Climate Change: Are People the Problem?

There is no doubt about it: people are changing the Earth’s climate. The evidence for what scientists call “anthropogenic climate change” is overwhelming, notwithstanding the obfuscation efforts of the climate change denial industry kept on life-support with infusions of corporate money.

But to say that our emissions of greenhouse gases are causing climate change is not to say that every extra person automatically multiplies the problem. Nor does it imply that population control is the ultimate solution – a view espoused by some on the Malthusian fringe of the environmental movement.

The Washington-based NGO Population Action International claims that human population trends are “a major driving force of emissions growth.” Flashing the simple but misleading equation “More people = more emissions” on its website, the UK-based Optimum Population Trust sells “population offsets” by which individuals and organizations ostensibly can “offset their carbon footprint” by funding family planning programs.

On Valentine’s Day, the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity gave away ten thousand “endangered species condoms” sporting slogans like “Wrap with care, save a polar bear.”

Voluntary family planning is a good thing in its own right. But condoms won’t save the polar bear.

Blaming climate change simply on human numbers is itself founded on denial – denial of the real causes of the problem and denial of our potential to forge positive solutions. It spreads demoralization and paralysis at a time when we need hope and activism.

In recent decades population growth rates have plummeted across the globe. In the Global South, the average number of children per woman is now 2.7 and it is predicted to fall to 2.1, the replacement level, by mid-century. In the meantime, in the poorest countries with the highest birth rates, consumption levels are so low that they contribute little or nothing to greenhouse gas emissions. In the Global North, where below-replacement fertility is now the norm, demographers worry mainly about the rising ratio of elderly to young people.

For most of human history, people did not pour greenhouse gases into the air. Climate fluctuations from natural causes were slow, and so people could adapt to them. This changed in the nineteenth century when we commenced burning fossil fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas – on a large scale. For the past six generations or so, we relied for much of our energy on poisonous stuff excavated from beneath the Earth’s surface. It is this crude technology – not human numbers – that drives climate change.

Blaming climate change on “people,” rather than on specific things done by specific people in specific times and places, puts Malthusian environmentalists in an uncomfortable position. After all, they’re people too. The psychological solution is to project blame onto others, while drawing comfort from the thought that they are the enlightened exceptions to the rule. This conceit feeds the greening of hate, the scapegoating of foreigners and immigrants for our environmental ills.

The people-as-problem message also undermines public receptivity to environmental truths. Most people do not appreciate being told that they are a cancer on the face of the Earth. The fact that nearly half of American adults do not believe that humans are causing climate change cannot be attributed solely to corporate propaganda and deficient education. It also reflects their desire for a worldview that is not based on self-loathing.

Instead of buying into the “more people = more emissions” equation, we should put the blame for climate change squarely where it belongs: on fossil fuels and the vested interests that seek to perpetuate dependence on them.

We also ought to give credit where credit is due, recognizing the positive innovations in energy efficiency and renewable energy, including smart-grid technologies to facilitate locally distributed power generation and green-power superhighways to lower the costs of transmitting wind and solar power over long distances. The clean-energy future is being created by people, too.

James K. Boyce is a professor of economics at UMass-Amherst.