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Links between climate change and population growth

Family planning in the developing world is key to cutting emissions
Chad family size 2012 11 27Enlarge
As countries like Chad industrialize, their large family sizes will produce considerable carbon emissions. Foreign aid through education and birth control provision could make a huge difference in helping these countries reduce their family size and eventual carbon footprint. (Kambou Sia/AFP/Getty Images)

As people along the East Coast struggle to recover from super storm Sandy, there has been serious talk of building giant floodgates to protect parts of New York City from the next such event.

Giant floodgates might be part of a long-term solution, but we need to find others that address the looming consequences of climate change, and recognize that family planning is part of the mix.

As weather threats have grown, so has our world population. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, last year the United States suffered a record 14 weather events, each costing at least $1 billion in damage. And every year, more than 80 million people join our human family. That’s like adding another New Jersey every six weeks.

Rapid population growth and fossil fuel emissions are two leading characteristics of our modern age. Since 1800, world population has grown sevenfold, while per capita CO2 emissions have increased 150 times. Put the two together, and you have about 1,100 times as much in terms of emissions.

It’s taken about 200 years of carbon emissions to create our current climate crisis. Barring miraculous technological breakthroughs, it’s going to take centuries to set things right again.

At first glance, it is hard to see how population growth in less developed nations is linked to climate change. After all, people who live in places with the lowest carbon emissions tend to have the largest families. Residents of the African nation of Chad have about six children each, yet their annual per capita carbon emissions are less than 1 percent of those of the average American. It would be unfair to blame climate change on people in less developed nations who seek the same creature comforts many of us take for granted.

But we can’t escape this fact: A 2005 London School of Economics study concluded that, if each of us living in a highly developed country reduced our carbon footprint by 40 percent over 40 years, all of that would be cancelled by our present population growth rates alone. And that doesn’t even take into account the fact that emissions will rise dramatically if and when billions of people are able to escape from poverty.

What sort of future do we picture for people in the poorest places on earth, where most people live on less than two dollars a day and where people lack access to clean water and basic sanitation? Many now-impoverished people in Africa and elsewhere would like to have – as many in the developed world do – central air conditioning. And cars. And air travel to other continents. All of these luxuries will increase per capita emissions.

Rather than assume long-term poverty for billions of our fellow human beings, we must cut our own emissions even as emissions of the poorest people increase to a level that yields a decent quality of life. To insure that the reduction of emissions in the developed countries is not cancelled by increases from the developing world, we must slow the growth rate of our human family.

Today, more than 222 million women in developing nations would like to limit their family size, yet they are unable to do so because of a host of obstacles. Lack of information about modern contraception and cost are important factors. But the most serious barriers are often more subtle and complex. They include misinformation about side effects of birth control methods, including the false notion that they lead to sterility. In many societies, women – especially young brides – have no power over their own lives. Husbands, clerics and even mothers-in-law occupy the positions of authority. Failure to procreate can have violent consequences for women, some of whom are barely into their teens.

If the United States were to invest one additional dollar per American per year in awareness-raising and education campaigns, we could help break down these barriers in partnership with other nations. Added to our current investment in international family planning, this would amount to one billion dollars per year.

Meeting the challenge of climate change is likely to take dedicated efforts over many generations. We also need a plan that will help lift out of poverty people in the developing world. Family planning should be a key part of that plan.

John Seager is president of Population Connection, the nation’s largest grassroots population organization.

