Earth Day Insights

Population Pressures in the Face of Climate Challenges

Population pressures exacerbate environmental challenges, from resource depletion to biodiversity loss and climate crises. Using a human-rights-based approach—namely, removing barriers to family planning and girls’ education—we can empower people to have smaller families and contribute toward slower population growth. It’s one of the most powerful available actions to limit future greenhouse gas emissions, along with reducing per capita consumption in wealthy nations. Yet an estimated 218 million women in developing regions who want to avoid pregnancy have an unmet need for modern contraception.

Presentation Date: April 16th, 2024

Meet the Speaker

John Seager

President and CEO

Population Connection’s Policy Priorities

Population Education

Page Turners Book Club

Figure: Wind, Solar, and Coal

  • Table on page 57

Brookings Report: Family Planning

  • Figure on page 23

Figure: Girls’ Education 

  • Figure on page 10 of working paper

RFK Speech

  • John referred to paragraph beginning with “And this is one of the great tasks of leadership for us, as individuals and citizens this year.”



Questions from the audience, with responses from President & CEO John Seager

What do you regard as the top 3 strategies for addressing climate change?
  1. Full reproductive autonomy along with the education and empowerment of women and girls.
  2. Renewable energy.
  3. Shifting away from the accumulation of material goods toward ideas and experiences and relationships.
How can we help address climate upheaval via population limitation?

By empowering women everywhere, we could move relatively quickly from population growth to stabilization to reducing our numbers.

Why is there such a taboo on discussing overpopulation as a major cause of the climate crisis? The media, the WHO, and other scientific agencies avoid the subject.

There are multiple reasons, including:

  • Reducing population is not seen as a profit center. I certainly don’t mind if somebody gets rich developing renewable energy, but no one is going to become wealthy providing birth control to poor people.
  • It can be difficult to get organizations to focus on challenges that require sustained effort over generations. The simple fact of human longevity means that it takes a while to bend decades to bend the Population curve.
  • The population issue has frequently been used as a stalking horse for various causes and beliefs which make it controversial. And bureaucracies tend to avoid controversy.
How can people connect the growing population with environmental destruction?

While some people, including many of our members who are highly educated, pay attention to data, many other people are more moved by individual stories about places where people and nature were able to thrive together but which are now being destroyed. Our best bet is to reach young people.

What framing can we use to tie environmental degradation directly to population overshoot, where it implies human social benefits but mitigated planetary degradation? The classic win-win proposition – with population restraint.

It may be less a matter of “framing” than it is of timing. There is an unfortunate tendency as we age to close our minds to new ideas. That’s why we focus so much of our work on K-12 Population Education. Young minds are often more receptive.

What does the term ‘resilience’ connote in the context of this conversation? I’m finding ‘irrepressible’ and ‘expansive’ to be synonyms for ‘resilient’. Is the resilience of the population our true challenge in finding equilibrium?

As I attempted to show in my presentation, while “resilience” can be a good thing, we must be careful not to embrace the notion simply because it sounds good. Synonyms are a bit tricky. In this case, I don’t think those two words are quite on point. At its best, resilience enables people and ecological systems to rebound. But that’s a lot easier said than done, and it can be used as a cover for inaction.

What is the carrying capacity for humans on planet Earth? If the living standards are raised for humanity in general, it seems 2.5 to 3 billion would be optimal if we are going to maintain ecological stability. We are losing about three species an hour now. 

The carrying capacity depends in part on how each of us wishes to live and how we wish all others to live – not just humans and not just those here at present, but future generations as well. Based on current consumption levels (and I don’t know what other metric you could use), the Earth is wildly overpopulated. And, barring catastrophe, it will take a number of generations, at best, to get back down to that sort of level.

Who favors unconstrained population growth? Who benefits?

Certainly, a case can be made that for-profit corporations benefit when they have more paying customers. And, although technology has changed things, nations with larger armies have tended to defeat those with smaller armies. But it’s less a question of who benefits, than it is that there may not be any real profit margin to be found in the private sector when you reduce population growth.

What is the best way to obtain specific global population data for historical dates?

There is no shortage of great data. Some good places to start are the UN, the US Census Bureau, and the Population Reference Bureau.

Are there any developing countries that are keeping their population within sustainable bounds?

Once a nation falls below “replacement rate” fertility (which is generally considered to be 2.1 children per woman in a relatively healthy society). It will, over time, see its population decline. Absent migration. Here are several major success stories of countries that are now below “replacement rate:)

  • Bangladesh
  • Colombia
  • El Salvador
  • India
  • Indonesia
  • Tunisia
  • Vietnam
How are past and future pandemics expected to impact family planning and population numbers?

There are pandemics, and then there are epidemics. With respect to the latter, we’ve seen an upsurge in zoonotic diseases, that is, diseases that have made the leap from animals to humans including AIDS, SARS, Lyme disease, and Ebola. Often, this is related to human incursion into wild areas, which is often driven by population growth. Viruses evolve up to 1 million times faster than mammals. We know there will be future pandemics. And they can spread far more quickly than in the past due to the availability of air travel and due to highly and densely populated areas with poor healthcare.

We have 8 billion people, but the UN said that we will stop our growth by 11 billion. Studies said we can handle 12 billion. Where does the truth lie?

The Earth could have a population of 30 billion+ people if we were all willing to live in a state of constant desperate abject poverty and spend our days searching for food and water. Of course, we would destroy every ecosystem in the process, and eventually there would be a collapse. It’s time we stop thinking of the earth like a clown car where we try to cram as many people in as possible. What will be so bad if, through positive voluntary means over several centuries, the population of Earth declined to say, 1 billion or even fewer?

What organizations are successfully providing direct access to reproductive healthcare, such as sex ed, birth control, and abortions, to women in the world? What can we do to further their efforts in the US and worldwide?

Here are several great sources: IPPF, PSI, MSI are three great resources. These and all similar organizations simply lack sufficient financial resources, since there is a $5 billion plus annual global funding gap in terms of contraception. The best thing most of us can do is to encourage Congress to increase US funding from its current level of about $600 million a year, which makes us the global leader. And, of course, personal donations matter as well.

I would like to deeply understand the approaches that can be used to limit the barriers associated with family planning, especially with the community’s negative stereotypes attached to most methods.

Most Americans have a favorable view of birth control although there are always going to be extremist voices. As long as all methods undergo rigorous regulatory scrutiny and oversight and as long as they are purely voluntary, they will be widely accepted both here in the United States and in most places around the world. That said, there are certainly cultural taboos and other impedances. For example, while American Catholics generally disregard the Vatican’s teaching against artificial contraception in less well-educated places, Catholics do tend to follow the teaching of the Church. And there is a wide variation among Muslim nations in terms of birth control. Some embrace it, while others do not. Of course, the same can be said for Christianity.

The best approaches are person-to-person, as when women who look, dress, and talk like women in villages and communities have private conversations with them about this most personal of matters. As the saying goes, people don’t care what you know until they know that you care. Then, of course, the methods must be available and affordable.

The book Ejaculate Responsibly deals with male responsibility. In this scenario, I’d like to see you address male education as well!

As the saying goes, if men could get pregnant birth control would be free and bacon flavored. More seriously, many men have simply failed to act responsibly and often fled the consequences of their failures. Education is a key first step. And we still don’t have effective methods of male contraception other than condoms and vasectomies. That said, I don’t think any woman anywhere should have to have her reproductive fate depend upon any man anywhere.