Category Archives: Climate

Population Growth Increases Climate Fear by Carolyn Lochhead

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“What many of us really worry about is that there will be this crash landing, from a planet with 9 billion, rapidly down to 5 or so,” said ecologist Harte.

What many of us really worry about is that there will be a crash landing.

California has 157 endangered or threatened species, looming water shortages, eight of the 10 most air-polluted cities in the country and 725 metric tons of trash washing up on its coast each year. California also has 38 million people, up 10% in the last decade, including 10 million immigrants. They own 32 million registered vehicles and 14 million houses. By 2050, projections show 51 million people living in the state, more than twice as many as in 1980.

In the public arena, almost no one connects these plainly visible dots.

For various reasons, linking the world’s rapid population growth to its deepening environmental crisis, including climate change, is politically taboo. In the United States, Europe and Japan, there has been public hand wringing over falling birthrates and government policies to encourage childbearing.

But those declining birthrates mask explosive growth elsewhere in the world. In less than a lifetime, the world population has tripled, to 7.1+ billion, and continues to climb by more than 1.5 million people a week.

A consensus statement issued by scientists at Stanford University and signed by more than 1,000 scientists warned, “Earth is reaching a tipping point.” An array of events under way—including what scientists have identified as the sixth mass extinction in the earth’s 540 million-year history—suggest that human activity already exceeds Earth’s capacity.

Climate change is but one of many signs of environmental stress. “The big connector is how many people are on Earth,” said Anthony Barnosky, a UC Berkeley integrative biologist. The world population is expected to reach 9.6 billion by mid-century. The addition alone will be greater than the global population of 1950. “The combination of climate change and 9 billion people to me is one that is just fraught with potential catastrophes,” said John Harte, a UC Berkeley ecosystem scientist.

The United States is expected to grow from 313 million people to 400 million. Economies have expanded many times faster, vastly increasing consumption of goods and services in rich and developing countries.

“We’re changing the ability of the planet to provide food and water,” Harte said.

Even scientists who doubt ecological collapse, such as Michele Marvier, chair of environmental studies at Santa Clara University, acknowledge, “humans dominate every flux and cycle of the planet’s ecology and geochemistry.”

Population Momentum

Plummeting fertility rates, from 4.9 births per woman in the 1960s to the current 2.6, led to the belief that worries about population were overblown. The drop surprised demographers. Half the world—including Japan and Western Europe but also China, Vietnam, Brazil and other emerging economies—is below the 2.1 fertility rate needed for zero growth. The United States, the world’s third-largest country behind China and India, and the only rich country still growing rapidly, recently saw its birth rate fall to 1.9. [US growth is mainly due to high levels of immigration.]

But population momentum ensures that absolute numbers will keep rising for decades despite falling birth rates. That’s because the exponential growth that took just 12 years to add the last billion in 2011—and will take just 14 more years to add the next billion—means growth is building from a large base of children and teenagers, many intering their child-bearing years.

Falling birth rates have lulled people into complacency, said Joseph Speidel, a professor at UCSF’s Bixby Center on Global Reproductive Health. “The annual increment is rising quite dramatically,” he said. “We are still adding about 84 million people a year to the planet.” 

Unintended Births

More than 40% of the world’s 208 million pregnancies each year are unplanned, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a family planning research group. Half of U.S. pregnancies, about 3 million a year, are unintended, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, a Washington advocacy group. About half of them end in abortion.

Across cultures, from Iran to Thailand to California, voluntary access to contraception has slashed fertility rates, Speidel said. But discussion of population growth remains taboo in the US. “Many young people on university campuses have been taught over the past 15 years that the connection between population growth and the environment is not an acceptable subject for discussion,” said Martha Campbell, director of International Population Dialogue at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, in a recent essay. Campbell argued that voluntary contraception is not coercive, but blocking women from controlling how many children they have is coercive. When given a chance, she said, women across cultures choose to provide a better life for fewer children.

The Guttmacher Institute said it would cost an extra $4.1 billion a year, little more than a rounding error in the $3.8 trillion U.S. budget, to provide birth control to all 222 million women in the world who want to limit their pregnancies but lack access to contraception.

