Climate Change is Real and Threatens Us All

By Edd Doerr | Fall 2014
Religious Humanism magazine

The burning of coal worldwide, as shown here in Jharkhand, India, contributes to the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. (Photo: Robb Kendrick/ National Geographic Creative)

President Obama, addressing the United Nations climate summit in New York in September: “There’s one issue that will define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other, and that is the urgent and growing threat of a changing climate.”

American public opinion lags well behind, however. The New York Times/CBS NEWS Poll in September found that only 46% of respondents think that global warming is having a serious impact now (26% of Republicans, 47% of Independents, 61% of Democrats). That global warming does not exist is held by 10% (18% of Republicans, 10% of Independents, 3% of Democrats). That global warming is caused mostly by such human activity as burning fossil fuels is accepted by 54% (35% of Republicans, 53% of Independents, 67% of Democrats.). These results are what might be expected in the case of people who tend to denigrate science and think the world is only 6,000 years old.

Scientists are close to unanimous in recognizing that climate change is real and that it is largely anthropogenic, i.e., caused by human activity. As the New York Times reported on September 30, “the overall global warming trend has been definitely linked to human emissions.” Here is the picture that the science community supports:

Climate change and global warming are caused by excessive buildup of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, such as methane, in the atmosphere, and this is due to ever increasing burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas), which are finite resources, and excessive burning of wood, which, though renewable, can be overused to the point of unsustainability. Hacking down tropical rain forests (Africa, Latin America, Indonesia) for agricultural and other uses is inadvisable because these forest soils are nutrient poor and are rapidly exhausted by agricultural overuse. Deforestation and desertification, in turn, reduce forest capacity to absorb carbon dioxide, further contributing to climate change and global warming.

Global warming is causing the melting of glaciers and the polar and Greenland ice caps, which causes rising sea levels, already noticed in many areas. Just imagine what a sea level rise of a foot or two this century would do to such great coastal population centers as New York, Washington, Miami, New Orleans, San Diego, Los Angeles, Seattle. And that just in the US. Think also of Stockholm, Oslo, Copenhagen, Hamburg, Amsterdam, London, Barcelona, Istanbul, Mumbai, Hong Kong, Melbourne, Tokyo, Lagos, Havana, San Juan, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires. Where will all their people go, how much will it cost to move to higher ground, and where will there be room in, say, places like Bangladesh? Get the scary details from oceanographer John Englander’s 2012 book High Tide on Main Street.

Think of what we are doing to the world’s oceans, the two thirds of the earth’s surface that belongs to nobody and everybody. All the major fisheries, which feed hundreds of millions of people, are in danger of exhaustion. Industrial fishing is depleting edible sea foods while, according to writer Lewis Pugh in the September 29 New York Times, the sea floor is being littered with tires, plastic junk, bottles, cans, shoes and clothing. As for arable land, soil erosion and nutrient loss are felt even in rich agricultural areas like Iowa. And then there is the accelerating biodiversity and habitat loss worldwide, the vanishing of plant and animal species that haven’t even been studied yet.

We are seeing the depletion of finite resources and overuse of renewable ones, plus the accumulation of waste, much of it toxic and some of it radioactive. We are seeing cities exploding in size — like Lagos, Bogota, cities across China.

Expanding human populations on a planet with finite, shrinking resources is leading inevitably to increased sociopolitical instability and violence.

Despite all of the above, there is too little talk about human overpopulation, which has tripled to more than seven billion since the end of World War II. Scientists like Humanist Julian Huxley were sounding the warning bells in the early 1950s. Biologist Paul Ehrlich shook things up with his 1968 book The Population Bomb. Twenty years ago we saw the massacre of between a half and one million people in the tiny overpopulated central African country of Rwanda, which killed about 10% of the country’s population. French historian Gerard Prunier concluded in his 1995 book The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide that the “genocidal violence in the spring of 1994 can be partly attributed to that population density.” Even Catholic historian Thomas Patrick Melady, US ambassador to Burundi during the 1972 massacre and George H.W. Bush’s ambassador to the Holy See, understood overpopulation, as he did in his 1974 book Burundi: The Tragic Years.

Scientist Jerod Diamond, in his classic 2005 book Collapse, traced the downfall or near downfall of a number of societies due to overpopulation and failure to protect limited environments.

The perils of overpopulation were spelled out in a long report authorized by President Nixon in 1974 and endorsed by President Ford and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft in late 1975. The 227-page National Security Study Memorandum 200 report covered all the bases. It recommended universal access to family planning and noted that population cannot be stabilized without recourse to abortion. Curiously, the NSSM 200 report was “classified” and remained buried until mid-1989. Population scientist Stephen Mumford finally got a copy and published it in his 1994 book The Life and Death of NSSM 200: How the Destruction of Political Will Doomed a US Population Policy. The book and report were reviewed and summarized in Americans for Religious Liberty’s journal Voice of Reason (Spring 1992, No. 41, and Summer 1994, No. 50, both available online at arlinc.org). The report is rarely even mentioned and, to my knowledge, was reviewed in print only by me, in the ARL journal, in USA Today magazine, and in my column in The Humanist magazine.

The NSSM 200 report notes that there were about 30 million abortions per year worldwide in the mid-1970s. Alan Weisman reports in his superb 2013 book Countdown that there are now about 40 million abortions per year worldwide, a great many of them dangerous and illegal. Without these hundreds of millions of abortions world population today would be about nine billion. What is obviously needed is universal availability of contraception and legal, safe abortions, plus total equality of rights and education for women. Women enjoying equal rights and being educated translates to smaller families, healthier children and more stable and sustainable societies.

Finally, let’s note two important new books. In their 2014 book Hope on Earth, scientists Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb in 1968, and Michael Charles Tobias bring us up to date on the environmental and population crises, concluding that world population already exceeds our planet’s carrying capacity. Ehrlich in particular pins the blame largely on the Vatican and the Catholic bishops, while noting that “Catholics use contraception as much as non-Catholics, and they have abortions with even higher frequency.” As I have written elsewhere, Pope Francis could earn the gratitude of the whole world by the stroke of a pen, by rescinding the Vatican’s irresponsible condemnation of contraception, which was issued in 1968 by Pope Paul VI in defiance of the majority of his own advisers. Francis also could and should end the Vatican’s (Holy See’s) unique status as the only religious entity that enjoys permanent observer status in the UN General Assembly, which it has used (misused) for decades to impede international efforts to slow population growth and promote women’s rights of conscience and religious freedom with regard to reproduction.

University of Utrecht environmental philosopher Floris van den Berg’s 2014 book Philosophy for a Better World is a magnificent, compelling book on ethics, moral reasoning and our responsibility to protect our one and only planet for our fellow world citizens and for those who come after us. He calls on all of us, of every religious persuasion or lifestance, to reduce consumption, to reuse, to recycle, to quit eating animals (it takes far more land and water to produce a pound of meat than a pound of grain, for example), to reduce the distance between the haves and the have nots. It is significant that van den Berg’s book is published by the world’s leading Humanist publisher, Prometheus Books.

The preceding comports with our Unitarian Universalist Seven Principles, especially the seventh, “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part”, and with the principles laid out in the great 1973 Humanist Manifesto II, especially the Fourteenth, “The world community must engage in cooperative planning concerning the use of rapidly depleting resources. … Ecological damage, resource depletion, and excessive population growth must be checked by international concord.” We Humanists and UUs are far from alone on these matters, as vast numbers of men and women of every religious or lifestance persuasion around the globe agree with these principles. As I put it in this haiku —

Labels may conceal
Far more than they might reveal.
They can mask what’s real.

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.

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