Lop-sided Focus on Climate Change Ignores Other Problems; Obscures the Root Problem: Overpopulation

Many feel the climate change risk is overstated and unsupported by evidence. Among websites that question whether global warming is supported by evidence, Anthony Watt’s Watt’s Up With That website is, in my opinion, probably the most credible, and its popularity continues to grow. His more than half million hits per month include enough commenters expressing significant weather knowledge and reasonable positions (among the Gore haters and anti-government types) to make it worth reading, in my opinion. It is clear that the movie “An Inconvenient Truth” and a lot of press, some of the highest profile releases coming from James Hansen, head of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at NASA, has stirred a lot of concern worldwide. Personally, I am more concerned with the many problems, climate change possibly included, caused by the huge increase in the global human population over the last century.

Even if climate change (warming or cooling) is not as big a problem as we’re hearing on a daily basis, we have plenty of other problems. Pollution, increasing cost of fossil fuels, infrastructure maintenance/breakdown, immigration, and the impact of natural disasters are all important issues for which everyone from national governments to the individual should have long-range plans. Importantly, every one of these issues ties directly back to population and each puts pressure on both governments and taxpayers.

Pollution is a direct result of the production and use of energy and goods. More people using energy and goods means more pollution from their manufacture, use, and disposal. Rising standards of living increase consumption and demand. Dealing with pollution is costly, and the bill must be paid sooner or later. As the creators of pollution can rarely (so far) be made to pay that cost, it falls to governments and taxpayers to cover it (link), but the cost will be there in any case. In these volatile economic times legislatures do their best to keep taxes low, but pollution can not be ignored, and the cost to the taxpayer comes through receiving less government services, paying medical costs and medical insurance premiums, and similar routes, not to mention shorter and less-healthy lives, and resulting lost wages and productivity. Local governments, especially, receive less tax revenues as property values and productivity are decreased. Taxpayers get less and less government services for their tax money as population grows, as the use of energy and goods per capita increases, and as new types of pollution are added to the already long list of those that must be addressed.

Rising cost of fossil fuels is inevitable as increasing populations with improving standards of living demand more energy. Fossil fuel prices will experience short term fluctuations, but prices depend on the interaction of demand with supply. Since supply is finite costs of extraction and use will increase as we use up these resources. Since world population is growing, demand will continue to grow until we (or natural factors) cause it to fall. Unfortunately, our best efforts so far have not reduced world demand. Non-fossil energy sources are becoming available far too slowly to have much affect on fossil fuel prices, and are far from meeting our needs. While incentives for development of alternatives are a good idea, most incentives require government funds and use up taxpayer money, contributing to the financial crunch governments are experiencing, which compounds the problems and leads to further dissatisfaction of taxpayers.

More people require more infrastructure, compounding maintenance costs. As our growing population increases the need for public infrastructure such as highway systems (link) and shipping facilities, and as governments respond, the cost of maintaining the infrastructure increases accordingly. Then as governments struggle to maintain this infrastructure, taxpayer money is increasingly challenged to cover it all. Highways and other infrastructure increasingly fall into disrepair (link) as governments juggle limited tax revenues, further dissatisfying taxpayers. Eventually a point could be reached where available resources can’t keep up with the need for infrastructure repairs.

Immigration problems are inevitable as population increases most in the poorer countries. Population growth strains the economies and infrastructures of the least developed countries most, and the citizens can’t help but want to move to where they can find work and better support their families: the developed countries. While the developed countries have lower birthrates, and many actually need the low cost labor force provided by poor immigrants, poor economic conditions in many cases create an aversion to immigration by large segments of the public, leading to political issues. As governments are driven to control or reduce immigration, illegal immigration increases to meet the needs of their economies. Governments then must spend more resources to police the borders and deal with the illegal immigrants, which creates more demand for taxpayer funds but can actually reduce local and regional tax revenues from the industries suffering from labor shortages, such as fruit and produce agriculture.

Natural disasters have greater impact when populations settle high risk areas with increasing density. For instance, when few people were living on barrier islands, hurricanes and tsunamis created far fewer deaths and far less damage than they do today. Improvements in agricultural efficiency, necessary to feed the increased population, have required less and less labor, allowing increasing percentages of populations to accumulate in cities and along coastlines where they are at risk of water-related disasters. Similarly, storms and earthquakes can affect many more lives when they strike densely populated areas than was possible in less populous times, and damage costs from natural disasters are being driven upward. Governments attempting to mitigate or remedy the disasters find their resources stretched to satisfy yet another need. Again, the taxpayer must foot the bill, and is directly affected whether they are part of the disaster or not.

The earth is past the point where a larger human population will increase prosperity. The problems cited above are not all inclusive – I am sure there are more. At some point the aggregate problems caused by increasing population exceed the maximum productivity that can be achieved, and this results in a decline of average living standards. Population drives practically all of the major problems the human species faces today, and the only lasting remedy will be to convince the majority of the public, world-wide, that adding more children to the population is a bad thing. Until such time as a sustainable global situation can be achieved this must become a basic cultural belief. While a reduced birthrate is traditionally opposed by some religious groups, and in some cases opposed by industry groups having trouble finding employees, governments must be made to see the big picture and act with a long term view to avoid increasingly difficult times in the decades ahead.

Climate change is, at most, only one of the many problems facing us, while overpopulation is a key factor in practically all of them. We form governments to protect the common good, but they are not perfect. It is up to each of us to do what we can to direct government action for the good of all. Please make this point to your elected representatives: we need less focus on climate change and more government investment in both long and short term measures against overpopulation including family planning, educational, and economic assistance to the less developed countries. In the long term I believe there is no “magic bullet”, and only these measures can truly move the world towards a sustainable situation. In the near term we need a much less intense focus on climate change, which is currently only obscuring our real problems, and a more holistic view of the place of humans on the planet.

As always, I welcome your comments.

Interesting reading:
Total and Per Capita Energy Consumption by Fuel Type, (no date given), Strategic Assessment of Florida’s Environment (SAFE)
World Energy Use and Consumption, Wikipedia
Biofuels Deemed a Greenhouse Threat, Feb. 8, 2008, Elisabeth Rosenthal, NY Times
Who supports increasing petroleum fuel taxes (or oil price floor)?, Jan. 25, 2007, Friends Committee on National Legislation


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