12/17/2007 - 07:00

Protecting Earth's atmosphere requires more than limiting population growth

Clearly, population growth is an important aspect of environmental stress, as every man, woman,
and child requires food, water, clothing, shelter, and energy. However, it isn't necessarily the
root cause of climate change.

In many places, population is growing slowly (much of Europe, for instance) and the population
of some countries is actually declining (Japan and Russia come to mind); yet those populations
continue to negatively impact Earth's climate. Industrialized countries are responsible for
approximately four-fifths of the world's carbon dioxide buildup despite representing less than
one-fifth of its population. On a per capita basis, the disparity is even more striking: For
example, the average American contributes roughly five times the amount of carbon dioxide to the
atmosphere as the average Mexican citizen, and nearly twenty times as much as the average Indian
citizen. Raising the living standards of populations in developing countries--certainly a desirable
goal--is also likely to worsen climate change.

Furthermore, halting population growth would help, but not resolve the climate problem alone.
Even if all countries instantly reached and remained at replacement fertility levels of two
children per woman, world population would continue to grow to more than 8 billion by 2050.
Avoiding unwanted pregnancies is laudable and would improve the lives of many couples and families,
but its impact on future population growth is small. Crying wolf about the population bomb too
often retards progress in finding sustainable climate solutions.

Yes, it's important to reduce population growth, but safeguarding Earth's atmosphere requires
much more. New technologies need to be developed--along with pursuing significant reductions and
reversals in damaging patterns of production and consumption. Both will no doubt prove costly and
difficult. But the alternative is a disastrous tragedy for the world's population.