“What many of us really worry about is that there will be this crash landing, from a planet with 9 billion, rapidly down to 5 or so,” said ecologist Harte. “The landing will result from methods of population reduction that none of us want to see, like famine, disease and war,” he added. “I don’t think anybody has described a workable trajectory that gets us up to 9 and then softly back down to 5.”

Sources for statistics: United Nations; Stuart Basten, Wolfgang Lutz, Sergei Scherbov, “Very long range global population scenarios to 2300 and the implications of sustained low fertility” in Demographic Research, Vol. 28, Article 39, May 30.

Carolyn Lochhead is the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle. This article first appeared September 2, 2013, see: <http://www.sfgate.com/science/article/Population-growth-increases-climate-fear-4781833.php>.

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Climate Change: Pacific Ocean Acidity Dissolving Shells of Key Species by Paul Rogers 

What many people do not realize is that nearly a third of carbon dioxide emitted by humans is dissolved in the oceans. Some of that forms carbonic acid, which makes the ocean more corrosive.

What many people do not realize is that nearly a third of carbon dioxide emitted by humans is dissolved in the oceans. Some of that forms carbonic acid, which makes the ocean more corrosive.

In a troubling new discovery, scientists studying ocean waters off California, Oregon and Washington have found the first evidence that increasing acidity in the ocean is dissolving the shells of a key species of tiny sea creature at the base of the food chain. The animals, a type of free-floating marine snail known as pteropods, are an important food source for salmon, herring, mackerel and other fish in the Pacific Ocean. Those fish are eaten not only by millions of people every year, but also by a wide variety of other sea creatures, from whales to dolphins to sea lions.

If the trend continues, climate change scientists say, it will imperil the entire ocean environment.

“These are alarm bells,” said Nina Bednarsek, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle who helped lead the research. “This study makes us understand that we have made an impact on the ocean environment to the extent where we can actually see the shells dissolving right now.”

Scientists from NOAA and Oregon State University found that in waters near the West Coast shoreline, 53 percent of the tiny floating snails had shells that were severely dissolving—double the estimate from 200 years ago. Until now, the impact on marine species from increasing ocean acidity because of climate change has been something that was tested in tanks in labs, but which was not considered an immediate concern such as forest fires and droughts.

The new study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, a scientific journal based in England, changes that. “The pteropods are like the canary in the coal mine. If this is affecting them, it is affecting everything in the ocean at some level,” said one of the nation’s top marine biologists, Steve Palumbi, director of Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove.

The vast majority of the world’s scientists—including those at NOAA, NASA, the National Academy of Sciences and the World Meteorological Organization—say the Earth’s temperature is rising because of humans burning fossil fuels like oil and coal.

But what many people do not realize is that nearly a third of carbon dioxide emitted by humans is dissolved in the oceans. Some of that forms carbonic acid, which makes the ocean more corrosive.

Over the past 200 years, the ocean’s acidity has risen by roughly 30 percent. At the present rate, it is on track to rise by 70 percent by 2050 from preindustrial levels. More acidic water can harm oysters, clams, corals and other species that have calcium carbonate shells. Generally speaking, increasing the acidity by 50 percent from current levels is enough to kill some marine species, tests in labs have shown.

If people reduce emissions of fossil fuels, cutting carbon dioxide levels in the decades ahead, the damage to the oceans can still be limited. “But if we keep on the emissions profile we have now, by 2100 the oceans will be so harmed it’s hard to imagine them coming back from that in anything less than thousands of years,” Palumbi said.

“We are in a century of choice,” he said. “We can choose the way we want it to go.”

Source: http://www.mercurynews.com/science/ci_25664175/climate-change-pacific-ocean-acidity-dissolving-shells-key

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Climate Change: The Least We Can Do by Robert Walker, Population Institute

People trying to get out of war-torn Syria, the first country to officially slide into civil war due to climate disaster-caused severe drought and overpopulation.

People trying to get out of war-torn Syria, the first country to officially slide into civil war due to climate disaster-caused severe drought and overpopulation.

As the IPCC’s (intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Fifth Assessment Report makes clear, we are long past the point of avoiding climate change. The best we can do now is to avoid the worst effects. The situation is more dire than previously projected and the consequences of inaction more starkly drawn than ever before:

Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased…. Over the last two decades, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have been losing mass, glaciers have continued to shrink almost worldwide, and Arctic sea ice and Northern Hemisphere spring snow cover have continued to decrease in extent (high confidence)…. Continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and changes in all components of the climate system. Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.

