By Paul M. Lewis

There are so many things happening in the political world these days that it’s hard to decide which to highlight. That being so, why not go for the biggest, the most menacing, the one that has the greatest overarching effect on all of us—namely, climate change, the warming of the very globe we all call home?

Yet the topic of climate change, in and of itself, is too vast and complex for any one article. It needs to be broken down into component parts. There are innumerable ways of approaching the myriad of issues related to it. But one that is surely among the most important, and yet which gets far less attention than it should, is that of overpopulation. In 1944, the year I was born, the world had fewer than 2.2 billion people in it. Today there are nearly 7.5 billion, an increase of more than 5 billion in the space of 73 years. Predictably, we will also see that number rise to 8 billion by 2024, and to 9 billion in 2042. What are we to do with all these people? How to feed them? Where to house them? Where to find enough arable land to grow crops for them? How will they make a living for themselves and their families? And what will be the effect of vastly increasing numbers of humans on the environment?

As daunting as these figures and these questions may be, hiding from them is not an option. We must look at them head on and not flinch. Once recognized, we then have to decide what to do about it, how to change what we otherwise know is coming. And, although it may be tempting to go to what seems like the simplest and most direct solution, that is, for people to have fewer children, as true as this may be, that option has not proven to be a particularly feasible one, at least as far as governmental regulations are concerned.

The one exception is China, with its now defunct one child policy. The population increase there has leveled off markedly in the last several decades, since the inception of the policy. For example, there were 33 births per thousand women in 1970, but only 15 births per thousand in 1998. This is an enormous difference, but the decrease comes with its own set of problems. Boys, always more desired in traditional Chinese society, were wanted and kept, while girls were often aborted, or sometimes even abandoned at birth. As a result, there are unnaturally more males in the population today than there are females, a major demographic and societal problem. And the rapidly aging population of China now has far fewer younger citizens to help support their elders in retirement. Additionally, it’s obvious that no western-style democracy would ever be willing, or able, to put into place the kinds of prohibitive restrictions the Chinese government did.

The best control on population growth is, and always has been, education—and education for girls, in particular. Note, for example, that the number of births per woman in Japan is 1.3; that same number for Guinea-Bissau is 5.7 births per woman. According to the Earth Policy Institute, “One of the most effective ways to lower population growth and reduce poverty is to provide adequate education for both girls and boys. Countries in which more children are enrolled in school—even at the primary level—tend to have strikingly lower fertility rates.” Let’s hear it, then, for more education.

But we know that there exist a number of obstacles to the education of children. Many countries are simply too poor to offer adequate teaching facilities for a large majority of their children, and there are others where social, religious and cultural factors prevent girls in particular from receiving an education. All of which points to a substantial likelihood that world population will continue to rise, at least for the foreseeable future. It’s therefore incumbent on us now to do what actually is in our power to help counteract the most deleterious effects of overpopulation.

The Trump Administration has already demonstrated that it does not believe in global climate change, or at least that the warming of the globe has anything to do with human activity. This perhaps should not be all that surprising. According to the Pew Research Foundation, almost three-quarters of Americans don’t trust the consensus of 97% of world scientists, who assert otherwise on climate change.

When it comes to actual numbers, however, and to hard data related to worldwide temperature variances, this is not really a question of belief. To cite one recent example, of the thousands that could be given, this past February was the warmest February on record. If the world really is warming, regardless of whom or what we believe may be responsible, it’s imperative to try to do something to prepare and protect ourselves and our environment from its worst effects. Decreasing the amount of fossil fuels used is what is most frequently suggested. And that must be done. But here, again, we run into corporate, and now governmental, doubters. If you don’t believe in human-induced global warming, why should you do anything about it?

Where, then, does that leave us? Fortunately, we do not have to rely solely on government at the federal level to effect changes. These days, a majority of the work is being done at the state and local level. And while I’m of the opinion that we need more than that, sometimes in the moment we have to take what we can get. Additionally, it’s encouraging that many businesses, and the military, have weighted in on the need for action to address global warming.

One plan that has gotten recent press (see “Housing is key factor in climate goals” in the Los Angeles Times, March 6, 2017) puts the emphasis on greater collectivity within cities—in other words, population density—as a way of drastically reducing commuting and the consequent use of gasoline. The idea, obvious enough, though not necessarily easy to accomplish, is to create urban spaces where people can both live and work in their own neighborhood. This eliminates the need for long commutes by car, and it allows people to get to jobs and places to eat and shop and play that are either within walking or biking distance, or that can be readily reached via fast, clean, affordable and reliable public transportation.

What’s being suggested is not so different from the kind of city I grew up in the 1940’s and 50’s. My family did not have a car, and that fact never felt to me like a burden. My father walked to work every morning; my mother took the bus to the department store where she worked; and my brother and sister and I all either walked or took the bus to school. The local grocery—a literal corner store—was a block away, and we lived across the street from our parish church. Sometimes, it may be that what was good was mistakenly discarded in the pursuit of what we like to think of as progress.

