Climate Change is Driven by Human Overpopulation

By Edd Doerr | 18 August 2014
Letter to The Atlantic

GROWTH: India’s population is expected to exceed 1.27bn this year and is growing at more than 6.5m a year. (AP Photo)

Charles Mann’s “How to Talk about Climate Change” (Sept) fell short. It neglected to discuss what is fueling climate change and CO2 buildup: resource depletion, soil erosion, soil nutrient decline, deforestation, desertification, shrinking biodiversity, and increasing sociopolitical instability and violence, which are in turn driven by human overpopulation. Mann should have at least mentioned Alan Weisman’s 2013 book Countdown or Jared Diamond’s 2005 book Collapse or the Ford administration’s 1975 National Security Study Memorandum 200 report, recommending universal access to contraception and legalization of abortion (a report that was mysteriously “classified” and buried for 17 years). These are the issues that will get people’s attention.

Edd Doerr
President
Americans for Religious Liberty
Box 6656
Silver Spring., MD 20916
301-460-1111

How to Talk About Climate Change So People Will Listen
By Charles C Mann | 13 August 2014
The Atlantic

Not long ago, my newspaper informed me that glaciers in the western Antarctic, undermined by the warmer seas of a hotter world, were collapsing, and their disappearance “now appears to be unstoppable.” The melting of these great ice sheets would make seas rise by at least four feet—ultimately, possibly 12—more than enough to flood cities from New York to Tokyo to Mumbai. Because I am interested in science, I read the two journal articles that had inspired the story. How much time do we have, I wondered, before catastrophe hits?

One study, in Geophysical Research Letters, provided no guidance; the authors concluded only that the disappearing glaciers would “significantly contribute to sea level rise in decades to centuries to come.” But the other, in Science, offered more-precise estimates: during the next century, the oceans will surge by as much as a quarter of a millimeter a year. By 2100, that is, the calamity in Antarctica will have driven up sea levels by almost an inch. The process would get a bit faster, the researchers emphasized, “within centuries.”

How is one supposed to respond to this kind of news? On the one hand, the transformation of the Antarctic seems like an unfathomable disaster. On the other hand, the disaster will never affect me or anyone I know; nor, very probably, will it trouble my grandchildren. How much consideration do I owe the people it will affect, my 40-times-great-grandchildren, who, many climate researchers believe, will still be confronted by rising temperatures and seas? Americans don’t even save for their own retirement! How can we worry about such distant, hypothetical beings?

Worse, confronting climate change requires swearing off something that has been an extraordinary boon to humankind: cheap energy from fossil fuels. In the 3,600 years between 1800B.C. and 1800 A.D., the economic historian Gregory Clark has calculated, there was “no sign of any improvement in material conditions” in Europe and Asia. Then came the Industrial Revolution. Driven by the explosive energy of coal, oil, and natural gas, it inaugurated an unprecedented three-century wave of prosperity. Artificial lighting, air-conditioning, and automobiles, all powered by fossil fuels, swaddle us in our giddy modernity. In our ergonomic chairs and acoustical-panel cubicles, we sit cozy as kings atop 300 years of flaming carbon.

In the best of times, this problem—given its apocalyptic stakes, bewildering scale, and vast potential cost—would be difficult to resolve. But we are not in the best of times. We are in a time of legislative paralysis. In an important step, the Obama administration announced in June its decision to cut power-plant emissions 30 percent by 2030. Otherwise, this country has seen strikingly little political action on climate change, despite three decades of increasingly high-pitched chatter by scientists, activists, economists, pundits, and legislators.

The chatter itself, I would argue, has done its share to stall progress. Rhetorical overreach, moral miscalculation, shouting at cross-purposes: this toxic blend is particularly evident when activists, who want to scare Americans into taking action, come up against economists, with their cool calculations of acceptable costs. Eco-advocates insist that only the radical transformation of society—the old order demolished, foundation to roof—can fend off the worst consequences of climate change. Economists argue for adapting to the most-likely consequences; cheerleaders for industrial capitalism, they propose quite different, much milder policies, and are ready to let nature take a bigger hit in the short and long terms alike. Both envelop themselves in the mantle of Science, emitting a fug of charts and graphs. (Actually, every side in the debate, including the minority who deny that humans can affect the climate at all, claims the backing of Science.) Bewildered and battered by the back-and-forth, the citizenry sits, for the most part, on its hands. For all the hot air expended on the subject, we still don’t know how to talk about climate change.

