Research & Commentary: Climate Change Is Not a Valid Argument for Population Control

Published May 11, 2017

The idea that coercive measures should be taken to bring down global population to help prevent climate change is a mainstream one in the world of climate alarmism.

Recent Sightings

Over the past few years, outlets such as NPR, The Atlantic Monthly, The Huffington Post, and The Guardian have written articles with headlines like “Should We Be Having Kids in the Age of Climate Change?,” “The Climate Change Solution No One Will Talk About,” “Voluntary Birth Control Is a Climate Change Solution Nobody Wants to Talk About,”  and “Though Climate Change is a Crisis, the Population Threat is Even Worse.”

The NPR story highlights a 2016 paper by philosophers and bioethicists at Georgetown University and Johns Hopkins University, titled Population Engineering and the Fight against Climate Change, which argues in favor of penalizing families for having children via a progressive tax that would increase with each child.

In his new Netflix series, Bill Nye Saves the World, the show’s eponymous host asked a group of panelists, “So, should we have policies that penalize people for having extra kids in the developed world?”

Trump and “Unsustainable Population Growth”

“People around the world are beginning to address [climate change] by reducing their carbon footprint through less consumption and better technology,” wrote the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). “But unsustainable human population growth can overwhelm those efforts, leading us to conclude that we not only need smaller footprints, but fewer feet. … Long-term population reduction to ecologically sustainable levels will solve the global warming crisis and move us to toward a healthier, more stable, post-fossil fuel, post-growth addicted society.”

After the Census Bureau reported on May 7, 2017, the U.S. population surpassed 325 million people for the first time, CBD, most well-known, if at all, for its Endangered Species Condoms, put out a press release quoting its “population organizer,” who said, “Hitting this population record highlights the danger of the Trump administration’s attacks on reproductive healthcare and environmental protections. We’re crowding out wildlife and destroying wild places at alarming rates, and Trump’s reckless actions will worsen the effects of our unsustainable population growth, overconsumption and urban sprawl.”

A Long History of False Predictions of Doom

Doomsday predictions about overpopulation stretch back to Thomas Malthus’ 1798 book, An Essay on the Principle of Population. Because food production only grows arithmetically while population grows geometrically, Malthus reasoned, the planet’s burgeoning population growth would eventually outstrip food supplies, leading to famine and mass starvation. “The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race,” he wrote.

Twentieth Century neo-Malthusianism would be taken up by environmentalists after World War II, gaining steam after the publication of Fairfield Osborn’s Our Plundered Planet and William Vogt’s The Road to Survival in 1948. “It is obvious that fifty years hence the world cannot support three billion people,” Vogt wrote. “Unless population increases can be stopped, we might as well give up the struggle.”

Vogt was wrong: Seventy years after this forecast, Earth is supporting not merely 3 billion but 7.5 billion people.

Twenty years after Osborn and Vogt, Paul Ehrlich – in his 1968 bestseller, The Population Bomb – predicted mass starvation in the 1970s and 1980s due to overpopulation. “The battle to feed all of humanity is over,” he wrote. “In the 1970’s the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash program embarked upon.” These famines and mass human die-offs never materialized.

Doubling down on this, Ehrlich argued in a speech before the British Institute for Biology in 1971 that “by the year 2000, the United Kingdom will be simply a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70 million hungry people … If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.”

A Cleaner and Safer World

In 2000, the United Kingdom was home to 58 million people with a per-capita gross domestic product of $26,400. At $1.555 trillion in gross domestic product, it was the world’s fourth-largest economy. The United Kingdom is the opposite of the poor and starving world envisioned by Ehrlich in 1971.

The number of people living in “extreme poverty” ($1.90 or less per day) fell below 10 percent for the first time in human history in 2015, according to the World Bank. As David Harsanyi explained in The Federalist, “not only are fewer people living in extreme poverty, but fewer are hungry than ever; fewer die in conflicts over resources, and deaths due to extreme weather have been dramatically declining for a century. … Over the past 40 years, our water and air has become cleaner, despite a huge spike in population growth. Some of the Earth’s richest people live in some of its densest cities.”

Indeed, the Earth is cleaner and safer today than at any point in the lifetime of anyone now living. Technology and human ingenuity have dramatically reduced the human impact on the environment. For example, by increasing crop yields, we are growing more food while devoting less land to agriculture. Human innovational and technological advancements have improved both the lot of humanity and the environment.

Population Growth Is Slowing

Population growth is also slowing down dramatically after reaching its peak in 1970.

According to the United Nations, global fertility will slow from 2.5 children per woman in 2015 to 2.0 children in 2050. Eighty-three countries, accounting for 46 percent of the globe’s population, already had below-replacement fertility levels between 2010 and 2015, including Brazil, China, Germany, Japan, Russia, and the United States.

Forty-eight countries are also projected to see their populations decline through 2050. Of these, 11 are expected to see their populations decline by more than 15 percent, including Japan and most of the countries of Eastern Europe. The United Nations projects global population to level off somewhere between 9.5 billion and 13.3 billion around the year 2100 before beginning to drop.

The Global Warming Threat Is Small

As this short history of failed predictions reveals, prominent environmentalists have been using fears of famine and ecological disaster to promote a population-control agenda for many years. Recent claims that man-made global warming might be yet another disaster to be laid at the feet of population growth are no more credible.

The Armageddon scenarios put forward by climate change alarmists are greatly exaggerated. Even if global population growth had not slowed, the human impact on climate has simply been too small to reliably measure against background variation. Further, the net impact of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is expected to be a positive for at least the next century. The benefits of modest warming – on crops, heating expenses, human health, and more – exceed the costs by a wide margin.

Climate forecasts going out more than a century are too unreliable to be credible. While presented as though they are scientific predictions, they are, in fact, little more than educated guesses put forward by a small number of scientists – and many of them have financial conflicts of interest and political agendas.

Inordinate fear of climate change has, unfortunately, already led to the adoption of a plethora of taxes, regulations, and subsidies aimed at reducing carbon emissions. It doesn’t need to lead to population control as well.