“Images of overpopulation tend to reinforce racist stereotypes of the world’s poorest people, demonizing those who are the least responsible for global warming” and obscuring important questions about how well family planning and other policies actually combat climate change, argued Hampshire College professor Betsy Hartmann in a lively roundtable discussion on population and climate change hosted by The Bulletin Online
.Because one-third of all pregnancies are unwanted, and because some 200 million women desire family planning services but lack access to them, contributor Frederick A.B. Meyerson, an ecologist at the University of Rhode Island, argued that policies to reduce unwanted pregnancy must be a chief global priority. He called for the international community to “restore the goal of universal access to family planning as a top-tier priority, to protect both the climate and human wellbeing.”
Joseph Chamie, research director for the Center for Migration Studies, called this a “delay tactic” that would do little to slow climate change, and said the international community should instead focus on decreasing consumption in the developed world, noting that the average American creates nearly 20 times as much carbon dioxide as the average Indian. He added that the 200 million women Meyerson mentioned live primarily in regions of Africa and Asia where per capita emissions are so low that changes in fertility will have negligible impact on climate. Increasing access to voluntary family planning services could have greater effects in India or China, he said, where economic development has resulted in continually increasing per capita emissions levels.
John Guillebaud, emeritus professor at University College London, and Martin Desvaux, trustee of the Optimum Population Trust, resisted Chamie’s assertion, writing, “It’s not difficult to understand that one less person born into poverty is one less person who needs to be helped out of poverty—a development process that cannot occur without increased energy consumption and (in the medium term) more carbon-dioxide emissions per person.” They wondered whether the international community would be better off focusing on reducing absolute emissions or providing for a more equitable distribution of emissions by reducing it in more-developed areas and allowing it to increase in less-developed areas as a result of improved standards of living.
Pointing out that some credit smaller landholdings (the result of a growing population) with higher investment in soil conservation and better-managed tree densities in Rwanda, Hartmann highlighted the complexity in forecasting the consequences of population growth. Seemingly counterintuitive findings like this one pepper the debate, encouraging us to carefully analyze the mathematical models and projections we rely on.