That was the front-page headline in the New York Times last Thursday, August 8th, announcing a new report from the IPCC, “Climate Change and Land.” I’m kidding, of course. The actual headline read “Climate Change Threatens the World’s Food Supply, United Nations Warns,” and the article did not mention population once.
By Philip Cafaro
The looming problem of insufficient food is largely caused by rapid population growth, and, as the IPCC’s last Assessment Report stated, population growth and economic growth are the primary drivers of climate change, through increased greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation (IPCC 2014). Population growth simultaneously increases the number of mouths we will need to feed in coming decades while threatening food output (Hall et al. 2017) through climate change, ocean acidification, and other global ecological stressors.
While the Times failed to mention the leading driver of global food insecurity in its article, its readers were less reticent. Maybe I missed it, but where in the article is there a reference to a very important factor in inadequate food supply: lack of population control? asked G.S. from Dutchess County, in the second most “liked” comment on the piece. I read somewhere recently that world population growth is somewhere in the vicinity of 70,000,000 per year, wrote Jim Mc from Savannah (actually it’s over 80 million per year). That’s like adding the population of Dallas, Texas, every week! Growth like that is unsustainable in even the medium term. Until and unless that changes there is very little reason for optimism about the future of the planet. This comment, too, garnered many hundreds of “likes.”
To be fair, Christopher Flavelle, the Times reporter, was only following the lead of the IPCC itself. In its press release introducing the report, the sole mention of population was the following: “Land must remain productive to maintain food security as the population increases and the negative impacts of climate change on vegetation increase.” Here we see the usual fatalistic message: population will increase, inevitably, therefore we have to accommodate it.
Barring catastrophe, the global population certainly will increase for a while. But the extent of this increase and when it peaks depend on us: both our individual fertility decisions and our public policy choices in more than 150 countries with increasing populations. The most recent United Nations projections show the world population increasing to 10.9 billion people by 2100, with no end to growth in sight (UN 2019). But if couples around the world average half a child fewer, the world population will peak in the 2050s around 8.9 billion, while if we have half a child more, the global population will reach an incredible 15.6 billion people in 2100. Obviously, our population choices in the coming decades will make a huge difference to future food availability—for us and for other species (Crist et al. 2017). In Sub-Saharan Africa, with the world’s faster growing populations and worst hunger and malnutrition, only about one in four couples use modern contraception. In many places, it is simply not available. Yet the IPPC avoids suggestions to tackle food demand directly by limiting population growth; for example, by making contraception available in order to avoid unwanted pregnancies, which still account for over 40% of pregnancies worldwide (Bearak et al. 2018).
In contrast, in response to the Times story, there were many comments recognizing that population growth can be stopped and needs to be stopped. David from Maryland wrote, we know that Earth will soon be able to support fewer people. Now is the time for a major international effort to reverse human population growth by making contraception available to every woman on Earth who wants it, along with international education programs to encourage family planning, as part of our getting serious about climate change. 396 readers (and counting) agreed. Unfortunately, increasing contraceptive availability is nowhere to be found among the dozens of suggestions for action in the IPCC report itself.
Instead, as its “Summary for Policymakers” makes clear, the report mostly focuses on efficiency improvements: above all, improvements in agricultural productivity. There is room for many, many suggestions for increased efficiency in agriculture and land use. Some space is also given to addressing demand; for example, by making ethical appeals to eat less meat. The Times dutifully reports some of these suggestions, including the last one, to which Clotario from NYC responds: Yes, I am sure encouraging people to eat less meat will have a major impact. Problem solved! Future generations will surely look back on articles like this to giggle at our time’s laughable naivete. Too many people, too much fixation on economic growth, too many resources being consumed. The real work that needs doing is incompatible with the international order, liberal democracy, personal self-determination and competitive economics. So, I guess nothing will be done.
Reading the report’s “Summary,” it is easy for a population activist to share Clotario’s sense of futility. The neglect of population is baked into the analytical framework of the report, which relies on the IPCC’s familiar series of five different “shared socio-economic pathways” (SSPs) to imagine different global development approaches for the coming decades. These are the only places where population is mentioned in a consequential way, and on the positive side they do show straightforwardly that pathways with less population growth will lead to less climate change and a better ability to feed people. But the SSPs themselves tend to reject or combine all good things en masse (fewer people and greater wealth and less food waste and less inequality and less corrupt government—or the exact opposite). So readers have no sense of how important the different components are, including the population component.
The SSPs incorporate the demographic framework developed by Wolfgang Lutz and colleagues at the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography in Vienna. KC and Lutz (2017) assume that conventional development and improved female education will rapidly end population growth everywhere in the world. This framework emphasises the great importance of education, but it does not consider the importance of family planning and contraceptive availability. Empirical studies show that both these aspects can greatly help to reduce fertility and population growth. The two main drivers of climate change and increased agricultural demand are population growth and increased per capita wealth. But later sections of the “Summary for Policymakers,” which detail numerous specific recommendations for action, contain no suggestions that directly address population growth, or that question the ecological wisdom of pursuing endless economic growth.