As an issue, climate change was unlucky: when nonspecialists first became aware of it, in the 1990s, environmental attitudes had already become tribal political markers. As the Yale historian Paul Sabin makes clear in The Bet, it wasn’t always this way. The votes for the 1970 Clean Air Act, for example, were 374–1 in the House, 73–0 in the Senate. Sabin’s book takes off from a single event: a bet between the ecologist Paul R. Ehrlich and the economist Julian Simon a decade later. Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968), which decried humankind’s rising numbers, was a foundational text in the environmental movement. Simon’s Ultimate Resource (1981) was its antimatter equivalent: a celebration of population growth, it awakened opposition to the same movement.

Ehrlich was moderately liberal in his politics but unrestrained in his rhetoric. The second sentence of The Population Bomb promised that “hundreds of millions of people” would starve to death within two decades, no matter what “crash programs” the world launched to feed them. A year later, Ehrlich gave even odds that “England will not exist in the year 2000.” In 1974, he told Congress that “a billion or more people” could starve in the 1980s “at the latest.” When the predictions didn’t pan out, he attacked his critics as “incompetent” and “ignorant,” “morons” and “idiots.”

Simon, who died in 1998, argued that “human resourcefulness and enterprise” will extricate us from our ecological dilemma. Moderately conservative in his politics, he was exuberantly uninhibited in his scorn for eco-alarmists. Humankind faces no serious environmental problems, he asserted. “All long-run trends point in exactly the opposite direction from the projections of the doomsayers.” (All? Really?) “There is no convincing economic reason why these trends toward a better life should not continue indefinitely.” Relishing his role as a spoiler, he gave speeches while wearing red plastic devil horns. Unsurprisingly, he attracted disagreement, to which he responded with as much bluster as Ehrlich. Critics, motivated by “blatant intellectual dishonesty” and indifference to the poor, were “corrupt,” their ideas “ignorant and wrongheaded.”

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Edd Doerr was president of the American Humanist Association from 1995 to 2003, serving previously as vice-president and board chair under Isaac Asimov from 1985 to 1991. He has been executive director and then president of Americans for Religious Liberty since 1982. A former teacher of history and Spanish, he is the author, co-author, editor, or translator of twenty books, mostly on religious liberty and reproductive rights. He served on the governing body of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice from 1973 until 2004 and on the boards of NARAL, the ACLU of Maryland, and the National Committee for Public Education and Religious Liberty. More than 3,000 of his articles, columns, reviews, and letters have been published in The Humanist and many other publications. For over ten years he has been writing a column in the journal Free Inquiry from the Council for Secular Humanism.

Recommended

What happened to American political will to deal with the overpopulation problem?
Infallibility and the Population Problem
NSSM 200, the Vatican, and the World Population Explosion
The Vatican’s Role in the World Population Crisis: The Untold Story

Professor Milton Siegel, who for 24 years was the Assistant Director-General of the World Health Organization, speaks to Dr. Stephen Mumford in 1992 to reveal that although there was a consensus that overpopulation was a grave public health threat and would be a major cause of preventable death not too far in the future, the Vatican successfully fought off the incorporation of family planning and birth control into official WHO policy. This video is available for public viewing for the first time. Read the full transcript of the interview here.

Population growth as an issue has been given short shrift for several decades. Robert Engelman, president of Worldwatch Institute, outlines the reasons in this clip from an interview filmed for the documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth. To order the film or find a screening near you, visit www.growthbusters.org.

Last Call: The Untold Reasons of the Global Crisis is a film that shows the urgency of the message of warning launched by the authors of the most controversial book of the past 40 years: The Limits to Growth.

Critical Mass is a feature documentary about the impact of human population growth and consumption on the planet and on our psychology.

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