This new, or not so new, concept of closely packed housing near places of work and shopping and worship may not be welcomed by all. We have grown accustomed to driving in our private cars, sometimes long distances, to work and elsewhere. The concept of the soccer mom has become so acceptable as to even go unnoticed. Meanwhile, she drives her children hither and yon to team practice, to sporting events, and even to parent-arranged “play dates.” What ever happened to kids playing with others in the neighborhood? Some of the most affordable and desirable housing has been put up in sprawling suburbs with few amenities within easy reach. It is not uncommon in places like Los Angeles for an individual to drive an hour, even an hour and a half, each way to and from work.

As much as we may wish for a house in the suburbs with three bedrooms and two baths, it may be that we have to face the fact that it is, in the long run, unsustainable. And if it is difficult to maintain now, with the population we currently have, what will happen in 2042, when there are 9 billion people on the planet? The idea of attempting to reduce some of the excesses of overpopulation through the encouragement of urban population density is of course not a panacea. Indeed, like most things, it falls far short of a complete solution, and it brings with it its own pluses and minuses. It is, though, one of the many factors about which humans will have to make choices in the coming years, if we are to hope that our children, and their children, will be able to live on a healthy planet.

The truth is that change is coming, whether we like it or not, and whether we acknowledge it or not. Surely, it is better to look directly at what will be, and to make the adjustments needed now, in order to help diminish some of the worst effects of these eventualities. What is needed is a willing coalition of ordinary citizens, of city and county government officials, of the private sector, of state leadership, and eventually (or so we can hope) support and encouragement at the federal—and the international—level, to make the kinds of changes that are needed.

This is a tall order, especially in today’s hyper-partisan atmosphere. But in the end, the consequences of doing nothing may be too terrible not to contemplate.








By Paul M. Lewis

Pope Francis’ encyclical, “Laudato Si” (meaning “Praise be”), is a stirring reminder of the harm that human beings are doing to the environment in which we live and a call to action for us to change. In doing so, he has incurred the ire of climate change disbelievers, who claim that there is no credible evidence at all that the globe is warming, or that, if it is warming, it’s because of normal climate cycles as seen in the past, and that humans have nothing whatsoever to do with these changes. Pope Francis addresses these criticisms upfront when he says: “Numerous scientific studies indicate that the major part of global warming in recent decades is due to the high concentration of greenhouse gas…emitted above all because of human activity.”

It should be noted that the pope is speaking as a religious leader with a specific point of view, using the language of scripture and of Catholic theology, and not necessarily as a liberal politician or climate change activist. That said, it is true enough that there are times when the ideas, and even the terminology, of these various groupings may overlap and agree with one another. And this can only be for the good. An example of such a convergence is when Pope Francis talks about the grave implications of climate change. “Each year,” he points out, “sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever,” or again when he says that access to safe drinkable water is “ a basic human right.” These are areas of concurrence wherein politicians (most, at any rate), scientists, and climate activists can readily agree with the leader of the Catholic Church. Even so, it’s worth noting the essential anthropocentric nature of the pope’s statements. Animals are presented as creatures that humans will or will not see, not as creatures with their own right to live and prosper apart from human concerns, and water is a thing for human consumption. This may sound like mere quibbling within the larger context of the aims of such an important encyclical and the ultimate good it may bring about, but it does shed some light on a particular point of view. Humans may be the source of the problem, and of the solution, but they are nonetheless still very much at the center of things.

The major environmental argument used by the pontiff, the encasement in which it is packaged, is essentially a moral one. This fits in quite well with the general themes of his papacy, namely, care for the poor and dispossessed and respect for life. He points out time and again in the encyclical that those most affected by the disastrous warming of the globe, initially so at least, are those who live on the margins of society, those who do not have the time, the money, or the resources to work on mitigating the ill effects that will come, in ways that the more affluent of the globe might be able to deflect (again, at least until things get to the point where even the rich are overwhelmed). He castigates—rightly so—the selfishness and greediness of human beings in wanting more and more, far beyond what is needed even for what might be called a normally comfortable life, and for living in bubbles of technology that ever increasingly cut us off from most of the natural world. And as such, although it may not be easy, he urges us to make changes in how we live and in the amount we consume: “Every effort to protect and improve our world entails profound changes in lifestyles, models of production and consumption, and the established structures of power which today govern societies.”

The ethos of the modern world, in general, comes in for blistering criticism. There is, the pope tells us, an ever-increasing desire on the part of human beings for instant gratification, and a growing self-obsession that always puts the individual first, not just before other people, but well in front of any other living creature. He blames this on the excesses of individualism, and on the insistence that the “I” must always come before the “we.” Happiness is too often seen as depending almost entirely on the fulfillment of one’s own needs and desires, rather than on any kind of open and sharing inclusion in the collective. I have no quarrel with any of this. I also believe that we humans have far too often overshot the boundaries of our own impulses and cravings. The world, as a result, can no longer sustain the growing demands of individuals who are inordinately and unhealthily interested in acquiring more and more, in order to feel as though they are full and complete.

