Population and Climate Change

I attended a session today hosted by Development and Climate Days on population and how it is important to both mitigation and adaptation concerns.  Apparently, IPCC 2007 does not assign due weight to the variable of population, and especially to the critically important characteristics of population like age, gender, and socioeconomic distribution, all of which will define future consumption patterns (and, hence, CO2 emissions) and resilience to environmental change.  Perhaps it is too difficult a discussion to have, as Rush has indicated for us.   The take-home message from the session was that population dynamics is at the dead-center of everything discussed here in Copenhagen.  Is family planning the silver bullet?  Well, aside from the fact that family planning interventions are notoriously difficult to carry out – given sensitive cultural and socio-economic concerns – even if we could reduce the size of families, experience and data show that smaller families, on average, live more affluent lifestyles.  This means more consumption, which means more emissions, which means we’re worse off than before.

So, I will pose the $64,000 question raised in the session: How do we break the vicious cycle involving total fertility, consumption, and emissions of greenhouse gases?  I have confronted this question many times before in discussions about human behavioral ecology, conservation, and “the myth of the noble savage” (see here, here, and here).  How do we make family planning attractive to those typically averse to it, for whatever reason – cultural and biological? And is our solution to over-consumption (and pollution) waiting on the deliberate construction of human institutions that are effective at limiting our biological drive to consume well beyond our needs and to the detriment of our collective welfare?  Certainly, the normative dialogue omnipresent at conferences like this (we should do this, we should do that, we should all play our part, etc.) are healthy signs in our global community, but I believe that it’s going to take some serious leadership to force the world to act in ways more aligned with our (articulated) common interests.

Big marches today!  I left the Concert House and was consumed by hordes of sign-toting, drum-beating, smiling earth lovers (most dressed casually, some dressed as polar bears).  It was an impressive sight, impossible for the negotiators to miss.


3 thoughts on “Population and Climate Change

  1. Daniel Poon

    The only viable long-term solution to the population control problem is to educate women. Population control is most effective when individual women have the socially-sanctioned and -supported power to control their own reproduction, and this power is really impossible to achieve as long as women are undereducated and thereby institutionally dependent upon their male relatives.

    I have to agree with the first commenter that we shouldn’t allow worries about population to distract us from the more immediate worries about inefficient distribution and over-consumption in the more energy-intense regions of the world, where our gains would be greater and our rate of return faster. Nevertheless, the sustainability problem is not going away as long as we have unbounded population.


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