In a perfect world, the IPCC’s report would summon forth our best efforts at mitigating climate change and its effects. We would be doing whatever is necessary and prudent to avoid a human and environmental catastrophe. By now, however, it is evident that governments—and the people they represent—are shrinking from the challenge. Hope for concerted global action on any kind of meaningful scale has largely evaporated.

Instead of asking what is the most that can be done to mitigate climate change and alleviate its consequences, perhaps we should be asking, “What is the least that can be done?”

The “least” we can do is to mitigate the scale of human suffering and displacement, and the single most cost-effective means of doing so is to prevent unplanned pregnancies. Nearly 40 percent of all pregnancies in the world are unwanted or unintended, and preventing them would make a valuable contribution to climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Giving every woman the power to avoid unwanted pregnancies would dramatically lower projected population growth rates. According to the latest UN population projections, world population, currently 7.2 billion, is likely to reach 9.6 billion by mid-century and continue rising, but if the total fertility rate (i.e. the average number of children per woman) were to fall by just half a child, world population would rise to only 8.3 billion and gradually decline during the second half of the 21st century.

It’s particularly important to prevent unplanned pregnancies in the United States, where our carbon footprints are, on average, nearly twice as high as they are in many European countries and twenty or more times higher than many developing countries. A study released five years ago found that the average “carbon legacy” of a child born in the U.S. would produce about 20 times more greenhouse gases than the mother or father would save by adopting a lower carbon lifestyle (i.e. driving a highly fuel efficient vehicle, using energy efficient appliances, etc.).

But even where carbon footprints are relatively small, no one should discount the contribution that birth control could make to lowering projected greenhouse gas emissions. A 2010 study of energy use and demographics by Brian C. O’Neill concluded that slowing global population growth “could provide 16-29% of the emissions reductions suggested to be necessary by 2050 to avoid dangerous climate change.” That is not insignificant.

Even if preventing unplanned pregnancies in developing countries contributed absolutely nothing to reducing future greenhouse gas emissions, there is a compelling moral case to be made for expanding international family planning services and information. That’s because women and children in countries like Mali, Niger, Somalia, Uganda, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia find themselves on the front lines of climate change. Subsistence farmers, in particular, are vulnerable to the crop damage that will be inflicted by heat, drought, flooding, and rising seas. Some of the most vulnerable and food insecure countries in the world—countries that are already in a struggle for survival—could likely see their populations double or even triple in the next half century. Denying women in these countries the ability to space and limit their pregnancies will compound the suffering that is likely to be caused by climate change. Large families in environmentally-stressed communities will be less resilient and inevitably suffer more from disease, food insecurity, and water scarcity.

Access to reproductive health services is recognized by the United Nations as a universal right, but in many parts of the developing world it is far from being a reality. Making that right a reality for women everywhere may not save the world from climate change, but it would go a substantial way toward alleviating the human suffering that will accompany it. The costs of empowering women and providing family planning services are trivial compared to the benefits that would result from giving women reproductive choice. It really is the least we can do—for climate change—and for the women and their families who will endure some of its worst effects.

 

Robert Walker is the President of the Population Institute in Washington, DC. 

Prior to joining the Population Institute, Mr. Walker was President of the Population Resource Center. He formerly was the Executive Director of the Common Cause Education Fund, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization working to promote open, honest and accountable government.

He also served for three years as President of Handgun Control, Inc. and the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence.

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Assume the Worst When it Comes to Climate Change and Population, General King tells Kansas Farmers Union by Tom Parker

Dr. W. Chris King is Chief Academic Officer for the U.S. Army's Command and General Staff College.

Dr. W. Chris King is Chief Academic Officer for the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College.

History has a way of repeating itself, which means that if military historians and strategists peer back far enough, certain precedents can be found to illustrate patterns and models useful for the prediction of the near-term future.

Unfortunately, as retired Brigidier General W. Chris King told members of the Kansas Farmers Union during their annual convention in Topeka on Jan. 4, there is no historical precedence for what the nation and the world face in the future from the combined forces of climate change, overpopulation and resource depletion. “We have nothing on which to base projections,” he said. “We have to assume climate change is going to make everything worse. And there’s no easy, immediate fix. It’s a really, really hard problem.”

