You may have seen the recent news about the 11,000 climate scientists publishing a letter in the journal BioScience. In this letter the signatories warn that we are facing a climate emergency and they lay out a number of different actions that humanity needs to take to not only deal with the climate change threat but also to secure “economic and social justice for all”. (One wonders if such language turns off people who might be sympathetic to the environmental cause, but concerned about the latent, sometimes obvious, Big Statism that these green movements tend to support.) The actions are:
“Use energy far more efficiently and apply strong carbon taxes to cut fossil fuel use
Stabilise global population – currently growing by 200,000 people a day – using ethical approaches such as longer education for girls
End the destruction of nature and restore forests and mangroves to absorb CO2
Eat mostly plants and less meat, and reduce food waste
Shift economic goals away from GDP growth”
Leaving the other four actions aside, let us focus on the second: the call for a stabilised, and preferably reduced, global population. The letter notes that:
“Still increasing by roughly 80 million people per year, or more than 200,000 per day, the world population must be stabilized—and, ideally, gradually reduced.”
As we have already mentioned on this blog, there are better and more immediate ways to lower climate emissions than lowering the global population. And as this piece in the MIT Technology Review notes, there are others with serious concerns about this call for conscious population manipulation.
First, the global population growth is overwhelmingly driven by poorer, developing nations in Africa and Asia. Look at the list of the countries where half of the projected global population growth up to 2050 is predicted to come from: India, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Indonesia, and the US (which is largely due to migration). Thus, the call for population reduction is directed primarily at poorer nations. This seems somewhat condescending (“the definition of an imperialist framing” according to Arvind Ravikumar, an associate professor of energy engineering at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology). But it must also be ineffective since most rich countries already have flat or declining birthrates and yet this is where most of the emissions per capita are coming from.
Furthermore, the action point on population stabilisation is arguably counter to the other action point of shifting economic priorities away from GDP growth. As Jess Reynolds, a fellow in environmental law and policy at the University of California, notes: economic development not only helps to meet “basic human needs”, one of the authors’ concerns, but there is also a strong correlation between economic development and declining birth rates.
Finally, aside from the practicalities, there is also the PR side of things. To suggest cutting back on population growth feeds the notion that climate change is an ideology that prioritises nature over humans. It takes the mind back to a time when calls for forcible population control measures were often supported by various environmental groups and were picked up by various unsavoury regimes around the world. If the authors of this letter wish to get more widespread support for their views, reminding people of those times and actions is probably not the best move…
Marcus Roberts is co-editor of Demography is Destiny, MercatorNet’s blog on population issues.