Finally, someone came out and said it: When we talk about fighting climate change, we need to talk more about its biggest driver: world population growth.
It’s the elephant in the rapidly warming room, something that scientists and policy analysts discuss among themselves but rarely bring into the public light.
They’d have to be crazy, right? Hillary Clinton was pilloried when she suggested in 2009 that concerns about climate change had been strangely disconnected from discussions of population and family planning.
But now a study out of Sweden calls for open minds on overpopulation issue. It looked at which steps would make the most difference in reducing greenhouse gas emissions over time, and guess what? Those steps have little to do with our very responsible efforts to use more efficient light bulbs or buy a vehicle that gets a few more miles per gallon.
Far and away the biggest way people could combat climate change, the researchers found, would be by having one less child per family. This makes sense. Fewer people who require heating and cooling and transportation, who require the clearing of land to grow more food and who purchase consumer goods.
I’m not convinced that everything in the report tells a firmly accurate story about climate change and population. It attempts to extrapolate birth rates through generations, despite all the variables that could drastically change the picture.
But the overall truth stares us in the face: More people equals more greenhouse gas emissions. Tucked into a 2014 report by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was this observation: “Globally, economic and population growth continue to be the most important drivers of increases in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion.”
On a policy level, climate leaders haven’t been talking about the touchy subject. Yet in the past couple of years, the planet has added about 300 million people. From 7.6 billion now, world population is expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050. The bulk of that growth is expected to be in developing countries, which emit far less greenhouse gas per person than the United States. But that’s expected to change: in 2010, the Center for Global Development predicted that within a generation, these nations will become the biggest emitters.
We have to stop being so afraid of admitting that population growth can be harmful; historically, adding more people has been seen as not only beneficial to economies and national power, but downright necessary.
Working toward a sustainable population doesn’t have to mean one-child laws or otherwise taking away individual choice.
The 2010 report says that one of the most cost-effective ways to fight climate change is providing education to girls in developing nations – those with even small amounts of schooling are far more likely to have fewer and healthier children – and providing access to family planning.
Leaders in Malawi, Rwanda and some other nations have begun to embrace this shift. But they need foreign assistance, which isn’t likely to happen during a presidential administration that doesn’t want to lift a finger against climate change – or toward helping women determine their biological futures.
It’s something worth thinking about here in California, which is becoming a leader on climate change. We naturally want our cap-and-trade money to benefit Californians. Yet, if the true, unwavering goal is reducing emissions, is it smarter policy to send educational and family-planning assistance to Africa, or to build a bullet train?
Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.