But what I do hold issue with in regard to the pope’s environmental declamation is what he leaves out. Nothing is said in the encyclical, for example, suggesting a cutting back on the consumption of meat, which would immediately decrease the number of animals raised for human consumption. Not only are current practices unsustainable at present rates in terms of how to feed these animals (in general, it takes 20 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of edible beef), but it also does not address the enormous problem of the emission of methane from animal waste. Estimates at the lower end of the range suggest that livestock account for a minimum of 18% of global greenhouse gas. Some experts put that estimate far higher—at close to 50%. And don’t forget that methane has 23 times the global warming potential of CO2.

Even more importantly, the pontiff omits any mention of the overwhelmingly devastating effects that the sheer numbers of people have on global ecosystems. Nowhere in “Laudato Si” do we read that it is time for humans to have fewer children. Nor does the pope say a word about the Church’s continued emphasis on banning all forms of artificial birth control, or indeed, on its unyielding insistence that such methods are outrightly sinful. How can he in good conscience leave out such an obviously crucial component in a rational, and even a moral, effort to argue against the human-induced warming of the globe? The world currently has 7.3 billion people in it. Realistic projections regarding growth put the global population at 9.6 billion by 2050, and at somewhere between 11 and 12 billion by the end of the century. How, in anyone’s calculations, can it be said that this squares with the “basic human right” for drinkable water, or for the “thousands of plant and animal species” which our children will never see? Are uncontrolled rates of birth not their own kind of excessive human self-centeredness?

Clearly, this is an important omission, as it obviously does not align well with Catholic doctrine or belief. And yet, in spite of such an extremely unfortunate exclusion, we must pleased with what the pope has said. Very few global leaders have taken on this vital issue as head on as he has, and he is to be congratulated and thanked for doing so. We can only hope that the moral authority of his person and his position will bring about an open and honest dialog regarding what we need to do and the changes that must be made. The poor surely are at greatest immediate risk, to say nothing of the creatures of the earth who have every bit as much a right to live and prosper as do humans. But beyond that, all life—human and non-human alike, that of the rich as much as that of the poor—is potentially threatened. As the pope aptly concludes: “Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age. But we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.”

This has been said before, but perhaps never more forcefully, or with such moral authority. The pope is right. Now, not later, is the time to act.


By Paul M. Lewis

To say that California is dying of thirst may be something of an overstatement, but there is no argument that the state is becoming more and more parched. The statistics don’t lie. Average rainfall has been off significantly for the last several years, and most disastrously the Sierra snowpack is so low as to be almost nonexistent. The annual measurement at Phillips Station, for example, just off of Highway 50, would normally put snow levels at above 66 feet for this time of year. Instead, it is now completely devoid of any snow whatsoever. What this means, for anyone unfamiliar with how things work here, is that the snow that normally accumulates in the higher levels of the Sierra Nevada mountains and slowly melts as the weather warms up, giving us lowlanders the benefit of regular runoff, is simply not there. That’s bad news for residents, for agriculture, and for all living things.

Just last week, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency and mandated a 25% reduction in water usage. Given record low rain and snowfall amounts, this is neither unexpected, nor unwarranted. We all have to do our part. Homeowners must reevaluate those thirsty, lush green lawns so favored by most of us, and we’d all do well to be thinking of replacing them with native, drought-tolerant plants. Even restaurants are being told that customers should only get a glass of water with dinner if they specifically ask for it.

But is everybody doing their part equally? It seems as though that hasn’t been true at the residential level, for one. Wealthier enclaves such as Beverly Hills and Newport Beach use far more water per capita than lower socioeconomic areas. And it’s not just because of those big swimming pools in their big backyards either. Take a drive around and compare the sumptuous lawns of Beverly Hills to what you see in Compton or Santa Ana. First of all, there are far more apartment buildings in poorer areas, but even single family dwellings in less affluent parts of town tend to have browner front lawns. Who knew that it wasn’t just politics, but water too, that followed the money?

As striking as some of this is, residential/urban use accounts for only about 20% of water allocation in the state. Included in this number is approximately 6% for industrial usage (it’s also interesting, by the way, to note that half of residential usage goes for outside watering). But agriculture uses up the remaining 80%, even if not all agriculture is equal. Here are a few interesting statistics:

COMPARISON OF WATER USAGE (in gallons per pound)

  • beef—1847 vs. chicken—518
  • almonds (shelled)—2126 vs. walnuts (shelled)—1226
  • rice—287 vs. corn—161
  • brussel sprouts—258 vs. broccoli—34
  • grapes—80 vs. potatoes—38
  • green beans—74 vs. carrots—26
  • eggplant—48 vs. tomatoes—26

In other words, it’s not just whether we do away with our lawns, or take shorter showers, or wash our cars a lot less often that makes a difference. Our choices as to what we consume also have an impact. The Los Angeles Times did a very interesting spread in their April 4, 2015 edition, in which they showed a photo of a plate of food. On the plate were pictured the following: an 8 oz. steak, 6 oz. of rice, 8 oz. of lettuce (i.e. a salad), and a 4 oz. glass of wine. The total water footprint for this meal comes in at just over 116 gallons of water—102 gallons of which are accounted for simply by the steak alone. So suggestions about cutting back on how much meat we consume, beef in particular, are reasonable from many different perspectives.

