I was at a lecture on climate change by a distinguished atmospheric scientist the other night. Her talk focused on the wealth of data supporting a strong relationship between growing amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere and increased average temperatures around the globe. She talked about some possible approaches to limiting CO2 emissions, arguing against a “silver bullet” -- a single strategy that would solve everything, but suggesting there were “silver shotgun pellets” of multiple behavioral and technological changes each of which could make a difference.
At the end of the question and answer period, a gentleman commented that he could remember 50 years ago when there was much talk about a population explosion and ensuing global famines and other catastrophes. The implication seemed to be that we got all hot and bothered back then but the worst didn’t happen so maybe climate change isn’t that serious an issue.
The comment reminded me that I wrote my dissertation on the politics of population policies focusing on the big battles over family planning at the UN that culminated just about 50 years ago. And I began to see some interesting parallels between the dynamics of dealing with population growth and the dynamics of facing up to climate change.
Only barely relevant but interesting, I hope, side note. The UN debates were couched in careful euphemisms. The question was always “family planning” modified by reference to cultural values, as if “birth control” or “contraception” were just too shocking. With the one exception noted below, everyone carefully avoided anything that even the most prudish moralist could regard as “unfit for pious ears.”
Something’s Happening Here ...
Like the concern about climate change, the attention to population dynamics began in an academic discipline and was initially discussed at international meeting of professional demographers. But as data accumulated from around the world a remarkable pattern began to emerge and the discussions in various international conferences began to move from “here is what the data shows” to “HEY! SOMETHING REALLY IMPORTANT IS HAPPENING AND WE BETTER DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!!" In the case of population it was the Demographic Bureau of the Economic and Social Council that evolved into the UN Population Commission and pushed the issue into the General Assembly. In the case of the climate it was a series of meeting of atmospheric scientists who pushed the item onto the agenda of the 1992 Rio conference on the environment and created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Like climate change, population growth had its skeptics. Unlike climate change, where the skepticism is about whether it is really happening and/or the role of humans, the population skeptics argued that it wasn’t really a problem. (It was kind of hard to argue against the data on growing population and impossible to argue that human behavior wasn’t a major factor.)
What It Is Ain’t Exactly Clear ...
Climate change skepticism comes in three flavors:
Full blown denial: the climate is not changing. Either data is cooked by self-serving scientists so they can get more grants or by an international conspiracy to impose world government;
Deja Vu all over again: climate is changing but that is merely natural alteration that has been going on for millennia and soon enough we’ll be back in a cooling trend (the cynic adds “and we’ll be all hot [sic] and bothered about an impending ice age!”);
It Isn’t Us: climate may well be changing but the causal mechanism is NOT increased emissions of CO2 or methane, etc. because of human activity. Therefore there’s no need to do anything.
In contrast, population growth denial did not focus on disputing the data on rapidly growing numbers of people in much of the world, with the exception of the Irish delegate to the UN General Assembly in 1965 who condemned the whole discussion of population growth as merely “...a conspiracy of the international contraceptive manufacturers...” Instead the argument centered around whether there were real problems posed by rates of growth.
Two population growth denial positions were common.
Up With People: one point of view, strongly associated with the position of the Roman Catholic Church, saw growing population as a positive good, a manifestation of God’s command in Genesis to be fruitful and multiply. The real problem was that efforts would be made to promote contraception.
Grow Baby, Grow: yes, this position said, population is growing and there is a problem -- a potential lack of food. But the solution is not curtailing people but expanding production. This view was most often voiced by the Soviet Union and its allies, who usually added the notion that it was capitalist/imperialist stifling of Third World workers and farmers that caused the problem .
International Solutions to International Problems
In the early 1960s the United Nations tried to develop a comprehensive global strategy for dealing with population growth. In essence, what proponents wanted was a sweeping statement that uncontrolled population growth was a global threat to world peace and stability and therefore every government had to develop national strategies for family planning (which everyone knew had to include access to contraception.) The effort failed in the face of a passionate minority of states.
Side note that may interest me more than anyone else: whether a country voted for or against the proposal was not related to its demographics, either size of population rate of growth, or density. It was not a Cold War issue pitting the Communist East against the capitalist West, nor a clash between the more developed North and the less developed South. States with a large proportion of Catholics in their population, regardless of demographics, ideology or level of development, were against the proposed grand strategy.
