Pethokoukis, Economics, U.S. Economy

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

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Image Credit: Shutterstock

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.

Follow James Pethokoukis on Twitter at @JimPethokoukisand AEIdeas at @AEIdeas.

6 thoughts on “Climate change, overpopulation fears are a bad mix for the left

  1. “The reality is that we are a high-energy planet.”

    Compared to what other populated planet did this reality get developed against? Weird statement to make.

  2. If CO2 is really the global warming boogey man that the control freaks claim, then try to get them to explain how we have had ice ages at the same time as CO2 levels 5-20 times today’s level. You can’t get them to debate facts because they know they’ll lose their argument. Once their vision is set, no amount of facts will sway them from their course, and any time anyone wants to debate the facts, they hide behind axioms such as “the science is settled” or start calling their opponents names.
    I just finished the best book ever that explains the vision of the anointed class and the methods and vocabulary that they use to stymie their opponents without having to debate facts, or consequences of their plans.
    You must read, “The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy” by: Thomas Sowell

    • When? Eons ago where other factors come into play such as Earth’s eccentricity being different from today? In such a time period very high CO2 levels would beneficial in trapping what little heat there is.

      • The effects of CO2 are largely masked by water vapor. Take out the water vapor and you might have a point, but as long as the H2O in the air is absorbing the heat anyway, CO2 can have little effect, no matter the concentration.

        This is why the CO2 theory – which has been blown out of proportion in its effects – originally theorized slight warming in very cold dry areas (cold dry air has much less H2O than warm dry air) in extreme northern and southern latitudes.

        Seeing as how the Arctic ice is now growing and Antarctic ice is at record levels (since measurements began) I don’t realy see CO2 having much of an effect in cold dry areas either. Maybe it is all about cycles, no?

  3. Environmentalists tend to view people as fundamentally consumers and polluters–using up earth’s “resources” and poisoning the planet while we’re at it. The Judeo-Christian ethic has always viewed people, made in God’s image, as potentially producers and stewards, capable, in the right circumstances that produce the right incentives (e.g., private property rights, spontaneous pricing systems, free trade, limited government maintaining an absence of fraud, theft, and violence) of producing more than they consume and actually improving the environment–enhancing its fruitfulness, beauty, and safety, to the glory of God and the benefit of our neighbors (to put things in terms of the two Great Commandments to love God and neighbor). The environmentalists’ view of people naturally leads to belief in overpopulation (though there are not objective numerical criteria by which to define that); the Judeo-Christian view to welcoming people in a world of freedom and responsibility.

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