|At a recent town hall event centred on the theme of climate change, Bernie Sanders, one of the most well-known contenders for the Democratic nomination for the US presidency, said, in response to a question from the audience, that he would make the issue of curbing human population growth a key feature of his plan to address climate change.
Mr. Sanders’ words came as a pleasant surprise to population activists, given that the issue of population growth is still taboo for most politicians, who are loath to be identified with anything remotely associated with “population control.”
Mr. Sanders did face a backlash following his comments, being accused of eugenics, aborting poor babies for population control, and backing US funding for Third World abortions. In fact, all Mr. Sanders did was point out that US women had the right to control their own bodies and make reproductive decisions and said that he rejected the Mexico City agreement, which refers to the “gag rule” preventing US funds from going to organizations that perform or inform women about the availability of abortions. Lifting the gag rule would be a boon for international family planning.
It is an unfortunate fact that despite all the attention that climate change is receiving, it’s rare that a connection is made between climate change and the number of climate changers (i.e., people). It’s true that developed countries and emerging economies have the highest carbon dioxide emissions, but poor countries do not wish to remain poor, and no country has developed its economy without increasing its CO2 emissions. In addition, there are many kinds of environmental damage besides CO2 emissions that population pressure can exert. Population pressure is also driving many people from developing countries to emigrate to industrialized countries. The average newcomer to the United States increases his carbon emissions by a factor of four. It is therefore commendable that Mr. Sanders dared to make the connection between population growth and greenhouse gas emissions.
Millennials and younger generations are asking if it’s okay to have children, given the state of our planet. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman ever to serve in the US Congress and known for her substantial social media presence, stated in an Instagram livestream earlier this year that “it is a “legitimate question” to ask whether it’s OK for people to have children in an age of looming climate-related consequences. Unfortunately, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez has remained silent on the consequences of population growth, 99% of which occurs in the developing world.
The most recognizable climate activist today is probably 16-year-old Greta Thunberg who, when asked if we have a responsibility to manage population growth to save the planet, responded that the problem is “not the people. It is what we do.”
But of course numbers do matter – and Ms. Thunberg admits that “it is more difficult to live sustainably with more people on the planet.” In fact, a 2017 study published in Environmental Research Letters concluded that having one fewer child in developed countries would reduce 58.6 tonnes of emissions of carbon dioxide equivalents per year (factoring in offspring that result from that child being born).
While emissions are much lower in poor countries, adding one billion people every 12 to 13 years also places unsustainable demands on the planet. That is why PIC has endorsed the proposal for a UN Framework Convention on Population Growth similar to the one on climate change. As Bernie Sanders has done, politicians and other leaders must begin to acknowledge the necessity of addressing population growth as they seek to solve local and global environmental problems, including climate change.
For more information about PIC’s mission and how population growth affects the planet, please visit our website and social media platforms.
Contact: Madeline Weld, Ph.D.
President, Population Institute Canada
Tel: (613) 833-3668