Too hot for climate change: Limiting population growth

Too hot for climate change: Limiting population growth
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Limiting population growth appears simply too hot to handle for many who are concerned about climate change, global warming, environmental degradation and biodiversity loss. Whether it’s in Washington, D.C., Beijing, Moscow, New Delhi, Paris, Tokyo, or the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, limiting population growth is not part of climate change negotiations. 

With the world now approaching 8 billion human inhabitants, limiting the demographic growth of nations is not only ignored, but many countries continue to push for the interminable growth of their populations.

The latest landmark report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts a devastating future for the world. Recently the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced that climate change is a “code red for humanity” and the alarm bells, which have been ringing for years, are deafening. 

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And in addition to droughts, floods, hurricanes, heatwaves, water scarcity, wildfires, air pollution and other climate-induced changes, the hottest month for the planet in 142 years of recorded measurement was July 2021. Nevertheless, governments and others continue to maintain a solid green light for the growth of their populations.

Some have made the claim that the climate emergency is a result of an increase in greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels and not population growth. However, a universal agreement exists that birds, fish, insects, other wildlife, and plant life on the planet are not responsible for burning fossil fuels and increasing greenhouse gas emissions. 

Logically then, it seems reasonable to conclude, as the IPCC has done, that human populations are responsible for burning fossil fuels and the increases in greenhouse gas emissions. It also seems reasonable to conclude that while certainly not the entire solution, limiting the growth of populations would make it easier to reduce the burning of fossil fuels, cut greenhouse gas emissions and address other environmental concerns. 

Despite widespread recognition that humans are “unequivocally” to blame for climate change, limiting the growth of populations is largely taboo and, with few exceptions, remains off the table during negotiations of climate change, global warming, environmental degradation and biodiversity loss. 

In 1988, when the IPCC, James Hanson and others warned the world about greenhouse emissions, climate change, rising sea levels and biodiversity threats, the world population was 5 billion. Today, approximately a generation later, the world population has reached nearly 8 billion. Also over that period, the populations of today’s top three contributors to greenhouse emissions, China, the United States and India, increased by 27, 35 and 66 percent, respectively. 

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In both developed and developing countries continue to adopt policies, establish measures, and promote messages encouraging the growth of their populations. Most aim to raise low birth rates, but also, in some cases, increase immigration levels.  

For example, China, with a population of 1.4 billion and a fertility rate of 1.3 births per woman, recently introduced a three-child policy with supporting measures directed at raising the country’s birth rate and avoiding population slowdowns. In addition to China, more than 50 countries have policies to increase their fertility rates, including Australia, France, Germany, Hungary, Iran, Israel, Italy, Japan, Poland, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, and Turkey.

The United States, with a population of 333 million and a fertility rate of 1.6 births per woman, is proposing policies to facilitate child-rearing as well as increasing immigration to the levels of the recent past, approximately 1.1 million per year. With limited future immigration, the size of America’s population is projected to remain largely stabilized over the next 40 years. A stabilized U.S. population would make it far easier to deal with climate change and other critical environmental concerns.

In addition, African countries are expected to contribute 60 percent of world population growth over the next three decades, with a dozen of them projected to have their populations double by midcentury, including Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, Nigeria, Somalia and Tanzania. Increased national efforts and international assistance, in such areas as education, employment, nutrition, health, gender equality and family planning, will be needed to expedite the demographic transition from high to low death and birth rates in sub-Saharan African countries.

It is important to recognize that continued population growth is basically a Ponzi scheme. It is a demographic pyramid strategy for interminable population growth that benefits some people at the expense of human wellbeing and sustainability. Prominent among the factors behind Ponzi demography are the three Ps: profits, power and politics.  

Profits from population growth largely benefit businesses and the wealthy while the many costs of demographic growth are socialized and passed on to the public. Power, governments and others believe, is derived in part from expanding, larger and youthful populations. Politics lead to partisan calls from political and other leaders for more of us and fewer of others for voting power, leadership authority, ethnic preeminence, sociocultural dominance and economic gain.

Certainly, the findings and recommendations of the IPCC, the Paris Agreement, the International Energy Agency and others need to be seriously considered by governments and the public when dealing with climate change, global warming, environmental degradation and biodiversity loss. 

Some of the measures to address those issues include eliminating fossil fuels, shifting to renewables and low-emissions energy, a carbon tax, restoring ecosystems, switching to mostly plant-based diets and adjusting economic growth to reflect the true environmental costs of goods and services. To those measures, limiting the growth of human populations should be added.  

The United States, China and India, which together contribute 50 percent of global greenhouse emissions, could provide leadership and be exemplary models for countries worldwide by moving away from the continued growth of their populations. 

Simply stated, while not the entire solution, stabilized and declining national populations across the entire planet will make it far easier for countries to reduce the burning of fossil fuels and cut greenhouse gas emissions as well more effectively address environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, natural resource depletion, and pollution.

Joseph Chamie is an international consulting demographer, a former director of the United Nations Population Division and author of numerous publications on population issues, including his recent book, "Births, Deaths, Migrations and Other Important Population Matters."