I have an online acquaintance who has sort of abruptly switched tacks several times on the issue of climate.
Previously, he had professed a deep hostility to the field, and was one of those people who believed that climate science as a whole was little more than toying around with computer models of dubious skill. I did my best to break through these misconceptions from any and all angles- illustrating that there was far more going on than modeling, pointing at paleoclimatic and observational evidence, and how these dovetailed nicely with a lot of that “suspect” modeling he so distrusted. There was a bit of a breakthrough when we were able to civilly discuss the possible drivers of the Americas’ medieval megadroughts. I think he finally began to understand that climate science was “real science” at that point, and although he occasionally would sneer at imagined inconsistencies in media reports of potential impacts, he seemed to largely accept that there was good evidence underlying the attribution of current warming and the general shape of what could come absent some sort of limit on GHG emissions.
Predictably, his attitude shifted from “we can’t say we’re causing it or that it might be bad” to “we can’t change our energy infrastructure, so we’re hosed and might as well not rock the fossil energy boat with carbon pricing”. I introduced him to the conceptual framework of stabilization wedges, demonstrating that we indeed possessed the technological capability to address the issue in time to minimize the magnitude of the change we’ll have to ride out. After initially dismissing it out of hand, he eventually seemed to accept this as well.
He then seemed to grow fixated on the issue of population growth as the main problem and thus potential solution to climatic change, as well as other environmental problems like overfishing, habitat destruction, etc. He demanded to know why the IPCC and other organizations weren’t aggressively pushing population control as the silver bullet fix for climate change.
Needless to say, I was more than a little shocked at this turn of events. This acquaintance’s politics had always seemed more of the libertarian bent than anything else, probably the last sort of person I could imagine pushing for sweeping, UN-led population control. I explained that while my own personal interests in social justice led me to advocate for increased female education and autonomy in reproductive health, which demonstrably reduces the childbirth rate in developing and lower income areas, I didn’t see population growth as quite the overwhelming threat that he seemed to.
I explained that most credible projections showed global population levels peaking around mid-century even without a massive international effort to reduce its growth. I explained that while an additional 2-4 billion people would no doubt significantly increase the environmental problems we’re facing, I was more concerned with existing billions of people becoming increasingly American in their waste and consumption habits.
We went back and forth on this issue for some time, and during the course of many conversations, it became clear that his anti-population growth position was just a fig leaf for anti-immigration sentiments that had little to do with climatic concerns and a great deal more to do with a set of prejudices that are commonly found among American males of European descent residing in the American southwest.
I appreciated the debate with him (up to that point) however, because it really divested me of the last residual concerns I had about a ticking “population bomb”, as opposed to an “over-consumption bomb.” Discussions about the delusion of neoclassical economics on a finite planet tend to conflate these two issues as a single problem, perhaps in seriousness or because it works to good rhetorical effect. Humans as an exponentially growing plague of ravaging locusts destroying the fruits of the biosphere is undeniably evocative imagery regardless of whether one finds it to be an accurate depiction of our actions on this planet.
Unchecked economic growth, at least as the term is used in current politico-economic discussions, seems self-evidently impossible to people such as myself. The idea that we can- let alone should- pretend that it represents a viable forward plan seems to be incredibly reckless, even dangerous. The “limitless growth as suicide pact” notion has been addressed at this blog previously here and here, as well as at MT’s blog.
In previous discussions here and elsewhere, I’ve never really attempted to articulate why this should be so, as it hardly seems necessary to explain. Fortunately, a recent paper has been published that illustrates the problem in rough strokes. Brown et al. in BioScience attempt to demonstrate through macroecological tools that energetic constraints apply to human economies, just as organisms’ energy usage constrains their body size.
Their “money” graphic is Figure 4:
This seems to bear out my concerns as argued to my crypto-anti-immigration acquaintance. We can, in theory, sustain a growing and peak population under current global trends in consumption. This is obviously not an ideal outcome, as it would mean billions living in destitute poverty. But even if we freeze population at 2006 levels, we cannot support a human population consuming like Americans. This is why the consumption part of the equation seems to deserve the lion’s share of attention, even if one does not accept that population growth will peak around mid-century of its own accord.
From a social justice standpoint, I would like to see everyone pulled out of poverty and able to enjoy the health and safety enjoyed by those living in developed nations. But in order to do that and not run up against the biogeophysical limits of the planet (of which climate change seems to be but one incarnation), we have to ensure that we don’t all become (or remain as the case may be) wasteful Americans.
Reference: Brown, J.H., et al. (2011): Energetic Limits to Economic Growth. BioScience, 61, 1, 19-26, doi:10.1525/bio.2011.61.1.7.