King, chief academic officer for the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College, said that while the idea of climate change seems addressed to our times, it was already being discussed back in the 1970s and 1980s. The problem was, nobody was listening, least of all the U.S. military. Nor did the military consider them worthy of study.

“These subjects were not well received because [the authors] had patches on their sleeves and they didn’t get along with the military,” King said.

That began to change when one of the leading environmental scholars of the time, Norman Myers, characterized the impending shortage of resources as a national security issue on par with hostile nations. “It relates to watersheds, croplands, forests, genetic resources, climate and other factors that rarely figure in the minds of military experts and political leaders,” he wrote in The Environmentalist.

That assessment was mirrored in the latest National Security Strategy of the United States, dated May 2010, which declared “the danger from climate change is real, urgent and severe. The change wrought by a warming planet will lead to new conflicts over refugees and resources; new suffering from drought and famine; catastrophic natural disasters; and the degradation of land across the globe.”

The bottom line, King said, will be more failed states, more tension and conflict, and higher demand for military forces. “So now it’s my business,” he said. “Everything I do in the Department of Defense has been to address the threats identified in the National Securities Strategy, to protect the nation against all enemies.”

The primary culprit is climate change, he said, but it’s driven by population. Since 1950 the world’s population almost tripled from 2.5 billion to over 7 billion, and projections estimate an additional billion people every decade and a half.

Space is already at a premium, he said, and many parts of the world have already reached or exceeded their carrying capacity. “Where do you put all those people?” King asked. “All the good spots are already taken.”

Much the world’s population lives along coastlines and many others live by necessity on marginal lands susceptible to flooding or weather extremes.

With sea levels rising, the Alaskan town of Newtok is predicted to be underwater by 2017, earning residents the unfortunate status as the first climate refugees in America. The loss of living space and freshwater salination hold potential catastrophic outcomes, as would the collapse of estuarine fisheries. The loss of ice and snow in the arctic poses additional security problems of an open, unregulated and unguarded northern border. Rising temperatures will trigger fluctuations in extreme weather by increasing intensity and frequency as well as expanding areas at risk. Precipitation patterns will also change, impacting water, sanitation and food sources.

The military needs to adapt to changing climate and its associated global threats, and to develop strategies for action, King said. “When you dial 911 on a national level,” he said, “you call the military. Nobody else has the logistics capacity to move people and supplies on so vast a scale.”

Already worldwide 780 million people lack access to clean water, he said. More than three million people die each year from causes related to water or sanitation. Basic sanitation is lacking for two and a half billion people, and more than one billion people suffer from chronic hunger; most are children.

Compounding the problems, he said, is that many of these countries have the highest birth rates.

“Even if climate change didn’t exist, the 7.2 billion people and the limited resources to produce food and clean water to meet basic human needs is a disaster that’s coming at some rate which we don’t know yet,” he said. “And climate change is going to make it worse.”

The military response must be in less emphasis on force-on-force and more on humanitarian assistance, developing strategies for handling huge refugee and migration populations and to provide massive amounts of water when needed during emergencies, King said.

The solution, he added, isn’t up to the military. “We have to partner with the State department, economics, agriculture and other parts of the government that are going to have to adapt and develop,” he said.

The key is education. Kansas State University is now helping developing countries to move to sustainable systems rather than resource mining, he said. Overall, government agencies and organizations are trying to initiate a basic sustainable-needs model that will guide them into the uncertain future.

“This is our biggest threat,” King said. “But we’re not managing the planet that way.”

W. Chris King is Chief Academic Officer for the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College. This article reports on a talk King gave to members of the Kansas Farmers Union during their annual convention in Topeka on Jan. 4, 2014. King retired from active duty at the rank of Brigadier General in August 2006—after more than 32 years of active service—and is a recipient of the Distinguished Service Medal. Source: the High Plains/Midwest Ag Journal, February 17, 2014.  http://www.hpj.com/archives/2014/feb14/feb17/0203KFUConference1PIXsr.cfm

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Overpopulation and the Collapse of Civilization By Paul Ehrlich

Perpetual growth is unsustainable and will lead to collapse.  Photo by Chris Wevers.

