The relationship between population size and anthropogenically-driven climate change is problematic, and definitely not straightforward. Controlling population growth, while balancing increasing resource utilization, shrinking resources, the desire and capacity for improved living conditions, and the state of the natural world, is challenging to say the least. Each one of these issues is complex by itself, and taken together they form the most complex system that society has to deal with. The solutions are not obvious, and below I’ll try to outline some of the dilemna.
Let’s say for the moment that, with regard to climate change, each individual or society as a whole can adopt one of several simplified strategies. One can either deny or accept anthropogenic climate change, and one can either do nothing, or do something. That gives us several joint approaches:
- 1. Deny and do nothing. This approach is still with us, but is thankfully becoming more of a historic anachronism. It is not an unreasonable approach if placed within the proper context — the past. Without evidence that climate is changing, why would we do anything about it? Practically, one should continue on with business as usual, especially if that business is beneficial to the societal good. This has been the prefered strategy for most of humanity’s history. Today, however, no intelligent mind can deny the reality of ongoing climate change, and this strategy is therefore obsolete.
- 2. Deny and do something. This approach is listed for combinatoric completeness, but it really does not make any sense, unless, I suppose, one is in a position where there is an obligation or responsibility for going along with someone else’s strategy. This could be the case for leaders who are encouraged, coerced or forced into action against their beliefs, or citizens who must comply with societal decisions. I suspect that, at least in the United States, this will be the eventual fate of skeptics who, supported by misguided confidence in their abilities to understand the problem, will never listen to scientific or societal reason (for some particularly mind-boggling examples, check here and here).
- 3. Accept and do nothing. I think of this as a transition strategy, and the one that society has been using for the last century or so. The first cautions about climate change date to the 19th century, but as we know, it is only within the last couple of decades that the problem has seen broad acceptance. Again, this is perfectly reasonable. First, scientifically-speaking, demonstrating recent anthropogenically-driven climate change has been very difficult. Furthermore, making predictions of future impacts, as well as developing joint scientific, economic and political solutions remain fraught with uncertainty. Second, the cost of doing nothing has so far been rather small, or at least has appeared to be small. In spite of numerous challenges, the scientific, economic and political revolutions of the last 200 years have resulted in broad (though disparate) increases in global prosperity and population growth. There is, however, no free lunch in the Universe. The Earth’s resources are finite. This is easy to recognize when we consider resources such as fossil fuels, utilizable land, mineral resources, and so on. It is much more difficult, however, to recognize and accept that a far more important resource is the state of the global ecosystem. Our ability to exploit simple resources, and grow the human population, is predicated on a stable and predictable global ecosystem. All our activities take place within the context of ecosystem services and stability, and are meaningless, in fact impossible, without such context. Unfortunately, the do nothing approach is changing the context, and we can no longer maintain this strategy while enjoying increased prosperity and population growth. There are simply too many of us, and we consume too much.
- 4. Accept and do something. This of course is the strategy which we must now adopt. That much is simple, but the strategy itself is not simple. What do we do? First, we must strive ever more diligently to understand the scientific and societal complexities of the joint human-natural worlds. Second, we must mitigate the activities that have led us from the Deny strategies to the forced Accept strategies. Notably, we must reduce those activities that are eroding the systems, namely our heavy reliance on fossil fuels and continued exponential growth of the human global population. Third, we must evaluate carefully the cost of those reductions to human prosperity. Finally, however, we must weigh, as honestly as we can, those costs against the costs to human prosperity of doing nothing. And remember, human prosperity is ultimately and completely dependent upon the state of the global ecosystem.
Sadly, as the recent proclamations of the G8 leaders make all too clear, we are currently stuck between strategies 3 and 4: Accept and maybe do something. “Something” translates to not enough. We are selling long-term prosperity and stability for short-term economic gain. The United States has once again failed to step up to its role as a world leader, and thereby seize the economic and political opportunities that could be realized for its people. Instead, the prosperity of the people are held hostage to the interests of a few (societally uninterested) corporations, irresponsible international partners, and a domestic minority of pseudo-intellectual dimwits. The resulting world can most certainly exist, but it will not be pleasant. We will trade the potential of the human condition for what Robert May has aptly described as, “the Blade Runner world”.