The emergence of climate change as an issue also had a strong international dimension. Beginning with the global conference on the environment in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the UN fostered a global strategy for dealing with climate change, initially expressed in the Framework Contention on Climate Change which came into effect in 1994. The Framework was broad and bland enough that almost everyone signed on. But when negotiations were in held in Kyoto in 1997 to try to put some meat on the Framework’s bare bones and to go beyond “somebody probably ought to do something” to draft a Protocol to the Framework treaty that would lay out who should do what, the international consensus collapsed. Several subsequent meetings have made no progress. Many observers think that between the international politics of deciding which countries have to change and who should bear the short term economic consequences of reducing emissions and some doubts about the utility of the strategies embodied in the Kyoto approach, the search for a comprehensive global strategy has reached a dead end. It is not as simple as a conflict between the advanced capitalist economies of the Global North and the developing economies of the Global South. But when the discussions have gotten serious, it has tended to degenerate into one side saying “you got rich by spitting tons of CO2 into the atmosphere for 150 years and now you want to stifle our growth” and the other side saying “if you make the same mistakes we did we’re all screwed and, besides, you’re refusing to do anything so you can have a competitive advantage and sell even more stuff to our consumers.”
Out With The Hedgehogs, In With The Foxes [a hedgehog knows one big thing; the fox knows many little things]
Even if the global approach of the 1960s had been politically feasible, it would not have halted the unprecedented growth in the world’s population. There are several variables that determine the size of a country’s population at some time in the future. Two of the most important are the number of women of child bearing age and the number of children each of those women can be expected to have. Given the growth that had already occurred, there were more women of child bearing age than the world had ever seen and their younger sisters who would soon begin bearing children were an even larger cohort. So even as the number of children each woman was expected to have declined, as it did, the overall population continued to grow. But that rate of growth was slowed by a number of steps taken by governments, non-governmental groups, and individual women and men. Our situation today and in the decades to come would have been far worse if these groups and individuals had not taken action.
The changes in population dynamics did not happen automatically. The hedgehogs who pushed for a unified global solution started the process but it was a host of foxes who worked on a variety of ideas who made the myriad of small changes that cumulated in big differences.
International efforts did have an impact. The United Nations General Assembly may have failed to pass a comprehensive population treaty that would have impelled action by governments, but that was not the end of UN involvement. The General Assembly did create a United Nations Population Fund which supports not only continuing research but programs within 150 countries that help local governments address women’s reproductive health, maternal and child health care, family planning, and a range of related issues. The Fund and its staff of experts cannot force a government to do something but it gives it some positive incentives to do the right thing. The second major result of the General Assembly’s 1965 showdown over population was the movement of international discussion of population issues away from the political arena to a series of international conferences in the next three decades in Bucharest, Mexico City and Cairo. Unlike the General Assembly where governments are the sole players, these conferences provide a forum and networking opportunity for citizen activists and non-governmental organizations. This is a huge benefit for people from countries whose governments are reluctant to take action or are recalcitrant opponents of doing anything. The agendas for these conferences show a steady evolution in thinking about population dynamics and the development of strategies for change. (This abbreviated and simplified account can’t capture all the hard work and sustained effort by literally hundreds of thousands people around the world, nor catalog their successes and frustrations. It also ignores continuing battles over birth control, sterilization and abortion.)
Technological breakthroughs such as the development of new strains of rice and improvements in irrigation systems for small farmers in the Global South that launched the Green Revolution in food production in the 1970s did not just happen but came from focused research and development projects and years of work by individuals and organizations to diffuse the innovations to arms and villages around the world.
Individual changes, from greater education for young girls to changes in social mores and attitudes toward women and birth control, have been an important dimension in changes in birth rates and population growth.
An optimist might expect the same pattern for climate change. Given the amount of greenhouse gases already circulating in the atmosphere and the chemistry of gases like CO2 and the reality of the lives and aspirations of the some 6 billion people who live in the less developed Global South, there seems to be no realistic hope for suddenly reducing emissions to the point where we are not adding anything to the dynamics of global warming. But the optimist can see technological changes, personal choices, and national policies that lead to significant reductions in emissions and creative adaptations that let us cope with the most disastrous consequences of climate change.
The optimist is willing to make a leap of faith and believe that the efforts of the hundreds of thousands of people around the world, from the scientists of the IPCC and universities to the economic and political forces shaping government policies to the activists pushing for bigger and faster changes, to the individuals making small changes in life style, will cumulate into real progress. The optimist will realize that, fortunately, she or he doesn’t have to counter the negative effects of climate change all by him or herself but can look for opportunities to be a helpful fox whatever means are available, be it political activism, financial support for the work of others, or life style changes. The optimist may look at the story of five decades of work on population issues and decide that the tortoise is a better mascot: slow and steady beats flash and dash.