California, a state where every area is in severe, extreme, or even exceptional drought, currently provides 25% of food consumed in the United States. And yet, agriculture represents less than 2% of GSP (Gross State Product). But 85% of the Sacramento Irrigation District’s acreage is devoted to the production of rice, one of the thirstiest of cultivated plants. Does that make a lot of sense, at a time when mandatory water rationing is taking place for residential users? Almonds, too, another staple of state agribusiness, bringing in almost 6 billion dollars a year, require a gallon of water per single almond produced.

When Gov. Brown was asked recently if the state ought to be telling farmers what crops to raise and which ones not to, his reply was that it was not up to government to tell people (i.e. agribusiness) what to grow. But why not? Government regulates business all the time. Just ask the Better Business Bureau what it thinks about the supposed burden of laws pertaining to everything from the health and safety of workers, to fair payment of wages (e.g. minimum wage laws), working conditions, privacy regulations, truth in advertising, and of course a whole host of environmental laws.

To be fair, it is also worth noting that farmers have had their own difficulties, and many of them are finding it harder and harder to keep their crops healthy, due to decreases in deliveries of water. The Federal Bureau of Reclamation has mandated that no water be delivered to farmers with “junior water rights.” This speaks to the way water is divvied up in this state, which is arcane at best, and it’s an understatement to say that huge political pressure has come to bear on how water is allocated. As just one example of that complexity, certain types of water rights (so-called “senior water rights”), including groundwater, riparian, and pre-1914 appropriations, are excluded from the State Water Board’s authority. In other words, agreements that were made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a time when the state had a mere fraction of its present population (1.2 million compared with 38 million—projected to be 50 million by 2050), and when we were not in drought, are still in effect.

No one is saying that the swimming pools and lawns of Beverly Hills ought to remain exempt, but neither is it fair to balance overuse of water by cutting Compton more than Newport Beach. Nor should farmers and ranchers whose families happen to have settled here in the 1890’s get a pass. Times have changed, and we have to change with them. California definitely needs to do something about its water problems. No argument. But that’s true for all Californians, not just residential users and some farmers. Everyone would do well to remember that no natural resource, water included, is unlimited. These last few years it’s been California’s turn, but Australia went through the same thing not so long ago, and larger and larger portions of the Sahel—the geographic region located between the Sahara and the plains and forests of north central Africa—are experiencing ever-increasing desertification. Weather patterns are shifting along with the warming of the globe and alarming increases in world population. One way or another, this will come to have an impact on everyone.

The water shortages in California are undoubtedly due to some combination of natural variability, changes in climate caused by human activity, our own choices as to what to grow and eat, and the enormous increases in demand that have come about over the decades. This is emblematic of a larger global problem, and the same complexities seen in California will eventually come to influence worldwide water supplies. It’s only a matter of time. What we do to address the consequences of such changes, and how people here in California and elsewhere decide to react, represent a set of choices that only we, humans, can make. Whether we make those choices wisely, or foolishly, is in the end up to us to decide.


By Paul M. Lewis

If you’re like me, you oscillate back and forth between depression and a guarded, though still hopeful, optimism when it comes to global climate change.

A lot seems to depend on what I’ve been reading of late. Just last week, for example, there was an article in the Los Angeles Times by Ralph Vartabedian and Evan Halper entitled “High-tech Climate Fixes Get a Boost,” which fed my more paranoid side. The underlying premise was that, while we need to continue doing whatever is possible to cut back on the pollutants that cause the warming of the planet, we also simultaneously have to research high-tech solutions, in the event that all else fails. It’s worth noting this recommendation comes from no less a distinguished an organization than the National Research Council, the government’s main scientific advisory body, made up of some of the brightest and most insightful minds in the country.

The report talks about things that have the tinge of science fiction to them: giant machines that vacuum greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, aerosol sprays spewed into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight back into space, and fertilizers spread about and mixed into the oceans in order to produce plants that eat carbon. To me, not only do these sound like desperate measures, but I am enough of a skeptic regarding the limitations of human intelligence to fear a whole host of unintended consequences that may come with such solutions, things we are perhaps currently not even capable of imagining. If there’s one thing about global systems I feel I do get, it’s that their complexity can verge on the infinite. Even our most sophisticated computers cannot begin to calculate the innumerable, unknowable, potentially damaging outcomes of such massive human intervention.

That said, and as much as I am reluctant to admit it, I also have to concede this kind of planning may make some sense. What these perfectly sensible scientists are not saying is, let’s do this in place of efforts to curtail man-made emissions into the atmosphere. What they are sayings is, let’s have a backup plan at the ready in case. After all, our lack of progress so far in doing what we need to makes it increasingly likely that we may have to deploy such ultimate measures in a last-ditch effort to control the earth’s spiraling temperatures.

