Climate change is in the news once again. And well it should be. The Huffington Post has reported that May, 2014 was the hottest May in recorded history, almost a degree and a half warmer than any previous reading for that month.
The good news, and there is a little, is that the Obama Administration has begun to take action. The President himself gave a speech over a year ago in which he laid out his own action plan. This was in part because efforts to get Congress to move in any positive way to make changes that would benefit the earth have come to naught. Many members of Congress, Republicans chief among them, deny either that the globe is warming at all, or that, if it is, the reasons for its warming have anything to do with human activity. Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA), for example, is on record as saying that “man-made global warming is a hoax.” Broun is also the same individual who said: ‘All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell.” And Rep. Broun, it should be noted, currently serves on the House Science Committee!
Small wonder, then, that the Administration has taken matters into its own hands in making attempts to mitigate climate change. Just this week, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and others from the White House are meeting with Tom Steyer and Hank Paulson, co-authors of a new report entitled “Risky Business,” which addresses the economic costs of climate change. Steyer is a billionaire activist and Paulson was Secretary of the Treasury under Pres. George W. Bush. Steyer has also pledged to spend 100 million dollars of his own money supporting politicians who take on issues related to the warming of the globe through his political action group NextGen Climate Action. Additionally, Secretary Lew, along with Atmospheric Administration head Kathryn Sullivan and FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate are holding talks with insurance company representatives regarding the anticipated impact and cost of atmospheric warming. The Environmental Protection Agency has also issued new guidelines related to the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere permitted from power plants, and the Supreme Court has recently determined most of these rules to be constitutional.
But while this may be the good news, unfortunately, plenty of bad news continues on unabated. I have recently been reading an interesting book called “Countdown” by Alan Weisman (also author of “The World Without Us,” which imagines the world, and its resurgence, after human beings become extinct). Weisman has a lot to say about where we are and where we are headed in regard to the effects of out-of-control population growth on climate change. What follows references just a small part of that report.
One essential question to investigate is: what is the optimum human population of the earth? This sounds simple enough, and to an extent it is, but it requires examining several other considerations before coming up with an actual number. The first of these prior questions has to do with the kind of lifestyle we are talking about for these earth inhabitants. And how, in fact, do we even measure something like lifestyle? One way that scientists have devised is by determining how many “terawatts” we use. A terawatt is a measure of how much energy is consumed by human beings (one terawatt equals one trillion watts). In 1993, a total of 13 terawatts of energy (13 trillion watts) were used by the earth’s 5 and a half billion people. In order to put this further into perspective, on average 7 and a half kilowatts of energy per person were used that same year by individuals in industrialized countries, and 1 kilowatt was used by each person in developing countries (all figures cited reflect standard forms of energy production, such as oil, natural gas, etc.). If these numbers are extrapolated and we assume continued current population growth, sometime this century (projected at the moment to be around 2082) there will be 14 billion people on the earth. Just for fun, go to www.census.gov. and take a look at something called the World Population Clock. You will note that right now we are at 7,174,896,000 people, and counting. It’s amazing, not to say daunting and even frightening, to see the numbers fly by on this clock, as you sit and watch.
But let us take a smaller number, say 10 billion people, and let us posit as an average 3 kilowatts per capita of energy usage. This still puts us at 30 terawatts (again, 30 trillion watts). At this level, and possibly even before, world systems begin to teeter. Indeed, some scientists predict a complete breakdown of the ecosystem. When will we reach that 10 billion number? No one knows precisely, as there are so many variables to calculate, but estimates put us somewhere between 9 and 9.7 billion people on the planet by the year 2050. That’s just 36 years from now. How old will you, or your children, be in 36 years? This is a question each of us should be asking ourselves, and we ought to be wondering what kind of world we will be living in at that date. And remember, these figures are relatively conservative, in that they posit a decrease of energy usage by some 4 and a half kilowatts per person for those in industrialized countries. This number is, however, actually achievable, if we continue, as we have, to work on ecologically friendly alternatives to energy production.
But we still have not answered our initial question, namely, what is the optimum world population? Again, we must make certain assumptions, the most important of which relates to the kind of lifestyle we wish to live. The 3 kilowatt per person figure mentioned above is not a bad one for such purposes, in that it is probably achievable, and it evens out energy usage between the industrialized world and the developing world. And surely we must assume that billions of people in the developing world (e.g. China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, just to name a few) are going to want, even to demand, more and more of what people in industrialized countries have for decades been enjoying.
For us to use 3 kilowatts of energy per person in order not to irreparably damage the ecological systems of the planet, that is, for us to expect a sustainable future for ourselves and our children, the optimum world population has to be about 2 billion people. This was approximately the number of people on earth in the year 1930.
In that year, the world used 2 terawatts of energy. But, we should bear in mind, it was also a world without all of the gadgets modern people have come to expect as part and parcel of a modern lifestyle: televisions, computers, cars and air travel for the masses, smart phones, tablets, central heating, air conditioning, and on and on. All of which are enormous energy consumers. Calculating all this together, we reach an even smaller sustainable number of individuals on the earth. In other words, if we wish to continue using our cars and our computers and all of the rest listed above, the number of kilowatts needed gets raised to 4 and a half per person. And at 4 and a half kilowatts per person, the sustainable population of the earth drops to 1 and a half billion people!
How we are to bring the earth back to such numbers, particularly with the Rep. Paul Brouns of the world in charge, is another question. But clearly something has to be done. China started that process decades ago, and has made great progress with its one child per family policy, but is the rest of the world willing to put up with this kind of social engineering? And religions abound which label it as sinful to “artificially limit” the size of one’s family.
Yet another question we have not explored is, if we presume that we will not reach this sustainable world population of 1 and a half billion people, or at least not any time soon, and if we continue on more or less as we are, what will human dominance of the planet look like in terms of space for other species? And here’s a self-centered question, if ever there was one, although it’s equally germane to human survival: if we have to say that some species on the planet “must go,” which ones go, and which ones do we allow to live, precisely because they are beneficial to human life? These are not just hypothetical questions at this point in history. They are real queries that will need to be answered, and answered before too long.
It is also true that the figures given by Alan Weisman are not necessarily the only numbers that scientists can spin. Even so, it does not take an advanced degree in demography to be able to see that more people means more demands on a limited number of resources. At some point, whether it’s in 2050 or 2082, or a bit sooner, or a bit later, some kind of tipping point will be reached. Maybe you will not be living at that time. I think I can say pretty surely that I will not be. But what of your children, and their children, and what of the other creatures on the planet, who have done nothing to contribute to the current mess we are in?
What can be said probably without much doubt is that, absent an almost inconceivably disastrous population reduction due to war or plague, a day of reckoning will finally come. And would it not be better to take steps now, while we still can, to stave off what none of us wants to see our offspring have to deal with?