In the News, December 2023

Written by Olivia Nater, Communications Manager | Published: December 11, 2023

Breaking planetary boundaries

Two recent studies provide renewed warnings that the risk of triggering catastrophic tipping points is rapidly increasing due to humanity’s failure to shrink our collective environmental footprint. The first paper, published in the journal Science Advances, is an update of the planetary boundaries framework developed in 2009 by scientists at the Stockholm Resilience Centre to quantify a “safe operating space” for humanity and provide a holistic picture of our impact on the environment. The new analysis revealed we’ve exceeded the safety threshold for six out of the nine planetary boundaries, including for climate change, biodiversity loss, and freshwater use.

The other study, published in BioScience, is an update of the 2019 “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency,” which called for urgent climate action and was endorsed by thousands of scientists. The 2023 report warns that we are now in “uncharted territory” because world leaders have failed to take the required action, leading to new record extremes for the majority of “planetary vital signs,” including human population size, greenhouse gas emissions, and sea level rise. The authors point out that global heating is “just one aspect of the escalating and interconnected environmental crisis” and call for “policies that target the underlying issues of ecological overshoot,” including stabilizing and gradually decreasing population by removing barriers to voluntary family planning and girls’ and women’s education and rights.

Elon Musk is funding ‘population collapse’ research

Elon Musk is known for frequently expressing his concern over the trend toward smaller families. An investigation by Bloomberg found that Musk donated $10 million to the University of Texas at Austin for the development of the Population Wellbeing Initiative (PWI), which conducts research on future population scenarios. The head of PWI recently wrote an op-ed for The New York Times that made it look like a drastic population decline due to low birth rates is imminent (it isn’t). The article laments the “tens of billions of lives not lived over the next few centuries—many lives that could have been wonderful.” Misleading stories on fertility and demographic trends are fueling harmful views and attitudes—far-right influencers and self-described eugenicists who want to increase birth rates are gathering in Austin this December for a “Natal Conference.”

U.S. abortions increased in the year post-Dobbs

A report by #WeCount, an initiative by the Society of Family Planning, found that the average number of monthly abortions rose in the year after the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade on June 24, 2022. The ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization led to more than a dozen states banning the procedure in almost all circumstances. In the two months before Dobbs, the average monthly number of abortions was 82,115, while in the 12 months after Dobbs, the average monthly number of abortions was 82,298. While the number of abortions in states with bans plummeted, this was more than made up for by the increase in states in which the procedure remains legal. The greatest increase was seen in states adjacent to those with bans, such as Illinois and Florida, due to patients traveling to their nearest legal options. The report also notes that increasing availability of telehealth services as well as abortion funds set up in response to the Roe reversal likely helped more women access the care they need. The data do not account for self-managed abortions outside the formal health care system.

Population growth to drive U.S. cities’ future energy use

Residential and commercial buildings are responsible for 39% of national energy consumption and 28% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Hotter days and larger populations are leading to increasing demand for air conditioning—a new study published in Nature Communications found that for each degree Celsius of climate warming, the total energy used per square foot of building will increase on average by 14% for cooling, and decrease by 10% for heating. When averaged over all 277 urban areas considered in the study, climate change and power sector decarbonization are expected to lead to average net decreases in buildings’ energy use, while projected population growth will lead to increases between 7% and 52%, depending on the warming scenario.

Most populous countries have worst air pollution

A report by the University of Chicago found that particulate pollution (PM2.5) is shortening people’s lives by an average of 2.3 years globally. India alone—now the world’s most populous country—is responsible for around 59% of the global increase in air pollution since 2013. The six worst affected countries account for as much as three-quarters of the global health burden in terms of total life years lost. In descending order of pollution level, these are Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, China, Nigeria, and Indonesia, which are all among the world’s eight most populous nations. In Bangladesh, citizens are losing on average 6.8 years of life due to unhealthy air.

21 endangered U.S. species declared extinct

In October, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed 21 species previously found in the U.S. and its territories from the Endangered Species Act, after finding the available data indicate they are most likely extinct. The newly extinct species include a Guam bat, 10 birds (including eight from Hawaii), two fish (from Texas and Ohio), as well as nine southeastern mussels. The causes of these extinctions include habitat loss, overexploitation, invasive species, and pollution. Altogether, an estimated 650 U.S. species are thought to have been lost so far.

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