On the other, more positive, side of things, a few days after having read the above mentioned article, I received my copy of Solutions, a magazine published by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). I’ve been a member of EDF for many years, and believe it to be one of the premier organizations in the world related to issues of global warming. In other words, I’ve come to trust them. So, I was frankly a little surprised to see that the lead article in this issue was called “A Plan for Climate Stability.” Really? If EDF thinks maybe there’s hope yet, who am I to disagree? In the article, they discuss five recent trends that point to an ambitious plan to cut global emissions by as early as 2020: (1) the joint announcement this past November on the part of China and the United States to limit global warming pollutants; (2) the fact that emissions in the industrialized world have been trending downward in the last decade or so; (3) a clean energy future has actually begun, as seen in the enormous increase in production of solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles etc.; (4) there is action that can be taken against methane (84 times more dangerous than carbon dioxide), as noted in a recent report showing how oil and gas companies can cut methane emissions by 40% with technologies that already exist and which cost mere pennies; and (5) younger voters overwhelmingly support climate action.

These are the good things that are already happening. And as noted in its title, the article goes on to speak of a plan for the future. The first point mentioned in that plan is the need to reduce carbon emissions. Fine, no argument there. Second, limit short-lived pollutants. For the United States, this means cutting back on carbon emitting plants and making sure that billions of dollars will be invested in clean energy systems. China is required by 2020 to cap “half of its emissions at 2015 levels, improve energy efficiency by 25%, and shift its energy mix to one-third renewable energy.” The third point has to do with stopping deforestation. One way to do this is to “reward forest protection in a global carbon marketplace.” Brazil, for example, has reduced its Amazon deforestation rate by an astounding 70% in the past decade. And finally, number four has to do with breaking the political stalemate in the global warming debate, both nationally and internationally.

Unfortunately, this is where my skepticism kicks back in. Clearly, this fourth point is far more easily said than done, given the intransigence of the Republican-controlled congress, as well as the ever increasing desire of people in developing countries to enjoy the good life that those in developed countries have benefited from for so long. And if this weren’t enough, let me add another thing, a point that the report, to my astonishment, says nothing at all about. What I’m referring to is the absolute need to limit out-of-control population growth. How, I wondered, could EDF not have mentioned a thing that so obviously affects the emission of both short-lived and longer-lived pollutants into the air, to say noting of the continued deforestation of the planet? It’s obvious that the more people there are to feed, clothe, house, and to warm in winter and cool in summer, the more stresses there will be placed on all of the earth’s ecosystems.

So, here I am again, back to my old oscillation. Sometimes, when I’m feeling most pessimistic, I think that whatever schemes we come up with to halt the destruction of our global systems are mere palliatives, gossamer, will-o’-the-wisp fantasies that at best delay what we just don’t want to face, or at worst outright hide what is all too inevitable. And yet, the optimist in me won’t give up. As my partner continually tells me (and I can’t argue against him), big business is selfish and greedy enough NOT to want the world to implode. A dead world is, after all, really bad for business.

Is there a way each of us can help? That’s an interesting question. EDF has its recommendations on that, too, with a handy five point plan: (1) make your home as energy efficient as possible; (2) reduce, reuse, recycle; (3) buy a gas efficient vehicle, or walk, bike, or ride public transportation; (4) wash your dishes and your clothes in cold or warm water (not hot); and (5) sign up for EDF action alerts to stay engaged politically at every level, federal, state, and local (www.edf.org/climateupdates). And who can argue with this? All good, there is no doubt.

Of course, the big question remains: Are such efforts good enough? I admit I don’t have the answer to that question, and I suspect no one does at this point. Unfortunately we may not know until we either see the positive effects of our actions, or until it’s too late.

One thing we humans have always had in spades is hope. Or is it more a remarkable ability to turn a blind eye to the worst of the worst? For now, I’m sticking with the Environmental Defense Fund in its optimism. But just in case, I think those scientists had better keep working on that giant vacuum and those aerosol sprays in the sky. Who knows? Maybe, in the end, such measures will be our only hope for survival. And if so, as they say, we’d better be prepared.


By Paul

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?


By Paul

Some part of me almost feels as though I ought to apologize to readers for writing yet again on the subject of climate change.  After all, how many times have I, or my blog-partner, Kevin, written on this topic?  Ad nauseam, no doubt.  But still, given the stakes at hand, I feel as though I cannot remain silent.

What brings the topic to the fore this time is the latest U. N. report, issued just a few days ago by a group with the bureaucratic, if official sounding, name of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  This is an organization made up of hundreds of the world’s top climate scientists, and so what they have to say is not mere hearsay.  It’s not the just opinion of the guy in the chair next to you at the barbershop, or of your strange uncle, Charlie, who fancies himself an expert because he has an interest in things weather related.  These are recognized experts from many countries, who have impeccable academic and real-world credentials, and who have been studying global weather patterns for decades.  They have no overt political agenda, but they do know what they are talking about.  And the news they have to share is not good.