epcraig More than 1 year ago
We have known we are overpopulating for generations. Now we are demonstrating our limits. Nobody needs to look hard to see we are overcrowded. The results were all predicted.
Mary Harte More than 1 year ago
these are all important points about population growth in the developing world. But an equally large elephant is limiting our populations in the developed world. The US is one of the largest carbon emitters, and one of, if not the, largest per capita carbon emitter - each person has the carbon footprint of 22 central Asian Indians, for example. This is unsustainable, in terms of both climate change and resources. Thus both developing and developed countries should be thinking of encouraging, through education, social practices that lead to decreasing our human populations humanely, to sustainable levels. A haunting number is 14,000+ -- the number of children that starve daily on this planet. This is a brutal, inhumane population policy, even if it is unintended.
Kelly Inambao More than 1 year ago
What a biased article written in doublespeak with blatant dishonesty that doesn't even surprise me, when such writing seems to be THE accepted standard, after all. I wonder what using a picture of a bunch of black Africans ("natives") in your article has to do with climate change in relation to industrialisation, the degradation of the environment and atmosphere, for which the developed countries are chiefly responsible. Is this an article honestly about climate change or deviously about social science, demographics, population or birth control? Most lies perpetrated by the Western Media nowadays are such as: 1. LIE: Africa is "overpopulated" Fact is Africa is NOT overpopulated; Europe/America, or other parts of the MORE densely populated ("civilized/industrialized") world, is overpopulated instead, and they keep sustaining themselves chiefly from resources extracted from the Third World or less developed countries. Check population densities & check your history text book. LIE 2: Because we have a climate problem, the ones to blame are those in the poor countries, or they must reduce their populations so things can be balanced out. Huh! This is a shameless lie. Climate change has little to do with the size of an African family, much less than the size of the average greed of someone in the “industrialized” world, as that is exactly where MOST of the problem comes from. Just check the size of the national economies & compare, or what those economies really do to fatten up their size. On the other hand, anyway, multinationals are of course the same people that populate & pollute the Third World with their insatiable hunts for profits as they give all care about environmental concerns to the wind, especially when operating in the same (so-called) “Third World” that they later point a finger at. What hypocrisy! Duhhhh!!!
Joan Philips More than 1 year ago
Europe/America are MORE overpopulated. That doesn't mean we shouldn't worry about Africa. My not having children has no effect if my actions are nullified by Africans moving to America and living the same life that my children would have. I want Africans to have the same quality of life that I have. That means BOTH not having children myself and encouraging Africans to have fewer children. If everyone in America stopped having kids, then conditions would not change. The only difference would be that the greedy Americans would all be from the third world.
Diane Animal-Advocate More than 1 year ago
problem is the breeding sect should care the most, but they don't........HA, they keep on breeding
Virginia Dale More than 1 year ago
Much of the present chaos has been caused by population growth - from 3 billion in 1960 to over 7 billion now and counting. The fight for water rights (reason for civil war in Chad as their lake dried up) will heighten the tension.
Chris McCabe More than 1 year ago
Rich nations consume way more per capita, but poorer people will only limit family size when they have better access to education, resources, health care, & family planning, so that each child has a better chance of survival.
Eusebiopecurto More than 1 year ago
Os lideres mundias tem que construir politicas ambientais com programas de sustentablidade ajudar os paises mais pobres da terra á pobresa extrema com programas de planeamento familiar é projectos de vida
Richard Misior More than 1 year ago
John Seager is right when he says that the population growth is bad for the planet. It is extremely bad, but not because of co2 emission! He would benefit greatly from reading a book by Roy Spencer: “The Great Global Warming Blunder”. It is an essential reading for anyone, especially the reporters who try to push the official line without having any understanding of the matter. It spells out clearly the real facts of global warming and the unbelievable manipulations and pressures used by IPCC to push only their (totally wrong) point of view. To the detriment of all of us, I may add. This book would also be extremely beneficial to the policy makers in the US and EU, and may save us from even bigger “ fiscal cliff” of fighting non-existent anthropogenic global warming!
DavidNutzuki More than 1 year ago
The issue is; are the scientists lying yes or no, therefore science needs to be crystal clear about this comet hit of an emergency. Nothing could be worse so why won’t they say it “will” happen, not just “might” happen? 26 years of science saying it “could” happen, and never saying it “will” happen, is as good as saying it “won’t” happen. It wasn’t a lie or a hoax, it was an exaggeration and it was the world of “science” after all that gave us pesticides, yes the pesticides that poisoned the planet in the first place and made stewardship all but necessary. Not one single IPCC warning isn’t qualified with “could be” or “likely” etc., not one! So when “science” ALSO says we “could” be approaching the point of no return it all but proves scientific exaggeration. It was real all right, really not a crisis. It was a lab coat consultant’s wet dream. Lazy copy and paste news editors loved it and politicians stepped in and promised to fix the sky, with the sacrifice of our taxes. What century was this? There are dozens of climate change protestors yet millions in the global scientific community who have condemned their own kids as well as ours so why are they not acting like it’s a real crisis? The overwhelming evidence shows clearly that scientific exaggeration, media madness and political pandering were the order of the day and sadly are just Reefer Madness like jokes for the history books; “I see the signs.” “I see the changes.” “We cannot deny the changes.” How many scientists does it take to change a light bulb? None but they do have full consensus that it will change. It’s their theory, it’s been 26 years of “maybes” and the lab coats must prove it before we condemn our children to the greenhouse gas ovens of a global climate crisis. So ask yourself; just how close to the brink will science take us before they clearly and honestly say; “Yes it will happen.”? REAL planet lovers didn't want this misery to have been real.
Dude More than 1 year ago
Take a breath, guy. The scientists are telling you that warming has been happening, is happening, and will continue to happen. Don't talk about "overwhelming evidence" when you are deliberately ignoring the evidence. It's not even controversial. There isn't a raging debate about whether warming is happening. The people who look at the evidence are persuaded nine ways to sunday. There is actual data from thermometers, there's the physics of greenhouse gasses which is well-understood, there are computer models, satellite data, changes in ecology, ice core records. It's not a debate. I know of a PhD geophysicist who believes the earth is 8000 years old. That doesn't mean that there is scientific debate over how old the earth is. It's not controversial, but you won't find scientists saying exactly how old the earth is. Are they lying about something? Nobody wants global warming to be real. You could be a hero among scientists for centuries, if you could somehow explain away climate change. People have tried. It's not going away. The arguments you hear on the one news channel you listen to are cooked and skewed. Oil companies have paid good money to buy those talking points.
Richard Misior More than 1 year ago
You read the wrong wrong info. Try to read Roy Spencer's “The Great Global Warming Blunder". Very rery interesting.
Dude More than 1 year ago
... what's interesting about this article is that someone is finally tying population growth into the picture. I guess Fox News hasn't come up with talking points about that one,yet, or you'd have added them to your blather.
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