A Recipe for Disaster: Climate Change and Our Booming Population

On World Population Day 2013, we ask: Is "too many people" the problem, or is it that the top five percent of us consume too much?

Way too many people play on a beach in Qingdao, east China's Shandong province, on July 28, 2007. (Photo: Reuters)

Jul 11, 2013· 3 MIN READ
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

I made an eye-opening error in commuting yesterday when I walked through Times Square at midday on an incredibly steamy July day. I should have known better. Globs of errant tar were melting off the sidewalks. Atrocious pop music pulsed from every storefront. The doors of businesses were wide open, as air-conditioning rushed out to collide with the exorbitant heat. People were jammed shoulder-to-shoulder for several blocks, sweating and shouting.

“Who are all these people?” I asked out loud. “Where do they all come from?”

The stats are stunning: Since 1800, the planet’s population has grown by seven-fold; during the same time period carbon dioxide emissions have grown by 150 times.

Later in the day, with tornado winds whipping across the midsection of the country, I watched flight after flight cancel on the big board at Newark Airport. The terminal was packed, every available seat was taken, and people sprawled on the floor with devices and bags of cheap snacks. Many of these travelers would be stuck here overnight.

“Who are all these people?” I asked my companion. “And where are they all going?”

There are too many of us!

Like many budding environmentalists, I was heavily influenced by Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s groundbreaking and bestselling book from 1968, The Population Bomb. While people had previously worried about a looming population explosion, the Ehrlichs’ warning that too many humans on the planet would lead to mass starvation and other societal upheavals was considered a real warning shot.

Specifically, they predicted famines that would kill hundreds of millions in the 1970s and 1980s, and that the world’s human death rate would skyrocket since there would simply be too many of us.

The biggest concern then was the world simply not being able to feed the growing population (then four billion). That obviously has not happened—yet. In fact, our caloric intake has risen by 24 percent since the late 1960s, resulting in a whole other world health problem the Ehrlichs’ could never have predicted (obesity). But thanks to the Ehrlichs, the link between environmental harms caused by the fast-growing weight of mankind was made.

Today—as the U.N. celebrates World Population Day—with the global population at seven billion and climbing, the connection between too many people, too much consumption, and the inevitable pollution we’ve created all over the globe, primarily in just the past half-century, is hardly a secret.

Filthy air in northern China is shortening people’s lives. A lack of clean drinking water combined with unregulated development in Africa has killed millions. An estimated 150,000 people a year lose their lives due to climate-change-related causes.

The stats are stunning: Since 1800, the planet’s population has grown by seven-fold; during the same time period, carbon dioxide emissions have grown by 150 times. The harm we have done the planet’s atmosphere in a couple hundred years will take thousands of years to reverse. Like hamsters, we’re stuck on a giant wheel. Even if the developed world were capable of cutting back its consumption by 40 percent over the next 40 years, the fast-growing population would cancel out any gains, reports a 2005 London School of Economics study

While some impacts of climate change might seem to be advantageous to a growing population—warmer winters, fewer disease-carrying insects—the harms definitely outpace any gains. As the climate continues to warm, there will be more life-threatening fires and heatwaves, torrential rains, floods and superstorms. Infectious diseases will spread more easily, as will mass hunger. Those most vulnerable will, of course, be those least responsible for climate change’s causes. British consulting firm Trucost reported to the United Nations that just 3,000 corporations cause $2.15 trillion in environmental damage every year. At minimum.

Which touches on an area of great sensitivity among those of us living in the developed West: Most of the seven billion people on the planet are not responsible for endangering the Earth. It isn’t the impoverished masses that pollute rivers and cut rainforests and burn the majority of the fossil fuels. It is the five percent of us who live far above the poverty line.

As ppm climbs above 400, and the writing is on the wall, what are we doing about it? We convene (Kyoto, Copenhagen), discuss, set new limits—and then willfully ignore them. While there are lots of efforts underway to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by encouraging renewable energy sources, at the same time mega coal plants are on the boards in a dozen countries, gas-guzzling car sales are booming in the developing world, and the kind of mass consumption once particular to the West is now being pursued internationally.

And the human population continues to grow. Eighty million a year. It’s like adding a new New Jersey every six weeks.

As for the Ehrlichs’ concerns about mass starvation, that did not happen as they predicted. Yet today nearly one billion people live in a state of constant hunger. As climate change continues to shift weather and growing patterns around the globe, they may yet be proven right, if just a few decades ahead of their time.