First, let's connect the dots between population and global warming. It's not just how much energy each of us uses, but our total numbers as well, that determine the atmospheric greenhouse emissions causing our climate crisis. Some argue that population is not a factor because the poorest, most rapidly growing nations use relatively little energy, thus generating relatively little emissions. However, this ignores the larger slice of populous developing nations that are not so poor, use more energy, and emit more greenhouse gases. It also ignores the future potential of emission levels in populous poor nations to explode as these nations become wealthier and use more energy. China is a prime example: a previously poor populous nation with lower emissions, it is now evolving into a richer nation with rapidly rising emissions. Most importantly, however, this argument ignores the huge effect that a growing population has on emissions in rich nations such as the US, where one person consumes resources equivalent to that of 32 people from a poor nation.
There are also indirect effects. Increasing population pressure in many nations is destroying, directly or indirectly, vitally important carbon storage systems on our planet - ie, tropical forests and peat bogs. Without these systems, addressing global warming becomes much more difficult. Increasing populations are also straining our ability to grow food as farmers deplete finite aquifers for more water, and as current global warming melts alpine glaciers, which are important regional water storage systems. As Lester Brown, author of Plan B 4.0, points out, the number of hungry people is rising yearly, and the resulting starvation could destabilize our civilization, thus greatly distracting and impeding us from reducing emissions globally. Indeed, as we point out in Chapter 2 of our book , the resulting competition for resources has already sparked destructive and distractive wars, as Darfur illustrates. So, population is a factor - a big factor, in addressing global warming.
What to do? Sir David Attenborough , famed global educator on nature, and others have called for population restraint, an important part of the answer. Political and cultural leaders in all nations should be encouraging small families and discouraging large ones. Most importantly, 200 million women must be given the reproductive choice that they now lack. Providing both the information and materials needed to exercise reproductive choice is recognized as the most effective way to decrease birth rates. Gill Greer, Director General of the International Federation of Planned Parenthood, noted recently that investing $23 billion in family planning would be enough to stop unintended pregnancies. It would also reduce childbirth deaths and deaths of newborns, globally. This equals 10 days of global military spending. And, Greer says, the investment pays big-time, saving $4 for every $1 invested.
At a deeper level, we must radically change our fundamental perspective of how we live on this planet. So far, although we pride ourselves with the ability to think well above other organisms, the global spread of humans seems to be mimicking that of bacteria in a medical lab's Petri dish. It is fueled with the sentiment that every nation must strive for economic growth, which entails exploding, unsustainable consumption. And we, humanity, have yet to seriously recognize the fallacy of this mindset. Reviewing how fast humans have proliferated, award winning author Diane Dumanoski notes , "we do not yet understand our own time, and are seriously mistaken about the geography of the future."
Clearly, we must now replace "growth" with "sustainability". Inculcating this behavioral change into our society, though, requires a universal conversation. Inaugurated by a group of scholars from both scientific disciplines and the humanities, an initiative called the Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior hopes to sponsor the first such conversation through a global mega-conference in 2011.
In the meantime, how can recognition of overpopulation affect the upcoming international talks addressing global warming in Copenhagen this December? It's time for all nations to stop denying the population factor. Optimum Population Trust (OPT) proposes that the culmination of the Copenhagen talks include declarations that ensure all nations "adopt non-coercive policies to limit and stabilise population." OPT notes that poorer nations could finance family planning by declaring it to be a legitimate climate change policy. Indeed, such nations could be allowed to trade carbon credits for family planning policies. It's a start, and a much needed one.
It is heart wrenching to watch Monique Zimmerman-Stein go blind because she can't afford treatment, or the other tableaus pointing out the need for health care reform at the Huffington's Bearing Witness website. But our society will be experiencing far more disastrous and heart wrenching problems if we remain blind to how an increasing global population affects our future and our planet.