Archive for the 'Population' Category

Inspire the United Nations

Sunday, December 23rd, 2018

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has done wonders by motivating individuals and nations to take action to slow climate change. What could happen if the United Nations formed a similar organization to slow population growth?

I probably don’t need to remind you that far and away the most effective way of slowing climate change is with small families. Indeed, of all the actions that an individual can take, having one fewer child is 14 times more effective than avoiding air travel, being a vegetarian, changing light bulbs and recycling—combined! Fortunately people all over the world are choosing to have fewer children, although I imagine that few are doing this for environmental reasons.

A friend, Rob Harding, has been working tirelessly to form a Framework Convention on Population Growth. The UN states a framework convention: “…describes a type of legally binding treaty which establishes broader commitments for its parties and leaves the setting of specific targets either to subsequent more detailed agreements… or to national legislation.” The IPCC was established by the Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Harding recently attended COP24 (the annual international UN meeting to work on climate change) in Poland in order to witness how the IPCC works and to make contact with UN officials. He has written a description of his proposal for Scientists Warning, available at:

Harding proposes that the UN take 3 routes to slow population growth. The first is education, which is already well known to have many benefits, including a decrease in family size. Indeed, educating girls and women is one of the most effective means to do this, for several reasons. Educated women are more likely to get married later, to be more independent of their husbands and to use contraception effectively. A further benefit of education is that the offspring of educated parents are more likely to live through childhood. The mother and father will know more about sanitation, will have better incomes and will seek medical care when their kids need it. There is another advantage that might seem paradoxical: parents choose smaller families if they know that their kids will survive to adulthood.

The second effort is to make it easy for people to have access to effective contraception. Harding is careful to specify that there mustn’t be coercion. the 1994 UN’s International Conference on Population and Development turned away from family planning because of the bad experience with coercion in places such as India and China. I feel that it is very important that all family planning programs be voluntary.

I am pleased that Rob decries coercion. The most valid concern that anyone has expressed over his proposal is that the panel might be set up similar to the structure of the IPCC, where each country has a goal to reduce emissions. Goals for the number of people who used contraception (especially sterilization) are blamed for the coercive policies in India and China.

Finally, Harding’s proposal recommends promotion of smaller family size. One of the most remarkable examples of a way to influence family size influence is accidental. In Brazil apparently everyone watches TV, and soap operas are particularly popular. The families in the “soaps” are all small. This is not because the producers want to influence family size choices, but because it is difficult to manage children on a TV set. The average woman had 6 or more children 60 years ago but now the average is less than 2! One of my favorite nonprofit organizations, the Population Media Center, has worked to influence family size choices in many countries using radio and TV shows. Their methodology is very effective, including in Africa where men often want larger families than their wives, according to studies.

Although Harding is employed by a nonprofit organization that is concerned about population, he has been doing this proposal to the UN on his own time. He has already garnered support from several thousand people and about 50 organizations! His hope is to expand the network of people who are interested in the proposal, and perhaps even to find an organization that would take it over as one of its programs.

My impression, when talking with Harding after he returned home from Poland, was that the climate talks were not very productive. I also sensed that he got a dose of the complexity of the United Nations—but he is not discouraged from persisting with his important task of inspiring the UN to recognize and tackle the population problem.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2018

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 ( 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!



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