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Kleppner: The Population Effect

10/28/09 5:55PM By Bram Kleppner
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(HOST) Commentator Bram Kleppner says that a reduction in population growth world wide may be the best way to combat global warming.

(KLEPPNER) We seem to have reached consensus that we are causing global warming; that warming threatens our prosperity and security; and that we should do something about it. Consumers, government, car makers and energy companies are all working on new technologies and behaviors to reduce our carbon output.

But there's one key contributor to global warming that almost no one talks about. That key is the size and growth of the population.  Every person on Earth contributes to global warming.

There are many reputable scientific estimates of the Earth's sustainable human population. None of those estimates is more than three billion. But the population is now 6.8 billion, and the U.N. predicts that, unless we act, in forty years it will exceed nine billion, adding the population of another China and another India, with all their greenhouse gasses, to an already dangerously warming world.

Vermont's fertility rate, at an average of 1.7 children per woman, is below replacement level; but Vermont's population is still growing, almost entirely because of international immigration from crowded places like Sudan, Rwanda and Somalia, whose fertility rates are 4.5, 6.0 and 6.7 respectively.

Politicians and citizens are silent about population because people associate population reduction with controversial topics ranging from sex ed, birth control and abortion to euthanasia, genocide and government intervention in how many children families choose to have. Indeed, China and India did both force people to undergo sterilization.

But just because a reprehensible solution has been tried doesn't mean an acceptable solution cannot be found. The data are indisputable: when women in the developing world have accurate information about how large families affect their own and their children's health and prosperity, they want fewer children.  And when they have the social skills to discuss contraception with their husbands and when they have access to contraceptives, they achieve smaller family size. This has happened in several countries, such as Brazil, where the fertility rate dropped from 5.3 in the 1960s to around 2.3 today. In fact, family planning may be the cheapest way to reduce carbon emissions. A recent study by the London School of Economics concludes that reducing carbon emissions by using wind, solar and carbon sequestration costs $32 per ton, while achieving the same reduction in carbon emissions by expanding access to family planning costs only $7 per ton.

Providing women in the developing world with information, skills and access to contraceptives does not take much money. All it requires is brave leadership - leaders who are not afraid to publicly acknowledge that the Earth cannot sustain seven billion or more people for long and who have the courage to build international consensus for a global population target of three billion, with an action plan to get there.

With a little vision, money and work, we can prevent a world of misery.
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