Archive for the 'Population' Category

Solve Climate Weirding

Tuesday, August 28th, 2018

Courtesy of Jerry McBride, Durango Herald

The summer isn’t over and already the fires have been terrible. What is causing all this trouble?

We had the huge 416 fire just north of Durango. Over 54,000 acres of our precious land has burnt in this fire alone, and there are many other wildfires near by. The 416 was terrible because it was so close to Durango, and because it was apparently started by an ember from our beloved Durango and Silverton Railroad.

Much of the American Southwest is experiencing exceptionally dry conditions. I recently discovered that there are four levels of drought, according to National Integrated Drought Information System (www.drought.gov). Much of the Southwest is at the worst level—Exceptional Drought. Unfortunately, we are not alone.

My wife and I recently traveled in Scotland and Norway. It was dry everywhere, with brown replacing the usual green. We didn’t need warm clothes the we packed since we were well inside the Arctic Circle. We wandered around the North Cape of Norway—the farthest north of that northern country—with only light jackets. 

Greece has suffered from disastrous fires, with the loss of many lives. Even northern Sweden is suffering from wildfires, which is very unusual. What is causing this hellish inferno? 

Of course, part of the answer is global climate change, which I like to call “global weirding” because different places get hit in different ways. While we are suffering from drought, the Northeast has been inundated with floods.

Almost all scientists agree that the climate is “weird” because of our use of fossil fuels. A recent article from Science supports this. The temperature changes in the north latitudes have been found to match the “fingerprint” of what computers predict, giving still more credence that climate change is anthropogenic. The article’s conclusion is: “Our results… provide powerful and novel evidence for a statistically significant human effect on Earth’s climate.” 

Not all people are affected by climate change equally. The far north is heating up faster than the tropics. Poor people also get the brunt of this weirding—they are more likely to work outside or to live in high density cities with the “heat island” effect. On the other hand, the fortunate among us can resort to air conditioning.  However, AC is counterproductive in the long run since most electricity is generated with fossil fuels.

What can be done to slow climate change? In the short run reducing carbon emissions will help. We donate to offset our carbon emissions to organizations such as American Forests. Having small families is the best way to reduce carbon emissions for the long run. That is because each additional person added to the population increases carbon emissions—the fewer people, the less greenhouse gases. If you look at all the future generations that are likely to follow a child born today, the effect of having one fewer child is huge.

Last year Fort Lewis College hosted a symposium on the science of climate change. We were hoping to have 200 people attend and were pleased that there were almost double that number! Most impressive was the teacher of a high school environmental studies class in Cortez who brought her students. Encouraged by such a good response to last year’s meeting, I am helping to organize a second event—“Climate Change Solutions”. It will be held at Fort Lewis College on October 30th. Please save the date!

There will be an amazing lineup of speakers, two of whom will decrease their carbon footprints by appearing digitally. Senator Michael Bennet’s staff—or perhaps the senator himself—will be there in person. The senator is not campaigning for office this year but will update us on what is happening in Washington and Colorado to slow climate change. We will have a return visit from philosopher Travis Rieder who gave a wonderful Lifelong Learning talk last year on the ethical imperative of small families. Dr. Katharine Hayhoe is a climate scientist and member of the Nobel Prize winning International Panel on Climate Change. She and Dr. Karin Kirk, a member of the Yale Climate Connections, will be focusing on communicating about climate change.

Climate Change Solutions will have two sessions that Tuesday—one in the afternoon and one in the evening. Both will be open to anyone, but the afternoon is especially for students; we are arranging for 380 students from local high schools to attend. After all, it is they who will suffer the most from climate change. We won’t solve climate weirding at this symposium, but people can learn ways to slow it down.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2018

A Debate about the Future of Human Population

Sunday, February 25th, 2018

David Lam is a Professor of Economics at the University of Michigan and Director of the Institute of Social Research. He is highly respected and widely published in the field of demography. His elected positions include being past president of the Population Association of America and being elected to the Council of the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population (IUSSP). Lam is truly a giant in the field of demography, and deserving of all his many honors.

Dr. Lam published an essay last year in N-IUSSP, the IUSSP’s online news magazine. Titled “The world’s next 4 billion people will differ from the previous 4 billion“, it got me riled up because I felt that Lam ignored our human life-support system–the natural world. My response, “The world in which the next 4 billion people will live“, was also published by N-IUSSP. This sparked a third, “Global population, development aspirations and fallacies” and then a fourth essay, “Thinking about the future: the four billion question”.

Here are very short abstracts of the four essays. Since I’m doing the abstracting, the abstracts may not be totally objective!