Not that anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock for the past couple of decades should expect it to be otherwise.  But scientists are people who deal in numbers, and the latest figures are sobering indeed.  These experts have proposed something called a “carbon budget,” which it behooves all of us to pay attention to.  What it refers to is an upper limit on the amount of greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide specifically, in the earth’s atmosphere.  That upper limit is one trillion metric tons, if planetary warming is to be limited to no more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius).  Once that trillion ton number is exceeded, then the most dangerous effects known to be associated with global warming begin to occur.  One such probable consequence would be the dramatic rising of sea levels which, if we continue burning fossil fuels the way we have been, will increase by at least 3 feet, and possibly by as much as 5 feet, by the end of this century.

Scientists, by and large, are uncomfortable making exact predictions.  That is because there are so many variables in any natural system, making it difficult to say specifically that such and such will definitely happen by this date or that.  Instead, they tend to give ranges of possibilities.  But even given this tendency toward caution and circumspection, the range they now give related to planetary warming is beginning to look astounding.  If carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere double to the 1 trillion ton level, which they are predicted to do by 2040 – and let us remember that another 3 trillion tons of carbon are still left in the ground, as yet unused – the new range of probable planetary warming will be between 2.7 and 8.1 degrees.  These numbers are extremely troubling, especially if we eventually reach the upper limits of the probable range.  Can any of us really imagine what will happen to us, to this planet, and to life on it, if overall temperatures were to increase by as much as 6 or 7 degrees Fahrenheit?  And here we are not talking just about rising sea levels.  We’re also looking at the loss of most, if not all, of the ice in the arctic regions, at extreme desertification in some areas, and hitherto unknown intensity of storms and levels of flooding in others.  And what will all this do to global food production?  How will we feed ourselves?  Where will we get clean drinking water from?  Where will millions of people go who currently live near these rising oceans?  And who will be fighting whom, given out-of-control population growth and dramatically shrinking resources?  These are not the wild predictions of a science fiction writer whose imagination has run amok.  They are, instead, what our future, and that of our children and our grandchildren, could very well look like, if something is not done now to prevent it.

And anyone who still holds to the old bromide that all this dramatic warming of the planet has nothing to do with human activity is sadly kidding himself.  The IPCC has actually come out and said in its report that “it is EXTREMELY LIKELY (the capitals are mine) that human influence has been the dominant cause of observed warming since the mid-twentieth century.”  And remember what we said earlier about how conservative scientists tend to be when it comes to making predictions and sweeping generalizations.  So, for this prestigious group to use an expression like “extremely likely” is as if the rest of us were to say that there can absolutely no longer be any doubt in anyone’s mind.  Indeed, they have put numbers to this likelihood: the report finds a 95 to 100 percent chance that global warming is human caused.

And yet, what are we doing about it?  Amazingly, some even still continue to deny the reality of what is happening.  The conservative Heartland Institute, for example, came out just last week with a statement to the effect that additional global warming would likely be limited to a few tenths of a degree, and that this would not “constitute a crisis.”  The good news, on the other hand, is that the numbers of Americans who say they “believe in global warming” are on the rise.  According to a poll taken last December, 62 percent said they thought the Earth is getting warmer, up from 55 percent a year earlier.  Of course, opinions are still politically driven.  The breakdown of the number of believers in global warming is as follows:  78 percent Democrats, 55 percent Independents, but only 47 percent of Republicans.  Still, another heartening bit of news is that 3 out of 4 Americans now say that they “trust climate scientists as a source of information about global warming.”  Why it has taken this long for us to begin to believe in science is perhaps a topic for another essay.

California, I am happy to say, is taking the lead nationwide in listening to people and in taking the threat seriously.  The most populous state in the Union has set a goal to reduce its greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2020 and to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.  Even so, it is perhaps a sad indication of how slowly we are moving that even the leader in the country in terms of greenhouse gas remission is giving itself 37 years into the future to bring numbers back to more sustainable levels.

There is no doubt that there are things we can all do to help.  Each of us can do his or her part when it comes to recycling, overall conservation of energy, gas and electricity in particular, smarter usage of water, patronage of mass transportation, locally grown foods etc.  And these are all good.  The California Climate Change website (www.climatechange.ca.gov/)‎ has other ideas when it comes not only to conservation, but to adaptation as well.  As it somberly notes: “no matter how quickly we cut our climate polluting emissions, climate impacts will still occur.”

Which leads to the last, and perhaps most important question:  where is the federal government in all this?  The answer appears to be that they are dithering.  We are talking after all about the wellbeing of the planet, and of those who inhabit it, namely, all of us.  And what do we see in Washington these last few days?  Concern about our future?  No!  We witness instead a complete paralysis of action on something as seemingly simple as providing decent levels of healthcare for everyone in the country.

