one or two children. We have had just six children in this family. We wish we had more.” He maintained that “no other success in life … comes up to the success of a man and woman who feel they have done their duty.”

When I meet male medical colleagues and friends with whom I have had little contact for a few years, they soon announce the number of grandchildren they now have, and it is always many. Their announcement is clothed in duty and pride, ostensibly a pride in their potency and the transmission of genes for the future of humanity.

The question must be asked whether these considerations play a collective role in an unwillingness of a country to limit their numbers when many such individuals also recognize that the planet is finite, and the trajectory of diminishing natural resources will soon cross the rising trajectory of increasing population. Indeed, for many young people, the climate weighs much more heavily in this decision, along with the cost of raising children.

With the Ukrainian war severely impacting already falling grain supplies for needy countries the finite nature of the planet is plain to see; famine, drought and conflict imposed upon climate catastrophe and diminishing biodiversity threaten many populations.

Neither the U.S. nor Australia has a population policy that would be vital to addressing rising temperatures and deteriorating biodiversity and ecological services.

The U.S. Department of State does not endorse population “stabilization” or “control.” and indicates “the ‘ideal’ family size should be determined by the desires of couples, not governments. The U.S. strongly opposes coercive population programs.” This ignores the constraints that will be imposed by the finite planet and the importance of choice by individuals recognizing these constraints which should be placed before each citizen in a national policy. Immigration is the basis for government supported population and economic growth.

In Australia, we still live with the philosophy of the “Populate or Perish” slogan perpetrated by the Minister for Immigration Arthur Calwell, who drove mass immigration after World War I. Australia encourages population growth. When introducing the “baby bonus” scheme in 2002, Australian Treasurer Peter Costello provided incentives to “have one for mum, one for dad and one for the country.” Today, The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry “Better Australia” strategy pressures government to set migration targets to address “severe” skill shortages and maximize economic outcomes.

Current lack of population policy in both countries ignores the fact that we are the highest per-capita emitters of greenhouse gases in the world, with Australia 15.2 tons of CO2 per capita and the U.S. 13.7 tons.

Furthermore, our ecological footprint indicates that the U.S. requires the natural resources of 5.1 Earths to maintain its standard of living and Australia requires the resources of 4.5 Earths — obviously, neither is sustainable.

Clearly, these are equity issues between rich and poor nations for it is inconceivable how this can be addressed with sufficient urgency without the fundamentals of our economic system being examined. This is based on consumption and economic growth with incessant cries for skilled migrants. The overwhelming challenge is that our “growth is literally destroying the planet. We are far past the point where the quest to increase the amount of producing, selling and consuming is grossly unsustainable,” as stated by University of New South Wales’s Professor Ted Trainer.

Our economic system generates resource depletion, ecological destruction, profound inequality, the deprivation of billions of people in the developing world, resource wars and inevitably a declining quality of life even for those in the richest countries.

The economic system which promotes growth and consumption is entrenched and powerful as recently described by demographer Joseph Chamie in the Hill. Our governments, political parties, businesses, the media and social commentators wish for population growth and lament population slowdown. Yet, our citizens do not concur, for example 69 percent of Australians do not wish for more people.

How can we begin to address these wicked problems? It is relevant that the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report affirmed for the first time the need for fairness, equity and climate justice in the world’s response. Pacific island nations have contributed the least to the climate crisis, but are impacted the most by it.

At the recent Quad summit, Albanese canvassed with President Biden hosting global climate talks in Australia. This would ensure the impacts of climate change on the Pacific island nations would be a significant issue because of Australia’s neglect and indeed dismissal of the islands’ needs. This lack of action by wealthy Australia has led some nations to entertain assistance from China. The Pacific island nations will wish to focus on equity, climate justice and the need for climate leadership from both the U.S. and Australia. We will be reminded that the ecological footprint of many of the island nations is currently one Earth. Population expansion in Australia and the U.S. is entirely relevant to their plight, and consequently the climate talks must have input from demographers and non-government environmental organizations.

David Shearman (AM, Ph.D., FRACP, FRCPE) is a professor of medicine at the University of Adelaide, South Australia and co-founder of Doctors for the Environment Australia. He is co-author of “The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy” (2007) commissioned by the Pell Centre for International Relations and Public Policy.

Tags Climate change climate equity Energy Population Theodore Roosevelt

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