Scientists Call for Population Stabilization—and Gradual Reduction—to Mitigate "Climate Emergency"

Written by Marian Starkey | Published: November 6, 2019

Over 11,000 scientists from 153 countries signed on to an article—”World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency“—published in BioScience yesterday, declaring that we’re facing a “climate emergency.” Prominent climate scientist James Hansen is among the signatories.

It’s a short piece, published in the “Viewpoint” section of the academic journal, and it’s free to view, but I’ve pulled out some highlights for you here.

The authors (William J. Ripple, Christopher Wolf, Thomas M. Newsome, Phoebe Barnard, and William R. Moomaw) start by identifying the main factors that have contributed to human-induced climate change:

“Profoundly troubling signs from human activities include sustained increases in both human and ruminant livestock populations, per capita meat production, world gross domestic product, global tree cover loss, fossil fuel consumption, the number of air passengers carried, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and per capita CO2 emissions since 2000.”

In the lead-up to identifying their suggested mitigation techniques, the authors write:

“Economic and population growth are among the most important drivers of increases in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion; therefore, we need bold and drastic transformations regarding economic and population policies.”

The scientists then propose “six critical and interrelated steps (in no particular order) that governments, businesses, and the rest of humanity can take to lessen the worst effects of climate change.” Those six steps include increasing energy efficiency and conservation, reducing the use of short-lived climate pollutants, protecting and restoring ecosystems, reducing consumption of animal products, shifting to a carbon-free economy, and stabilizing the human population. Specifically, on the last point, they write:

“Still increasing by roughly 80 million people per year, or more than 200,000 per day, the world population must be stabilized—and, ideally, gradually reduced—within a framework that ensures social integrity. There are proven and effective policies that strengthen human rights while lowering fertility rates and lessening the impacts of population growth on GHG emissions and biodiversity loss. These policies make family-planning services available to all people, remove barriers to their access and achieve full gender equity, including primary and secondary education as a global norm for all, especially girls and young women.”

Unfortunately, some reporters have mischaracterized the authors’ recommendations, writing that they are calling for “population control” to solve the climate crisis (e.g. Bloomberg, Newsweek, and MIT Technology Review). The term “population control” is not used in the BioScience article, nor is it alluded to at any point. The Washington Post does the cause no favors by writing that the study “directly addresses the politically sensitive subject of population growth.” Same goes for Smithsonian Magazine, which writes that the six suggested steps “range from well-known solutions like transitioning away from fossil fuels and countering deforestation to more uncomfortable tactics like slowing population growth and eating less meat.” VICE writes, “Overpopulation is an incredibly charged topic…”

Discussing population stabilization via voluntary, human-rights-based means should not be any more “politically sensitive,” “uncomfortable,” or “charged” than discussing other lifestyle factors such as unnecessary air travel or meat-heavy diets. It’s time for the world to recognize the important role population trends and dynamics play in causing climate change and in making mitigation and adaptation more difficult—future generations depend on it.