  1. Dr. Lam notes that it took just 50 years to add 4 billion people to give us the 7 1/2 billion we have now, but that it will take until about 2100 to add the next 4 billion–and then growth will probably stop. Much of this growth will be in Africa, and the people will be older. He also believes about this population growth “… the experience of the last 50 years gives room for optimism about the world’s ability to support it.”
  2. I am less optimistic, fearing that we have already used so much of the planetary resources that there will be significantly less left for those who come after us.
  3. Dr. George Martine feels that I am overly optimistic about the ability of family planning to slow population growth. Unfortunately, I agree with him! Martine had 4 concerns about the prior 2 articles: “a) the urgency of environmental threats; b) the recognition of diversity in ‘population’; c) the limitations of fertility reduction solutions; and, d) the urgency of redirecting ‘development’.”
  4. I like the way this essay starts: “The ‘population question’, central to the debate about humankind’s future since the 18th century, has slipped away from center stage and fallen into a coma in recent years.” The essay takes a critical look at some of the factors affecting population and our ability to inhabit Earth. Dr. Livi Bacci looks at climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions, and points out that it is not just population that has increased but also the financial ability of people to purchase and use carbon-based fuels–consumption.

I welcome folks to look at these four essays and draw your own conclusions. I first read Lam’s article because I am a member of the IUSSP and subscribe to N-IUSSP, but they are available online to anyone. Just search using their titles. You can even submit a response without being a member. It is good to have a debate on these subjects that are so important to our future!

Richard

 

Heed this Warning

Saturday, November 25th, 2017

In 1992 the Union of Concerned Scientists published the “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity”. Twenty-five years later it has just been updated.

Most of the Nobel Prize winners then alive and 1575 senior scientists signed the original warning. It started with the words: “Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know.”

After this powerful introduction there are several headings. The heading titled “Population” states what many people (especially economists) are still denying. It starts with: “The earth is finite.”

Later in the “Population” heading you can read: “Pressures resulting from unrestrained population growth put demands on the natural world that can overwhelm any efforts to achieve a sustainable future.” I find it remarkable that those who write about “sustainable development” so often ignore this obvious fact.

This 1992 Warning had 5 points under the title “What We Must Do”. Point #3 states: “We must stabilize population. This will be possible only if all nations recognize that it requires improved social and economic conditions, and the adoption of effective, voluntary family planning.” Unfortunately this was all but ignored. In fact, just 2 years later, at the UN’s International Conference on Population and Development, delegates decided to turn the focus away from population and toward HIV and reproductive rights. This had an unfortunate effect on support for family planning programs.

So much for the past. Not too many people were aware of the 1992 document, and fewer took it to heart. Scientists have updated the Warning on its 25th anniversary in a remarkable fashion. “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice” was published last month in BioScience, a well-known journal. Although eight authors appear on the title page, the total number of signatories is huge—15,364 scientists from 184 countries! It is not too late to join this elite crew if, indeed, you are a scientist. Go to http://scientistswarning.forestry.oregonstate.edu to find out more and to endorse the article. Over 3,000 people have done added their names.

The current Warning is not optimistic. Of the 9 issues treated 25 years ago, only one shows improvement. The good news is that ozone-depleting emissions (chlorofluorocarbons) are decreasing. They jeopardize the atmospheric ozone that guards us against dangerous ultraviolet radiation. The other 8 trends are all bad; these include fresh water supplies, total forest area, vertebrate species abundance and ocean dead zones. Need I also mention that the CO2 level is rising and the climate is heating up?

It comes down to two factors—population and consumption. The authors put it this way: “We are jeopardizing our future by not reining in our intense… material consumption and by not perceiving continued rapid population growth as a primary driver behind many ecological and even societal threats.”

Slowing population growth seems much more attainable than decreasing consumption, however. So many people want to manage their fertility but don’t have access to effective contraception—we must expand access to birth control here and abroad.

There is hope. The new Warning points out that pressure on politicians, especially from scientists and concerned citizens, can create change. The authors also cite the importance of changing individual behaviors such as choosing to have small families and to consume less—including moving toward a plant-based diet. They celebrate the decrease in family size throughout most of the world and praise the decrease in world hunger. They use the example of the decrease in chlorofluorocarbons as an example of what can be done when there is political will.

The Warning gives 13 steps to take in order to move in the correct direction to save our life support systems. The 12th is to revise our economy to reduce inequality of wealth and to take into account the externalities that harm our planet. The last proposes a revolutionary idea—to determine what a long-term sustainable human population might be, then to rally support to reach that goal.

Can more than 18,000 scientists make a difference in a positive direction? We have seen how much damage one person, the president of the USA, can do by moving us away from sustainability. It is time for us to heed the far-sighted Warning for our progeny’s sake.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2017

Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States.