IPCC and IPBES Ignore Overpopulation Again

In a new report, a joint workshop convened by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services warned that the climate and biodiversity crises need to be tackled in tandem. Among their hundreds of suggestions for doing so, however, proposals to end population growth were nowhere to be found. Again. Yet these are among the most effective and cost-efficient means for preserving a habitable and diverse planet, as exasperated readers around the world noted.

by Philip Cafaro

There’s a lot to like about the new joint IPCC/IPBES Biodiversity and Climate Change: Workshop Report. It warns of potential negative consequences for biodiversity from some common climate mitigation strategies, such as ramping up biofuels use, planting monocultural tree plantations, or siting new solar energy developments in pristine desert habitats. And it strengthens biodiversity-based arguments for more protected areas, by emphasizing their synergistic climate mitigation and adaptation benefits. Surely bringing climate and biodiversity efforts out of their respective “silos” for planning purposes is a good thing.

Yet somehow, among the hundreds of suggestions to deal with these entwined problems, slowing, stopping, or reversing human population growth is nowhere to be found. Population growth is occasionally mentioned, most often as the main driver of future increases in human food demands. But this is just something that is happening, according to the report’s authors. There is no suggestion that people can do anything about it; for example, by ensuring that all sexually active adults have access to safe, affordable contraception. No suggestion that societies seeking to become sustainable should discuss the role small family norms can and must play in making that happen. No suggestion that population policy choices today will constrain climate change and biodiversity protection policy options tomorrow.

Turning from the report itself to commentary on a news article about it in the New York Times, we see no such reticence. Below TOP provides a small sample of the voluminous critical response to this omission, starting with the second most popular comment:

People keep ignoring and talking around the most significant factor in fighting the destruction of biodiversity and climate change: a reasonable level of human population. Until humanity reaches a balanced and sustainable level of human population, likely a level that the world held at the beginning of the 20th Century, we are trying to do the impossible: maintain a flourishing world while human population pullulates left and right with resource depleting humans destroying the earth.

Isn’t it time that the scientific elites start talking about the detrimental effects of large human populations on this earth? Isn’t it time that social scientists and politicians start to discuss initiatives and programs for bringing about a more sustainable human population? Shouldn’t world governments be investing now in programs to control the human population?

It doesn’t take a genius to see that human population is the most significant factor in both global warming and the destruction of biodiversity on this planet. 

Tom Krebsbach, Washington

Maybe it helps not to be a genius. The geniuses at the IPCC and IPBES propose a thousand and one clever ideas to solve these problems, seemingly without much consideration about how unlikely such complicated schemes are to be tried, much less actually succeed. Meanwhile common people like me and Tom in Washington think, “Boy, the news sounds bad! We need to limit human numbers to limit the damage and limit future suffering.”

Here’s another reader, who sounds smart enough to sit on one of those intergovernmental panels:

I define climate change as ‘the culminating symptom of the systemic disease of pervasive environmental degradation caused by the unlimited and all but unregulated overconsumption of the world’s finite allotment of natural resources.” The rising heat and oceans are grabbing the headlines but the state of the world’s soil and fresh water is growing equally dire.

For nearly a decade I have been running a small environmental foundation and have had a front row seat as we stumble to nowhere and despair at our lack of foresight and imagination.

We ignore the whole, choosing instead to view our environmental nightmare as a collection of discrete engineering problems with solutions that will allow us to continue on recklessly consuming. We are like the patient with emphysema that insists on a cure that still allows them to smoke two packs of cigarettes a day.

If every car in the world were electric the roads would be just as choked as they are today and urban sprawl would only worsen. If fusion power became a reality and we were given a never-ending source of cheap power, I have no doubt the savings would be used to produce even more junk than we consume today because, when it comes right down to it, our North American economy is based upon and supported by government policies that push for ever growing levels of material consumption.

We cannot have our cake and eat it, too. We cannot.

Bill, Toronto, Canada

But that’s exactly what people do want. We want to fulfill all our desires, now and in the future, and still have a livable planet. The more tender-hearted among us want this for everyone everywhere; hence, such efforts as the Sustainable Development Goals. But is it possible to provide a secure and prosperous life for 8 or 10 billion people, without irreparably damaging the climate, or exterminating many other species? These would seem to be good questions for the IPCC and IPBES, but they never ask them. Why is that? Such questions seem obvious to many Times readers:

Maybe if we funded contraceptive use as abundantly as we fund feeding programs, we wouldn’t be facing this disaster.

Maureen, New York

The unmentioned 800 lb. gorilla in the room is overpopulation. When oh when are we going to address the root of all problems on this planet? Not until it is too late is my guess. At 67, I will not be around for most of the devastating effects of climate change, but what I have seen in the last 30 years is not comforting.  

The UN needs to take up population control for all nations and encourage birth control with policies which reward couples for NOT having children. There always will be those who want to have children, and they will have them. Incentives should go to those who don’t. The earth depends upon them.