Perpetual growth is unsustainable and will lead to collapse. Photo by Chris Wevers.

A major shared goal of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (MAHB) and Sustainability Central is reducing the odds that the “perfect storm” of environmental problems that threaten humanity will lead to a collapse of civilization. Those threats include climate disruption, loss of biodiversity (and thus ecosystem services), land-use change and resulting degradation, global toxification, ocean acidification, decay of the epidemiological environment, increasing depletion of important resources, and resource wars (which could go nuclear). This is not just a list of problems, it is an interconnected complex resulting from interactions within and between what can be thought of as two gigantic complex adaptive systems: the biosphere system and the human socio-economic system. The manifestations of this interaction are often referred to as “the human predicament.” That predicament is getting continually and rapidly worse, driven by overpopulation, overconsumption among the rich, and the use of environmentally malign technologies and socio-economic-political arrangements to service the consumption. 

All of the interconnected problems are caused in part by overpopulation, in part by overconsumption by the already rich. One would think that most educated people now understand that the larger the size of a human population, ceteris paribus, the more destructive its impact on the environment. The degree of overpopulation is best indicated (conservatively) by ecological footprint analysis, which shows that to support today’s population sustainably at current patterns of consumption would require roughly another half a planet, and to do so at the U.S. level would take four to five more Earths.

The seriousness of the situation can be seen in the prospects of Homo sapiens’ most important activity: producing and procuring food. Today, at least two billion people are hungry or badly in need of better diets, and most analysts think doubling food production would be required to feed a 35% bigger and still growing human population adequately by 2050. For any chance of success, humanity will need to stop expanding land area for agriculture (to preserve ecosystem services); raise yields where possible; increase efficiency in use of fertilizers, water, and energy; become more vegetarian; reduce food wastage; stop wrecking the oceans; significantly increase investment in sustainable agricultural research; and move feeding everyone to the very top of the policy agenda. All of these tasks will require changes in human behavior long recommended but thus far elusive. Perhaps more critical, there may be insurmountable biophysical barriers to increasing yields – indeed, to avoiding reductions in yields – in the face of climate disruption.

Most people fail to realize the urgency of the food situation because they don’t understand the agricultural system and its complex, non-linear connections to the drivers of environmental deterioration. The system itself, for example, is a major emitter of greenhouse gases and thus is an important driver of the climate disruption that seriously threatens food production. More than a millennium of change in temperature and precipitation patterns is now entrained, with the prospect of more crop-threatening severe storms, droughts, heat waves, and floods- all of which are already evident. Thus maintaining – let alone expanding – food production will be ever more difficult in decades ahead.

Furthermore, agriculture is a leading cause of losses of biodiversity and the critical ecosystem services supplied to agriculture itself and other human enterprises, as well as a major source of global toxification, both of which pose additional risks to food production. The threat to food production of climate disruption alone means that humanity’s entire system for mobilizing energy needs to be rapidly transformed in an effort to hold atmospheric warming well below a lethal 5o C rise in global average temperature. It also means we must alter much of our water-handling infrastructure to provide the necessary flexibility to bring water to crops in an environment of constantly changing precipitation patterns.

Food is just the most obvious area where overpopulation tends to darken the human future – virtually every other human problem from air pollution and brute overcrowding to resource shortages and declining democracy is exacerbated by further population growth. And, of course, one of our most serious problems is the failure of leadership on the population issue, in both the United States and Australia. The situation is worst in the U.S. where the government never mentions population because of fear of the Catholic hierarchy specifically and the religious right in general, and the media keep publishing ignorant pro-natalist articles, and in Australia even advertise on prime-time TV to have more kids.

A prime example was a ludicrous 2010 New York Times screed by David Brooks, calling on Americans to cheer up because “Over the next 40 years, the U.S. population will surge by an additional 100 million people, to 400 million.” Equal total ignorance of the population-resource-environment situation was shown in 2012 by an article also in the New York Times by one Ross Douthat “More Babies, Please” and one by a Rick Newman in the USNews “Why a falling birth rate is a big problem,” both additional signs of the utter failure of the US educational system.

