Population fears distract from effectively responding to global warming

By Betsy Hartmann, December 24, 2007

First, I want to make clear that I strongly support women’s right to safe, voluntary, and
accessible birth-control services–as an end in itself, not as a means to drive down population
growth rates. When population control is the objective, the quality of family planning services
suffers and coercive methods often override freedom of choice.

Secondly, I don’t think we’re on the brink of demographic disaster. Yes, world population is
still growing and expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. However, demographers agree that the era of
rapid growth has concluded. Population growth rates peaked in the 1960s due to dramatic reductions
in death rates and increased life expectancy. Since then, with increasing education, urbanization,
and women’s work outside the home, birthrates have fallen in almost every part of the world and
will likely continue to do so, particularly as urbanization accelerates. The figure given by the
Population Reference Bureau in 2005 for the global average number of births per woman was 2.7, and
it may be lower now: It’s widely accepted that there is a demographic convergence toward smaller
families across the globe. The United Nations projects that world population will eventually
stabilize, falling to 8.3 billion in 2175.

In terms of global warming, I agree with Joseph Chamie that the main task is to reverse damaging
patterns of production and consumption and developing new technologies. I believe we should focus
our efforts on the following:

Reducing carbon emissions. We need massive investments in the development of
alternative (non-nuclear) energy sources and new, greener technologies. (I am against further
nuclear power development because of its cost, dangerous waste, safety risks, and the links with
atomic weapon production and proliferation.) Given the industrialized nations’ historical
contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, they have a responsibility to help countries such as
India and China leapfrog the heavy use of fossil fuels in the industrialization process. In the
United States, we need to drastically reduce our carbon footprint. One important first step would
be investing in energy efficient public transportation, which reduces dependence on the private
automobile. (I’ve often wondered why so many U.S. environmentalists are keener on a one-child
policy than a one-car policy, as if it is somehow easier and more ethically acceptable to force
down birth rates than to address overconsumption.)

Climate justice. Climate change adaptation and mitigation measures could provide
an opportunity to more equitably distribute resources and power. In industrialized countries,
rather than allowing the benefits of carbon tax, cap-and-trade, and sequestering schemes to flow to
the energy giants and other corporate interests, policies could instead be designed to help poor
and middle-class people offset higher energy costs and to support public investment in health,
education, and environmental improvements. In developing countries, attention should focus on
reducing poor people’s vulnerability to environmental changes related to global warming, such as
sea-level rise in Bangladesh or increased rainfall variation in Africa.

A focus on population diverts us from the need to take action on these critical concerns.
Moreover, intentionally or not, images of overpopulation tend to reinforce racist stereotypes of
the world’s poorest people, demonizing those who are the least responsible for global warming.
Recent rhetoric about the risk of “climate refugees” swarming toward Western borders similarly
reinforces rising anti-immigrant sentiment (see my November 2007 article,
“War Talk and Climate
for more.) Environmentalists need to steer clear of these stereotypes if they want to
build democratic alliances across borders to seriously address the urgent problem of climate


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