Climate change, overpopulation fears are a bad mix for the left

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Global birthrates are declining, but not fast enough for some environmentalists and climate-change worriers. A new piece by New York Times economics columnist Eduardo Porter suggests one way to reduce carbon emissions is by reducing population growth. Porter writes. “As the threat of climate change has evolved from a fuzzy faraway concept to one of the central existential threats to humanity, [some scholars] have noted that reducing the burning of fossil fuels might be easier if there were fewer of us consuming them.” And he quotes one expert as saying:

“There is a strong case to be made that the world faces sustainability issues whether it has nine billion people, seven billion people or four billion people,” said John Wilmoth, who directs the United Nations Population Division. “Nobody can deny that population growth is a major driving factor, but in terms of the policy response, what are you going to do?”

First, we may be closer to zero global population growth than many realize. The UN projects the current world population of roughly 7.2 billion will rise to 9.6 billion by 2050 and then to 10.9 billion in 2100. But demographer Sanjeev Sanyal of Deutsche Bank thinks the UN is way off. His calculations points to a population peak around 2055 of 8.7 billion, declining to 8.0 billion by 2100 — a level 2.8 billion below the UN’s prediction.

Second, Duardo’s piece plays into the view that the way to deal with climate change is through less — less population, less energy. The reality is that we are a high-energy planet. And going forward, we are going to need more energy, not less, as we bring more of humanity out of poverty and into the middle class. We are going to need, as the Breakthrough Institute puts it, cheaper, cleaner, more abundant energy.

Third, what is the deal with the left and population growth? Phil Longman, author of The Empty Cradle, addresses the issue in a 2007 interview:

It’s fair to say that most self-described “progressives” don’t agree with me that low fertility is a problem. Many environmentalists, for example, believe that fewer people means a cleaner environment. Other progressives suppose that a decline in population would increase the amount of food and other resources available to the poor. Many feminists, gays, and “childless by choice” people in general feel threatened by suggestions that society needs more children. And when it’s pointed out that the lowest birthrates are generally found among the most “progressive” people, then the conversation gets really heated.

On all these counts, I believe progressives are in denial. Today in the United States, for example, we have far cleaner air and water than we did in the 1940s, when the population was just half its current size. That’s no paradox. Population growth is a spur to more efficient and cleaner use of resources, so our cities are no longer choked with smoke from steam engines and our cars get far better mileage and are far less polluting. Similarly, population growth is what drove us as a society to find far more productive ways to grow food. Thanks to increased crop yields, per capita food production is higher than ever, even as world population surpasses 6 billion. At the same time, there is more forested land in the United States than in the 19th century because so much less acreage is needed for farmland.

Progressives also tend to forget that many of their positions on human reproduction, such as a “woman’s right to choose,” only won widespread support when fears of overpopulation began to pervade the culture in the 1960s and ’70s. Until then, bans on abortion, birth control, and homosexuality, for example, were justified in many people’s minds by fears of underpopulation, which left questions of human reproduction too important to be settled by individual “choice.” They also forget that if progressives themselves “forget to have children” then the future belongs to people who have opposing values. Finally, progressives forget that without a growing population, such “crown jewels” of the welfare state as Social Security lose their financial sustainability.

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