A popular movement is needed to correct that failure and direct cultural evolution toward providing the “foresight intelligence” and the agricultural, environmental, and demographic planning that markets cannot supply. Then analysts (and society) might stop treating population growth as a “given” and consider the nutritional and health benefits of humanely ending growth well below 9 billion and starting a slow decline. In my view, the best way to accelerate the move toward such population shrinkage is to give full rights, education, and job opportunities to women everywhere, and provide all sexually active human beings with modern contraception and backup abortion. The degree to which that would reduce fertility rates is controversial, but it would be a win-win for society. Yet the critical importance of increasing the inadequate current action on the demographic driver can be seen in the decades required to change the size of the population humanely and sensibly. In contrast we know from such things as the World War II mobilizations that consumption patterns can be altered dramatically in less than a year, given appropriate incentives.

The movement should also highlight the consequences of such crazy ideas as growing an economy at 3-5% per year over decades (or forever) as most innumerate economists and politicians believe possible. Most “educated” people do not realize that in the real world a short history of exponential growth does not imply a long future of such growth. Developing foresight intelligence and mobilizing civil society for sustainability are central goals of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (“the MAHB” – mahb.stanford.edu), goals now also a major mission of the University of Technology, Sydney.

Source: http://mahb.stanford.edu/blog/overpopulation-and-the-collapse-of-civilization/

 

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Holy Icebergs! The Future is Thirsty by Stephanie Feldstein

Capture icebergs? Or lower emissions?

Capture icebergs? Or lower emissions? Photo by Angela Sevin, used under Creative Commons license.

If you’ve spent days this winter battling the polar vortex, it might be hard to wrap your head around the idea that the freezing weather was actually caused by warming temperatures. But wait, there’s more: The same global warming that sent arctic weather our way will also lead to massive water shortages in the not-so-distant future.

A group of researchers from 12 countries recently released a report predicting that an increase of just 2 degrees Celsius in global temperatures above present levels could leave one-fifth of the world’s population thirsty. On the list of the most at-risk regions for severe water scarcity: the southern United States.

A couple days ago, The New York Times published an article on the Colorado River that started with the sobering statistic that the once-mighty river of the Southwest has suffered “14 years of drought nearly unrivaled in 1,250 years.”

Seven states rely on the Colorado River for water. An Interior Department report released in 2012 projected that the population served by the Colorado could nearly double in the next 50 years, from 40 million to 76.5 million people. With rising temperatures and demand already exceeding supply, the river won’t be able to keep up. Facing the reality of water shortage scenarios, Nevada official John Entsminger told The New York Times, “It sure looks like in the 21st century, we’re all going to have to use less water.”

The Colorado River isn’t the only stressed watershed in the region. Southern California’s Santa Ana River Watershed was the topic of a 2013 Interior Department report. According to the agency, the future’s looking a bit dry there, too, as human population, agricultural and industry demands keep growing at the same time climate change is diminishing the supply side. A river just can’t catch a break these days.

Back to that 2 degree increase that’ll cause water shortages for one-fifth of the world. Based on our current track record, it could happen as soon as mid-century — around the same time the global population is pushing nearly 10 billion people.

So, how do we stop this?

Suggestions from the Interior Department’s 2012 Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study included “wrapping large water bags around icebergs in the Alaska region and using tug boats to transport the frozen water to a port along the coast of Southern California.”

Icebergs.

Or we could focus on reducing emissions, conserving water and stabilizing population growth so we can have a healthier planet where people and wildlife thrive.

Climate change, overconsumption and population growth need to be more than just bullet points buried in policy reports. These issues need to be the policies.

We need to drastically cut back on water and energy intensive systems, like raising livestock for food. And instead of continuing the trend of unprecedented attacks on reproductive rights in the U.S., we need to increase access to contraception and family planning. Watershed management plans should go beyond simply meeting the needs of ever-growing human populations to actually enhance the watershed’s habitat and provide a healthier ecosystem for the people and wildlife relying on it.

And maybe, if we place our bets on confronting global warming and population growth, we can give rivers, wildlife and us a chance.

Stephanie Feldstein is Population and Sustainability Director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

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Overpopulation and Climate Change, from the Center for Biological Diversity

The largest single threat to the ecology and biodiversity of the planet in the decades to come will be global climate disruption due to the buildup of human-generated greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. People around the world are beginning to address the problem by reducing their carbon footprint through less consumption and better technology. But unsustainable human population growth can overwhelm those efforts, leading us to conclude that we not only need smaller footprints, but fewer feet.

