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COP26: If we don’t know where we are going, we will end up someplace else

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A woman wears a protective mask as she walks in heavy winds during a seasonal sandstorm on April 15, 2021 in Beijing, China. China’s capital and the northern part of the country typically experience sandstorms that originate in the Gobi desert, but scientists believe that climate change and desertification also plays a role in their…

The UN’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland begins next week, with the hope of guiding human civilization toward a future in which the Earth’s average temperature does not increase by more than 2 degrees Celsius, preferably no more than 1.5 — the threshold climate scientists say will avert the worst impacts of climate change.

To be sure, this is not an effort to save the Earth — but to save us. Planet Earth is not going anywhere substantially different than where it has been. It will continue to orbit the sun regardless of what we do. However, conditions on the surface are changing in ways that will be increasingly uncomfortable and ultimately tragic.

The COP26 summit is about saving humankind and allowing future generations of humans to have real opportunities for rich, creative and meaningful lives as opposed to nasty, brutish, and short ones.

What might this future look like? The vision of most economists, who dominate the policy debate, may have us looking at an unrealizable goal. They have not seen the problem appropriately in the past and are not likely to in the future. What they continue to miss is that without population stabilization and eventually degrowth, all the other approaches to climate change will not work. Economists do not recognize this because they are blinded by perpetual growth of the economy which is driven by perpetual growth of the population.

Baseball player Yogi Berra once said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else.” If we think we’ll be living comfortably in a world of 12 billion people and flying in electric cars — we are sadly mistaken.

Any realistic vision of a just, sustainable and desirable future that involves a complex human civilization on this planet will have less than 8 billion people on it. Currently, the world adds almost 80 million people per year and every additional person increases carbon emissions. The least costly and most effective policy to control futureCO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion and thereby climate change is to curb global population growth by simply providing contraceptive care to all women in the world who want it but do not currently have access.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, the world has roughly 218 million women with an unmet need for modern contraception. Roughly half the pregnancies in the lower- and middle-income countries are unintended (111 million). It would cost only $8 billion annually to provide a package of care to meet all women’s needs for modern contraception, pregnancy-related and newborn care, as well as treatment for the major curable sexually transmitted infections. In a cost comparison, that’s less than the $10 billion Americans will spend this year on Halloween costumes, candy and lawn decorations, which is roughly three times the entire annual budget for the United States National Park Service ($3.5 Billion).  

Reducing the number of people being born also increases the effectiveness of other climate change investments, but not the solutions typically championed by economists. Most economists got climate change wrong. They said mitigation would be too expensive. Actually, the many infrastructure hardening efforts like sea walls to mitigate hurricane damage rather than restoring coastal wetlands, are too expensive. They are like “castles in the sand,” expensive and wasted opportunities relative to far more efficient investments in ecosystem preservation and population stabilization.

Economists have consistently failed to appreciate the value of nature and the nature of value — and their world view of perpetual growth has got us into this mess. They are not the ones to seek for sustainable solutions to our environmental challenges.

Addressing current emissions is important — but the best long-term investment in climate change mitigation is unequivocally providing family planning and contraception to those women of the world who simply want it but can’t get it. This “less is more” conversation needs to gain prominence now. Scientists, policymakers and the media need to understand this to eliminate climate change most effectively as a perpetual threat. Only when we rightfully know where we are going, can we end up with a just, sustainable, and desirable future for humankind.

Paul Sutton is a professor in the Department of Geography and the Environment at the University of Denver. Sutton is a delegate for the American Association of Geographers at the 2021 United Nations COP-26 climate summit in Glasgow this November. 

Tags Climate change COP26 Economics Paul Sutton population growth
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