To be fair, the “Summary for Policymakers” does make clear that increased agricultural demands are a big part of the problem, and even occasionally notes that population growth adds to the problem of increased demand. Here is an example, from section A6: The level of risk posed by climate change depends both on the level of warming and on how population, consumption, production, technological development, and land management patterns evolve. Pathways with higher demand for food, feed, and water, more resource-intensive consumption and production, and more limited technological improvements in agriculture yields result in higher risks from water scarcity in drylands, land degradation, and food insecurity. Yet increasing demand is never dealt with in a fundamental way. Nowhere does the report say, straightforwardly, that our agricultural demands must be limited, if we hope to avoid human hunger and mass species extinction in the future.
Instead, the authors of the report are much more comfortable spouting techno-managerial optimism, as here, in section B 5: Sustainable land management, including sustainable forest management, can prevent and reduce land degradation, maintain land productivity, and sometimes reverse the adverse impacts of climate change on land degradation (very high confidence). It can also contribute to mitigation and adaptation (high confidence). Reducing and reversing land degradation, at scales from individual farms to entire watersheds, can provide cost effective, immediate, and long-term benefits to communities and support several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with co-benefits for adaptation (very high confidence) and mitigation (high confidence). This quotation epitomizes the overall approach of the IPCC’s experts, with their fatuous “very high confidence” in the power of good management to solve all humanity’s problems while we avoid addressing the fundamental drivers of those problems. Perhaps when the Ross Ice Shelf collapses, or Shanghai is submerged under water, the experts may recalibrate their optimism a few ticks downward. But don’t count on it.
Both the IPCC’s “Summary for Policymakers” and the Times article finish with the obligatory reminder that time is running out. As the Times puts it, Overall, the report said that the longer policymakers wait, the harder it will be to prevent a global crisis. To which gbc1 from Canada retorts, The fallacy here lies in the words “the longer policymakers wait.” These words suggest there is a person or group of persons who could make a new set of rules that would fix this problem. The truth is that increased greenhouse gas emissions and current agricultural practices are a direct result of a relentlessly increasing world population in relentless pursuit of a higher standard of living. This human behavior is a force of nature, it will not be stopped by “policy makers,” it will continue to its conclusion, which may well be widespread death and destruction continuing until a sustainable equilibrium is reached.
I am uncomfortable with the resignation here. But if policy makers won’t face the main drivers of our global environmental problems, then such resignation is justified. As the charmingly nicknamed Yer Mom, from everywhere, wrote, There is a concept in ecology of carrying capacity. The Earth’s carrying capacity is already exceeded in multiple regions. Climate change exacerbates the situation, but the fundamental problem is population growth. She was seconded by many others, including Cliff from Jefferson County, who asked, To repeat what occurs to others, where is the discussion of population control?
Many commentators on this article, looking at the scale of the problem and the scale of the evasion, expressed an exasperated fatalism. But the situation would not look so bad if we didn’t avoid the main drivers of the problems, but instead tackled them head-on. Humanity can end global population growth within the next three to four decades by educating the public about the direct effects of population increase, keeping all children in school for at least 12 years, providing contraception to everyone who wants it, and humanely incentivizing smaller families, which all have many personal and social benefits (Bongaarts 2016). Creating economies that aren’t based on endless growth will be harder, but we don’t have to do it all at once, and we need to do it in order to create ecologically sustainable societies (Daly 2014). The key, I think, is to face our situation honestly. The New York Times did not run the headline “Overpopulation Threatens the World’s Food Supply, United Nations Warns” last Thursday. The IPCC did not issue that warning. But they could have. It would have been the truth.
Bearak J, Popinchalk A, Alkema L, Sedgh G. 2018. “Global, regional, and subregional trends in unintended pregnancy and its outcomes from 1990 to 2014: estimates from a Bayesian hierarchical model.” Lancet Global Health 6: 380–389.
Bongaarts J. 2016. “Slow down population growth.” Nature 530: 409–412.
Crist E, Mora C, Engelman R. 2017. “The interaction of human population, food production, and biodiversity protection.” Science 356: 260–264.
Daly H. 2014. From Uneconomic Growth to a Steady State Economy. Edward Elgar, Cheltenham, United Kingdom.
Hall C, Dawson, T, Macdiarmid J, Matthews R, Smith P. 2017. “The impact of population growth and climate change on food security in Africa: looking ahead to 2050.” International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability 15: 124–135.
International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 2014. Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.
Samir KC, Lutz W. 2017. “The human core of the shared socioeconomic pathways: Population scenarios by age, sex and level of education for all countries to 2100.” Global Environmental Change 42: 181–192.
United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (UN). 2019. World Population Prospects 2019: Highlights. ST/ESA/SER.A/423.
Do you want to learn more about the solutions for overpopulation and actions towards sustainability? What actions we need to take on individual, community, national and global level? Check out the Overpopulation Project’s list of solutions!