Climate Change

Population: Off the Radar, Not Off the Map

Originally published in Grist

“The main driving forces of future greenhouse gas trajectories will continue to be demographic change, social and economic development, and the rate and direction of technological change,” according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Special Report on Emissions Scenarios. Two of these drivers – development and technology – have been the focus of a great deal of discussion among the international community as they continue to work toward a new international climate change agreement in Bonn this week. The third, demographic change, has been conspicuously absent.

 Country delegations and NGOs have put forth numerous proposals to increase living standards in the developing world without following the fossil fuel-intensive example set by the industrialized world. Other proposals outline how transfers of technology and greater support for development activities among vulnerable communities will better enable them to adapt to the unavoidable impacts of climate change.

 However, demographic change has not come up in the context of these discussions. This is strange, because demographic change is likely to shape our world in significant ways over the next several decades.

 In its latest round of projections, the UN Population Division indicates that the world’s population will grow from today’s 6.7 billion to somewhere between 8.0 and 10.5 billion by 2050.

 During informal conversations with country delegates and colleagues at other civil society organizations, I have found near universal agreement that population growth will affect greenhouse gas emissions between now and 2050. And for those who are thinking critically about how vulnerable communities will adapt to increasing water scarcity or diminishing agricultural production, they know that rapid population growth will further threaten human survival. Researchers at Population Action International have highlighted the importance of population trends for climate change mitigation and adaptation in a new working paper and fact sheet.

 The UN presents a wide range for population in 2050 because population growth is sensitive to the conditions of the world around us. For example, more education for girls and economic opportunities for women lead to lower birth rates. Expanding access to reproductive health care and family planning services can have an even more direct and immediate impact.

 Currently, more than 200 million women around the world say they would like to avoid a pregnancy, but don’t have access to modern contraception–something those of us in the US take for granted. Reversing downward trends in funding for reproductive health and family planning programs could help to remedy that, and would be a good start in shooting for the lower end of the UN’s population projections.

The world already agreed on a goal of universal access to these services at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in 1994, where the US and 178 other nations signed onto this consensus. Universal access to reproductive health is also one of the Millennium Development Goals (see Target 5b). This goal from the health sector should be integrated into the world’s response to climate change and its human impacts. While talking about reproductive health might be new and a little uncomfortable for climate diplomats, they should get over it – it is a universally accepted goal that has great potential to strengthen climate change solutions.

One Response to “Population: Off the Radar, Not Off the Map”

