Global Conflict Greenhouse gases Population

Question the “People and Planet” Report

Graph from the Club of Rome, People and Planet report, showing the result of business as usual.

            Over 50 years ago the Club of Rome (CoR) made big news with the report “The Limits to Growth”. Last month another report came out that seems more optimistic than “Limits”.

            The CoR is an international think-tank of high-level people who tackle the world’s problems, including poverty, environmental deterioration and human population. “Limits” was based on an early computer simulation that looked at 5 variables: population, food production, industrialization, pollution and consumption of nonrenewable natural resources. The first of these were assumed to be increasing exponentially, while production was thought to be linear. Two of 3 scenarios in the program predicted “overshoot and collapse” of civilization before 2100. This is about as pessimistic as you can get!

            In contradistinction to “Limits”, the CoR has published another report which I fear is overly optimistic. “People and Planet” predicts that global population will stop its growth around 2050, with a maximum of 8.8 billion people. This is very different for the United Nations prediction, which projects continued growth until the end of this century, with a population over 11 billion.

            I first read about this report in The Guardian. The title of that article is: “World ‘population bomb’ may never go off….” This title did what a title is supposed to do—it grabbed my attention. However, it is wrong! The population bomb has already exploded. We are facing problems caused by overpopulation: climate chaos, and the extinction crisis both clearly have as their root cause our high population density. The increase in global aggression may also be related to overpopulation.

            People and Planet has a different way of predicting population. It is based on an observation that increased education (especially of girls and women) is associated with decreased family size. This has been observed many times in many different societies. It makes sense! Girls who are in school are better able to access and use family planning. Women who are in school or college are less likely to get married and start their families. Later, when they join the workforce, they are more likely to want to put more energy into their careers and less into childcare. Perhaps most important, educated women are less likely to be bossed by pronatalist, misogynistic men.

            The hope is that increased attention to education, especially in African countries, will speed up fertility decline. My observations, however, suggest that is difficult to achieve.

People and Planet gives two projections for the future; one of them is hopeful. The current scenario is called “Too Little Too Late” (TLTL), but the CoR advocates for “Giant Leap”. This would entail 5 steps: ending poverty, addressing gross inequality, empowering women, making our food system healthy for people and ecosystems, and transitioning to clean energy.

            “Giant Leap” would not be perfect, although it would get us closer to sustainability. It is also projected to reach peak global population a decade earlier than TLTL. I can see us transitioning to clean energy (it’s cheaper!), and women are already doing a great job of empowering themselves. Unfortunately, the current legal system and capitalism are designed to maintain the status quo; they make it problematic to address gross inequality and to end poverty. Furthermore, it is difficult for me to imagine what it would take to revolutionize the global food production system; again, there are too many vested interests in maintaining the status quo.  I fear that there is too much greed in our species for us to take the giant leap that is needed for us to live sustainably.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2023

Durango Herald Greenhouse gases

We Have ALL Lost


Back in January, 2008 the Durango (Colorado) Herald published a unique challenge: “I offer a public wager of $5,000 that the Earth will be cooler in 10 years.” Dr. Roger Cohen, a physicist, proposed this wager.

I responded, and our bet started the next month. Cohen’s rules were reasonable, however, I am a Quaker. Members of the Religious Society of Friends are admonished to not bet, so I countered with a different structure. Each of us would donate $5000 to Durango Nature Studies, and the money would be held in escrow until the bet was over. We also agreed that the decision would be made by averaging the data for three years rather than by comparing 2007 with 2017.

After agreeing on the rules we each pulled out our checkbooks and wrote checks. We realized that neither of us would profit from the bet; we would just get “bragging rights”. The Herald ran an article that February: “I think part of Roger’s goal was to keep the issue of global warming in the public mind.…”

I was curious to know just what Dr. Cohen was thinking. I knew that he had been Manager of Strategic Planning at Exxon—which led me to believe that he must be quite intelligent. When we got together for an amiable lunch I asked him what he really felt about climate change. His answer surprised me: the true reason that he wrote the challenge was that he wanted people to really think about climate change and to question the media. I asked if he thought any of the climate change could be anthropogenic. His reply, as I remember, was that yes, maybe about a third was human caused. In private Cohen did not seem so sanguine about denying climate change.

The Herald printed an update in 2015. “We’ve all lost” ran the headline, accurately quoting me. It stated that Dr. Cohen had conceded that he had lost the bet because the climate was, indeed, warmer than in 2007. This implied that I had won the wager. My response: ‘Grossman, learning of the news, was not the least bit pleased or boastful. “I don’t think I’ve won,” he said. “I think I lost. I think we’ve all lost.”’ Indeed, climate change is probably the worst challenge that all life will face this century.

In correspondence with me after that 2015 article came out, Cohen clarified what he really said—that the climate’s temperature only appears to have increased because the deciding database had changed. We had agreed to use the British climate database, HadCRUT3, but it was replaced by HadCRUT4.

The HadCRUT data are available for public viewing on Internet, and they confirm what anyone who reads the news already knows. Climate is warming. The amount of warming is small in the ten years of our wager, but significant. The average of the 3 years at the end of the bet is +0.231° Celsius hotter than a decade earlier. This may not seem like much, but if this trend continues it means that the climate will be almost 2 degrees Celsius hotter in a person’s lifetime. That’s over 3° Fahrenheit!

Here we are at the beginning of 2018. A decade has passed since Cohen wrote his challenge, and sadly he is no longer with us. He died of a brain tumor in September, 2016. I would have loved to have asked him questions about the wager, but there are some things that we will never know.

Perhaps my biggest question is a seeming inconsistency between a document that Dr. Cohen wrote in 1981 and his wager that the climate was not heating up. Back then he was a scientist at Exxon and was asked to criticize a report another person had written. Cohen felt that the other person was too optimistic about climate change: “…it is distinctly possible that the CPD scenario will later produce effects which will indeed be catastrophic (at least for a substantial fraction of the earth’s population).” CPD probably meant “Continued Product Development”.

Later in this same document he wrote that future data gathering and science “…may provide strong evidence for a delayed CO2 effect of a truly substantial magnitude….”

With the temperature rising, we can consider Earth as having a fever. We have overwhelmed the planet’s ability to deal with our carbon waste emissions. Unfortunately, the fever is a symptom of the illness of overpopulation and over consumption. We must do what we can to limit these for the sake of our grandchildren.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2018