If we cannot even get this right, how will we tackle the much larger and more complex question of what to do to prevent the world from warming to the point where life itself may be threatened?  That is a good question.  Unfortunately, so far there seems to be no good answer.  Let us hope, and if you believe in prayer, let us pray, and at very least let us badger our representatives, so that at some point politicians in our federal capital – and let us be honest, Republicans in particular — will stop their dithering, and make the right choices for the most important healthcare system of all, namely, the long-term health and wholeness of the planet we call home.

The World Bank Commissions the Potsdam Institute Climate Change Report, “TURN DOWN THE HEAT — Why a 4 Degrees Celsius World Must Be Avoided”

Potsdam Institute report synopsis (and art, “The Revelations of Eve and Adam,”) by Kevin

Miller Eve & Adam 2003 20 x 24

“Recent research suggests that large-scale loss of biodiversity is likely to occur in a 4 degrees Celsius world, with climate change and high CO2 concentration driving a transition of Earth’s ecosystems into a state unknown in human experience. Ecosystem damage would be expected to dramatically reduce the provision of services on which society depends…”

    –  from the Potsdam Institute Climate Change Report for the World Bank, Nov 19, 2012

The World Bank commissioned the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analysis to produce a global climate change report. It was published on Nov 19, 2012, entitled “Turn Down the Heat – Why a 4 Degrees Celsius World Must Be Avoided.” A team of 15 renowned scientists headed by Hans Joachim Schellnhuber wrote the report which was peer-reviewed by 13 highly respected scientists. The report’s analysis of prospects for the world’s climate, ecosystems, continuing life on Earth, and for the future of the human race is solid, scientific and profoundly sobering. However the report asserts that humanity can still reverse course and save ourselves and many other life forms and ecosystems with urgent cooperative international action soon.

Jim Yong Kim is President of the World Bank, and a physician, anthropologist, and former president of Dartmouth College. He has demonstrated an active commitment to educating the world about the apocalyptic dangers of global climate change and to committing the resources of the World Bank to aggressive advocacy for cooperative international action to avert the tragic destruction of the climate, the world’s land and sea ecosystems, and life on Planet Earth. He has said:

“Lack of action on climate change threatens to make the world our children inherit a completely different world than we are living in today. Climate change is one of the single biggest challenges facing development, and we need to assume moral responsibility to take action on behalf of future generations, especially the poorest.”

President Kim’s foreword boldly defines his motives for commissioning the report:

“It is my hope that this report shocks us into action. Even for those of us already committed to fighting climate change, I hope it causes us to work with much more urgency…”

“It is clear that we already know a great deal about the threat before us. The science is unequivocal that humans are the cause of global warming, and major changes are already being observed…”

“The World Bank is a leading advocate for ambitious action on climate change, not only because it is a moral imperative, but because it makes good economic sense.”

“Our work on inclusive green growth has shown that – through more efficiency and smarter use of energy and natural resources – many opportunities exist to drastically reduce the climate impact of development, without slowing down poverty alleviation and economic growth.”

     – from “Turn Down the Heat” foreword by World Bank President Jim Yong Kim

“TURN DOWN THE HEAT – Why a 4 Degrees C Warmer World Must Be Avoided”

(a synopsis of the executive summary)

Opening Statements from the Executive Summary of “TURN DOWN THE HEAT:”

“A 4 degrees Celsius world would be one of unprecedented heat waves, severe drought, and major floods in many regions, with severe impacts on ecosystems and associated services. But with action, a 4 degrees C world can be avoided and we can likely hold warming below 2 degrees C. Without further commitments and action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions the world is likely to warm by more than 3 degrees C above the pre-industrial climate. Even with current mitigation commitments and pledges fully implemented, there is roughly a 20% likelihood of exceeding 4 degrees Celsius by 2100. If they are not met, a warming of 4 degrees C could occur by as early as the 2060s.”

“Small island developing states and least developed countries have identified global warming of 1.5 degrees C as warming above which there would be serious threats to their own development, and in some cases survival… The sum total of current policies – in place and pledged – will very likely lead to warming far in excess of these levels. Indeed, present emission trends put the world plausibly on a path toward 4 degrees C warming within the century.”

“A world in which warming reaches 4 degrees C above pre-industrial levels… would be one of unprecedented heat waves, severe drought, and major floods in many regions, with serious impacts on human systems, ecosystems, and associated services.”

“Warming of 4 degrees C can still be avoided: numerous studies show that there are technically and economically feasible emissions pathways to hold warming likely below 2 degrees C. Thus the level of impacts that developing countries and the rest of the world experience will be a result of government, private sector, and civil society decisions and choices, including, unfortunately, inaction.”  (Kevin’s note: U.N. climate talks set a goal of 2 degrees C maximum rise. We are on track for a 2 degree rise by 2028, and many scientists assert that there will be dire consequences even at that level of warming. Many destructive extreme weather effects have already been experienced around the world.)