  1. Steven Earl Salmony

    Imagine for a moment that we are looking at an ocean wave, watching it move toward the shore where it crashes finally at our feet. The wave is moving toward us; however, at the same time, there are many molecules in the wave that are moving in the opposite direction, against the tide. If we observe that the propagation of the human species worldwide is like the wave and the reproduction numbers of individuals in certain locales are like the molecules, it may be inaccurate for the latter to be looked at as if it tells us something meaningful about the former.
    Abundant research indicates that most countries in Western Europe, among many other countries globally, have recently shown a decline in their rates of human population growth. These geographically localized data need not blind us to the fact that the absolute global human population numbers are skyrocketing. The world’s human population is like the wave; the individual or localized reproduction numbers are like the molecules.
    Perhaps a “scope of observation” problem is presented to everyone who wants to adequately understand the dynamics of human population numbers.
    Choosing a scope of observation is a forced choice, like choosing to look at either the forest or the trees, at either the propagation numbers of the human species (the wave data) or localized reproduction numbers (the molecular data). Data regarding the propagation of absolute global human population numbers is the former while individual or localized reproduction data are the latter.
    From this vantage point, the global challenge before humanity could be a species propagation problem. Take note that global propagation numbers do not vary with the reproduction data. That is to say, global human propagation data and the evidence of reproduction numbers of individuals in many places, appear to be pointing in different directions. The propagation data are represented by the wave; the reproduction data are represented by the molecules moving against the tide.
    In the year 1900 world’s human population was approximately 1.2 to 1.6 billion people. With the explosive growth of the global human population over the 20th century in mind (despite two world wars, ubiquitous local conflicts, famine, pestilence, disease, poverty, and other events resulting in great loss of life), what might the world look like in so short a period of time as 41 years from now? How many people will be on the planet at that time? The UN Population has recently made its annual re-determination that the world’s human population will reach 9.2 billion people around 2050, and then somehow level off. No explanation is given for how this leveling-off process is to occur.
    We can see that the fully anticipated growth of absolute global human population numbers is about 8 billion people for the 150 year period between 1900 and 2050.
    Whatever the number of human beings on Earth at the end of the 21st century, the size of the human population on Earth could have potentially adverse impacts on the number of the world’s surviving species, on the rate of dissipation of Earth’s resources, and on the basic characteristics of global ecosystems.
    For too long a time human population growth has been comfortably viewed by politicians, economists and demographers as somehow outside the course of nature. The potential causes of global human population growth have seemed to them so complex, obscure, or numerous that a strategy to address the problems posed by the unbridled growth of the human species has been assumed to be unknowable. Their preternatural, insufficiently scientific grasp of human population dynamics has lead to widely varied forecasts of global population growth. Some forecasting data indicate the end to human population growth soon. Other data suggest the rapid and continuous increase of human numbers through Century XXI and beyond.
    Recent scientific evidence appears to indicate that the governing dynamics of absolute global human population numbers are indeed knowable, as a natural phenomenon. According to unchallenged scientific research, the population dynamics of human organisms is essentially common to, not different from, the population dynamics of other organisms.
    To suggest, as many politicians, economists and demographers have been doing, that understanding the dynamics of human population numbers does not matter, that the human population problem is not about numbers, or that human population dynamics have so dizzying an array of variables as not to be suitable for scientific investigation, seems not quite right.
    If I may continue by introducing an extension of my perspective.
    According to the research of Russell Hopfenberg,Ph.D., and David Pimementel, Ph.D., global population growth of the human species is a rapidly cycling positive feedback loop in which food availability drives population growth and this recent, astounding growth in absolute global human numbers gives rise to the misperception or mistaken impression that food production needs to be increased even more.
    Data indicate that the world’s human population grows by approximately two percent per year. All segments of it grow by about 2%. Every year there are more people with brown eyes and more people with blue ones; more people who are tall and more short people. It also means that there are more people growing up well fed and more people growing up hungry. The hungry segment of the global population goes up just like the well-fed segment of the population. We may or may not be reducing hunger by increasing food production; however, we are most certainly producing more and more hungry people.
    Hopfenberg’s and Pimentel’s evidence suggests that the magnificently successful efforts of humankind to increase food production in order to feed a growing population has resulted and continue to result in even greater human population numbers.
    The perceived need to increase food production to feed a growing population is a widely shared and consensually validated misperception, a denial both of the physical reality and the space-time dimension. If people are starving at a given moment of time, increasing food production cannot help them. Are these starving people supposed to be waiting for sowing, growing and reaping to be completed? Are they supposed to wait for surpluses to reach them? Without food they would die. In such circumstances, increasing food production for people who are starving is like tossing parachutes to people who have already fallen out of the airplane. The produced food arrives too late; however, this does not mean human starvation is inevitable.
    Consider that human population dynamics are not biologically different from the population dynamics of other species. Human organisms, other species and even microorganisms have essentially similar population dynamics. We do not find hoards of starving roaches, birds, squirrels, alligators, or chimpanzees in the absence of food as we do in many “civilized” human communities today because these non-human species are not annually increasing their food production capabilities.
    Please take note that among tribal peoples in remote original habitats, we do not find people starving. Like non-human species, “primitive” human beings live within the carrying capacity of their environment. History is replete with examples of early humans and more remote ancestors not increasing their food production annually, but rather living successfully off the land for thousands upon thousands of years as hunters and gatherers of food.
    Prior to the agricultural revolution and the production of more food than was needed for immediate survival, human numbers supposedly could not grow beyond their environment’s physical capacity to sustain them because global human population growth or decline is primarily determined by food availability. Looked at from a global population perspective, more food equals more human organisms; less food equals less human organisms; and, in one and all cases, no food equals no humans.
    Thank you.
    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population, established 2001

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