LaPine, Pacific Northwest

LaPine makes some crucial points. In addition to providing contraception to everyone who wants it, nations arguably need to get back in the business of extolling and incentivizing small families. In addition to existing environmental treaties, the world needs a new UN treaty on sustainable population. Going forward, such efforts could be a matter of life and death. As another reader writes:

Umpteenth time the NYT neglects to mention overpopulation. More people means more forests being cut down for agriculture. More people means more overfishing and devastation of the oceans’ stocks of fish and other creatures. Not to mention the damage done by trawlers scraping the seafloor and the huge nets that catch everything including unwanted fish.

It’s really curious how many articles on the degradation of our environment, loss of biodiversity, and climate change never mention the population of not so sapient homos on this planet. It’s almost like they go out of their way to NOT mention it. Like the editor married the sibling of a reactionary conservative cardinal in the Vatican.

Foodalchemist, margaritaville

It’s just as curious how report after report comes out of these UN intergovernmental panels, without a peep on the need to curb human numbers. Maybe Foodalchemist is onto something with his or her suggestion that religion is at the bottom of it. While most scientists and members of the cosmopolitan elite no longer believe in traditional religions, perhaps human beings themselves have replaced the gods or God as the sacred object of their reverence. To say we may have too many of these sacred beings might be too strange or frightening to contemplate. To suggest that ecological limits could constrain human numbers might suggest, unacceptably, that the mundane and Earthly can limit the transcendent and Divine.

The effect of consumption is noted in the report, but not the number of consumers.

Whatever the explanation, concerned citizens need to face our political situation squarely. As humanity sleepwalks toward ecological disaster, our leaders, including our scientific leaders, appear incapable of clearly stating realistic measures to avoid catastrophic climate change, mass species extinction, or any of the other global environmental calamities looming—much less leading their societies in enacting such measures. That’s pretty amazing.

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10 thoughts on “IPCC and IPBES Ignore Overpopulation Again

  1. “If every car in the world were electric the roads would be just as choked as they are today and urban sprawl would only worsen. If fusion power became a reality and we were given a never-ending source of cheap power, I have no doubt the savings would be used to produce even more junk than we consume today because, when it comes right down to it, our North American economy is based upon and supported by government policies that push for ever growing levels of material consumption.”

    Bob from Toronto says it how it is!

    Overpopulation and the obsession with economic growth are two sides of the same coin: governments fear declining birth rates because it’s presumed that economic growth is the holy grail and that a growing population is needed to ensure a growing economy. They’re basically running Ponzi schemes while the actual material bases for survival are depleted at an increasingly dire rate.

    Religiosity almost undoubtedly has something to do with the taboo of discussing human overpopulation within the general public. But the religious-like devotion economic growth is another key reason that governments and intergovernmental bodies won’t touch the topic. As stated in a recent BBC article horrifyingly titled “How do you convince people to have babies?” (www.bbc.com/news/world-57112631): “As [fertility rates fall], the population gets older, which can stand in the way of economic growth. It’s something governments are usually keen to avoid.”

    BTW, I’m a childfree woman and wouldn’t have it any other way! (I also do best my to avoid non-necessary material consumption.)

    1. I am childfree AND car-free. About nine years ago, I decided I would not get into a car again, unless it was a matter of life and death. This simple but unusual decision changes your life in ways that you wouldn’t expect. No-car-ever: try that! I have faced puzzled questions and mean jokes, angry relatives, challenging logistics and more, but I’d never go back. I walk (not for fun: I actually walk TO places, no matter how long it takes), take public transportation, bike, sometimes ride a horse or accept a lift on our very Italian Ape. When the distance is too great, I find a place to spend the night. Life is so much more fun this way, and the world more beautiful – it’s like I’ve gone on this great trip without even leaving home. I hope I never have to get into a car again.
      I think a very sizeable chunk of our problems today are caused by the existence of the private automobile, way more than people realize. I am glad someone understands that electric cars are no solution.

      1. Gaiabaracetti, those are two great contributions to protecting the Earth. I get around my town, to and from work and various errands, primarily by bicycle. But I have to admit that I use a car often, including plenty of times when it isn’t necessary. I admire your discipline.

      2. Like many things you willingly give up, it quickly becomes either a habit or a pleasure, and you don’t even want to “go back”. We don’t all need to give up the same things; though some choices are made collectively, others are personal, or a combination of both (like procreation).

  2. I wish this chorus. who, like me, see limiting population as the top priority, would just look at psychological ways of making this happen. Sandy Irvine objects to my persistently suggesting a possibility, but it is only a fist bid. Is there something wrong with the psychological aproach, or do you agree, but have a better idea? https://www.clivelord.wordpress.com

      1. Steven, I agree with your statement: “The United Nations mantra “food production must be increased annually to meet the needs of a growing population” is a widely shared and consensually validated mistake of colossal proportions.”

        Instead, we need to reduce human numbers, to a level where we can feed everyone well while also creating sustainable societies.

  3. How do people talk about biodiversity loss and the loss of ecosystem services without talking about our human population? We have solutions and important institutions who have the power to put them in play won’t even talk about population. The members of the IPCC and the IPBES are betraying the positions that they hold by not addressing overpopulation. You are talking about effects and ignoring the cause.

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