 “Observed Impacts and Changes to the Climate System”

1. CO2 Increase — CO2 has increased from a pre-industrial level of 278 parts per million to over 391 ppm in September of 2012. The rate of CO2 increase is currently at 1.8 ppm per year.

2. CO2 Record — Current CO2 levels are higher than at any time in the past 15 million years.

3. CO2 Emissions — Current CO2 emissions are at 35,000 million metric tons per year, rising to 41,000 million metric tons per year of CO2 emissions expected in the year 2020.

4. Global Warming — Current temperature rise above the pre-industrial level is .8 degree C, causing observed impacts, including approximately 15 to 20 cm sea level rise. (Kevin’s note: reputable scientists tell us that there is another .8 degree C of inertial rise built into the system, even if all emissions were to cease today, for a total of 1.6 degrees C temperature rise, virtually guaranteed now.)

5. Extreme Heat — There is now a ten-fold increase in surface areas experiencing extreme heat since the 1950s. The 2010 heat wave in Russia left 55,000 people dead, a 25% crop failure, and one million hectares burned.

6. 2012 U.S. Drought — The 2012 U.S. drought impacted 80% of agricultural land – the most severe drought since the 1950s.

7. A Hot Future — Projected climate change impacts in a 4 degrees C world would include extreme heat waves, death, fires, and crop losses as seen in Russia in 2010.

“Projected Climate Change Impacts in a 4 Degrees C World”

8. “Rising CO2 Concentration and Ocean Acidification” – CO2 dissolves in and acidifies the oceans. In a 4 degrees C world, there would be 800 ppm CO2 in the sea – a 150% acidity increase, unparalleled in Earth’s history, and distinctly adverse to marine life. By 2060, if current warming trends are not arrested, the world’s coral reefs will start to dissolve. Coral reefs are the planet’s marine life nurseries, and they provide tidal protection for coastal populations.

9. “Rising Sea Levels, Coastal Inundation and Loss” – Sea levels are expected to rise up to one meter or more with several more meters rise in coming centuries. “Even if global warming can be limited to 2 degrees C, global mean sea level could continue to rise… between 1.5 and 4 meters above present-day levels by the year 2300. Sea-level rise would likely be limited to below 2 meters only if warming were kept well below 1.5 degree C.” (Kevin’s note: current warming is .8 degree C + .8 degree C inertial warming built into the system = 1.6 degrees C of virtually guaranteed warming now confirmed by reputable climatologists.)

10. “Risks to Human Support Systems: Food, Water, Ecosystems and Human Health” – “This report identifies a number of extremely severe risks for vital human support systems.” They include water scarcity, flooding, drought, wildfires, transformed ecosystems, forest dieback, and “large-scale loss of biodiversity,” (extinction of many plant and animal species.)

11. Fire-induced ecosystem transformation — “In Amazonia forest fires could as much as double by 2050 with warming of approximately 1.5 degrees C to 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels. Changes would be expected to be even more severe in a 4 degrees C world, with climate change and high CO2 concentration driving a transition of Earth’s ecosystems into a state unknown in human experience. Ecosystem damage would be expected to dramatically reduce the provision of services on which society depends…”

12. Reduced food production – in a 4 degrees C world, food security would be undermined by extremely high temperatures, drought, floods, invading insects, diseases, and sea-level rise in low-lying delta areas (Bangladesh, Egypt, Vietnam, and Africa, for example.) Agricultural disruption would lead to nutritional deficits.

13. Health – Aside from injuries and deaths directly caused by extreme weather events, epidemic diseases and allergies can be expected, as well as respiratory, heart and blood disorders cause by heat-amplified smog levels.

14. Risks of Disruptions and Displacements in a 4 Degree C World” – In a 4 degrees C world there would be large-scale population displacement with adverse consequences to human security, and economic and trade systems.

15. Sudden Changes – Sudden disintegration of the West Antarctic ice sheet, for example, would lead to rapid sea level rise. Large-scale Amazon forest dieback would have drastic effects on ecosystems, rivers, agricultural, energy availability, and livelihoods. Unpredictable abrupt changes like these can be expected in a 4 degrees C world.

16. Cascade Effects – Cascading series of disastrous events and conditions would likely be triggered at national and regional levels by key failures such as seaport breakdowns.

17. Coral Reefs – Coral reef destruction and concomitant loss of marine life production due to rising temperatures and ocean acidification would have a large-scale impact on human settlements and infrastructure, especially in low-lying coastal zones, where sea levels will rise one meter or more this century. The coral reefs will not be there to provide tidal protection.

Concluding Quotes from the Potsdam Institute Report, “Turn Down the Heat:”

“With pressures increasing as warming progresses toward 4 degrees C and combining with non-climate-related social, economic, and population stresses, the risk of crossing critical social system thresholds will grow. At such thresholds existing institutions that would have supported adaptation actions would likely become much less effective or even collapse.”

“There is no certainty that adaptation to a 4 degrees C world is possible… The projected 4 degrees C warming simply must not be allowed to occur – the heat must be turned down. Only early cooperative international actions can make that happen.”