If Climate Change Is Irreversible Does Overpopulation Need to Be Reversed?

If Climate Change Is Irreversible Does Overpopulation Need to Be Reversed

In Paris, on the 12th December 2015, a ‘historic agreement’ was reached between 186 nations, the largest of its kind. The agreement laid out plans to tackle the potential dangers of a global temperature rise of over 2°C. The much anticipated deal was hailed as a great step towards change – an uncommon feature of previous climate summits. President Barack Obama proudly stated “together, we’ve shown what’s possible when the world stands as one”.

However, current estimates by the UN Climate Panel (UNFCCC) suggest proposed action plans still see a rise of 2.7°C – 3°C. The agreement therefore asks the 186 nations to review such plans every 5 years from 2020 to stay on course in meeting targets. In addition to this, a further $100 billion is expected to be raised every year from 2020 onwards to finance projects and aid vulnerable countries. Undoubtedly, there is still much reason for creeping pessimism.

Whilst the hypothetical scenarios of climate change are most likely to occur and have occurred in the past, the problem that we have as a species in the present as opposed to the past is that our numbers have increased drastically over two centuries. Incorporated into this increase, has been the overconsumption of, and competition for resources as an attribute to development promoted by western economic policies. As of consequence, ‘developing’ states modelled their own development on the West. The strong correlation therefore between climate change and population growth inevitably increased the impact of climatic hazards and some would argue it is already too late to reverse global warming as depicted. If we are too late, is it then time, to now turn our attention to the problems posed by population growth as opposed to climate change?

Why Population Growth?

In 1798 the English economist and historian Thomas Malthus published ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population’. In it, Malthus argued that whilst human populations could continuously multiply unrestrained, the ability for food supply to do the same was unlikely. Malthus proposed radical solutions to control population growth, however once the industrial revolution arrived, Malthus’ theory all but perished. Food supply had caught up with demand and surpassed it. Though Malthus’ theory was inaccurate, if viewed from the perspective of demand as opposed to supply, such that demands increase unrestrained beside population growth – does it give more precedence to Malthus’ argument? Current trends suggest so.

Since the 1960s, world population has more than doubled and with this growth, the human appetite for resources has also increased due to the processes of globalisation or what some call ‘westernisation’. This appetite could be met according to American economist Walt Rostow via stages of economic growth similar to the way the West modernised. Rostow suggested that these stages could eventually infiltrate the existing economic and social system in ‘developing’ nations thereby igniting a modernisation process. This mantle would then be carried on by Milton Friedman as neoliberal economics took to the fore but whilst the appetite remains, it has not yet been met.

Inequality persists among ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ economies whilst income disparities within both is causing a wider gap to emerge between the wealthiest and poorest citizens, which is highlighted by the fact half of the world’s wealth is owned by 1% of the world’s population according to the IMF. Nonetheless, modernisation still aims to do one thing and that is to offer the joys of materialism and capitalism as experienced in the West thereby maintaining the appetite. In doing so, as populations multiply along with economic aspirations, so too do the demands for a western lifestyle as a result of globalisation.   

Globalisation has meant that traditional, native and local [sustainable] ways of living have instantly been replaced partly if not completely by traditions and norms exported from the West, leading to some accusations of neo-colonialism/imperialism. This has also meant that under western inspired economic institutions (WTO, IMF, World Bank), ‘developing’ economies have adopted Rostow’s and Friedman’s modernisation strategies.

The result of all of this is the mimicking of the ‘developed’ by the ‘developing’ (as dependency increases) – what Rostow had envisaged. For instance, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that obesity rates have doubled since 1980 (around the time neoliberal economics is enforced), further adding:

Once considered a high-income country problem, overweight and obesity are now on the rise in low- and middle-income countries, particularly in urban settings. In ‘developing’ countries with emerging economies (classified by the World Bank as lower- and middle-income countries) the rate of increase of childhood overweight and obesity has been more than 30% higher than that of ‘developed’ countries.

high calorie intake per capita among the most populace regions in the world increases demand even when it is not needed as we are now seeing in countries like the UK with high protein-based diets – what was originally an exercise supplement is now a common demand among the public. Coupled with the overconsumption of food, urbanisation proves to be the next big hurdle. Though the UN has suggested that deforestation has declined, the same cannot be said for urbanisation as it continues to rise.

54% of the world population currently resides in urban areas, the UN estimates this to increase to 66% by 2050. Whilst urban population has drastically increased from 746 million in 1950 to 3.9 billion in 2014, rural population is expected to decrease as it is growing slowly. This proves problematic for coastal based cities like Mumbai, New York, Shanghai, Guangzhou and New Orleans, as sea levels rise due to climate change and surface run-off increases (due to a lack of natural permeation). The geological impact also extends beyond flooding as China recently learnt, cities including Beijing and Shanghai are sinking due to overdevelopment and excessive extraction of groundwater. It is likely in the near future alongside economic costs that social issues will also arise as a result of mass migration, already an experience for countries like Bangladesh.

A Tragedy of the Commons?

Modernisation alongside an increase in population growth also produces a demand for more fossil fuel-based resources as is evidenced by the current CO2 emissions produced per capita in both ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ economies. Despite an increase in greener and cleaner technologies, fossil fuel extraction has not slowed down. As Duncan Clark writes, though President Obama boasts of the US’ role in reducing emissions, the US is “extracting carbon and flowing it into the global energy system faster than ever before”. Similarly, Australia and the UK have introduced reduction targets whilst also incentivising oil and coal extraction which then encourages oil exporting countries like Saudi Arabia to increase production as they are currently doing.

According to Journalist and author George Monbiot however the correlation between climate change and population growth is minute in comparison to the correlation that it has with wealth, the world’s poor do little to contribute to climate change according to Monbiot. But if only a small percentage of the wealthy could do this much damage, then wouldn’t the distribution of wealth inevitably make things worse as more people use more resources (renewable and non-renewable)?

For this reason, what Malthus recognised was a habitual problem of the human species, unrestrained population growth met with growing unrestrained demands will surely challenge the capacity to supply. Though his prophecy was false, some part of Malthusianism is still alive and well today. For instance, as the World Food Programme records, despite producing an excess of food, 795 million people “do not have enough food to lead a healthy active life”. Yet as mentioned previously our calorie intake per capita has increased in every part of the world since the 1960s but somehow almost a seventh of the world population has not had their food needs met.

What we arrive at here is the ‘tragedy of the commons’ as coined by Garret Hardin in 1968. Hardin argued that it is no longer a case of technical solutions but a moral one as we are constantly looking for ways to “avoid the evils of overpopulation without relinquishing any of the privileges”. It is these privileges that we currently enjoy and want to enjoy which makes tackling climate change a very steep mountain to climb. Whilst Malthus sought to challenge these privileges, he also raised an important point – maybe it is less to do with whether we can adapt and more to do with whether we can change.

Author Biography

Rubel Mozlu has recently obtained an MSc from the University of Bristol in International Relations with the intention of pursuing a PhD on the topic of philosophy, religion and terrorism. His MSc main thesis focused on ‘Liberal Democracy and Culture’ with a particular focus on Egypt’s revolutions and Bangladesh’s election boycott. His current interests are in the MENA region, Islamic history, Western and Eastern Philosophy and Culture.

Cover image ‘System Change, Not Climate Change‘ by Joe Brusky