Portland, Oregon, for example, decreased its combined per-capita residential energy and car driving carbon footprint by 5 percent between 2000 and 2005. During this same period, however, its population grew by 8 percent.

A 2009 study of the relationship between population growth and global warming determined that the “carbon legacy” of just one child can produce 20 times more greenhouse gas than a person will save by driving a high-mileage car, recycling, using energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs, etc. Each child born in the United States will add about 9,441 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the carbon legacy of an average parent. The study concludes, “Clearly, the potential savings from reduced reproduction are huge compared to the savings that can be achieved by changes in lifestyle.”

One of the study’s authors, Paul Murtaugh, warned that: “In discussions about climate change, we tend to focus on the carbon emissions of an individual over his or her lifetime. Those are important issues and it’s essential that they should be considered. But an added challenge facing us is continuing population growth and increasing global consumption of resources. . . . Future growth amplifies the consequences of people’s reproductive choices today, the same way that compound interest amplifies a bank balance.”

The size of the carbon legacy is closely tied to consumption patterns. Under current conditions, a child born in the United States will be responsible for almost seven times the carbon emissions of a child born in China and 168 times the impact of a child born in Bangladesh.

The globalization of the world economy, moreover, can mask the true carbon footprint of individual nations. China, for example, recently surpassed the United States to become the world’s leading greenhouse gas emitter. But a large portion of those gases is emitted in the production of consumer goods for the United States and Europe. Thus a large share of “China’s” greenhouse gas footprint is actually the displaced footprint of high-consumption western nations.

WorldCarbonEmiss

The United States has the largest population in the developed world, and is the only developed nation experiencing significant population growth: Its population may double before the end of the century. Its 300 million inhabitants produce greenhouse gases at a per-capita rate that is more than double that of Europe, five times the global average, and more than 10 times the average of developing nations. The U.S. greenhouse gas contribution is driven by a disastrous combination of high population, significant growth, and massive (and rising) consumption levels, and thus far, lack of political will to end our fossil-fuel addiction.

More than half of the U.S. population now lives in car-dependent suburbs. Cumulatively, we drive 3 trillion miles each year. The average miles traveled per capita is increasing rapidly, and the transportation sector now accounts for one-third of all U.S. carbon emissions.

Another one-fifth of U.S. carbon emissions comes from the residential sector. Average home sizes have increased dramatically in recent decades, as has the accompanying footprint of each home. Suburban sprawl contributes significantly to deforestation, reducing the capacity of the planet to absorb the increased CO2 we emit. Due to a dramatic decrease in household size, from 3.1 persons per home in 1970 to 2.6 in 2000, homebuilding is outpacing the population growth that is driving it. More Americans are driving farther to reach bigger homes with higher heating and cooling demands and fewer people per household than ever before. All of these trends exacerbate the carbon footprint inherent in the basic energy needs of a burgeoning U.S. population.

Globally, recent research indicates that assumptions regarding declining fertility rates used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to develop future emissions scenarios may be overly optimistic. While fertility rates have generally declined over the past few decades, progress has slowed in recent years, especially in developing nations, largely due to cutbacks in family planning assistance and political interference from the United States. And even if fertility rates are reduced to below replacement levels, population levels will continue to climb steeply for some time as people live longer and billions of young people mature and proceed through their reproductive years. Per-capita greenhouse gas emissions may drop, but the population bulge will continue to contribute to a dangerous increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Time is short, but it not too late to stop runaway global warming. Economy-wide reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to a level that brings atmospheric CO2 back from 386 parts per million to 350 or less, scaling back first-world consumption patterns, and long-term population reduction to ecologically sustainable levels will solve the global warming crisis and move us to toward a healthier, more stable, post-fossil fuel, post-growth addicted society.

Source: The Center for Biological Diversity, http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/overpopulation/climate/index.html

At the Center for Biological Diversity, we believe that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature — to the existence in our world of a vast diversity of wild animals and plants. Because diversity has intrinsic value, and because its loss impoverishes society, we work to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. We do so through science, law and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters and climate that species need to survive.

We want those who come after us to inherit a world where the wild is still alive.

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Filed under Climate, Consumption, Ecological Footprint, Energy, Growth, Population, Sustainability