Wishful Thinking from the Center for American Progress

By Philip Cafaro on October 16, 2010

In the progressive political circles I frequent, I often hear exclamations of amazement regarding climate change deniers. "How can these people reject the mountain of evidence that the world is warming? How can they deny the scientific consensus regarding humanity's leading role in disrupting the climate? How, in good conscience, can they ignore climate change's potentially disastrous impacts on their own children and grandchildren?"

These are good questions, but I can't say I share my friends' amazement. The fact is, people often believe what we find comforting, and accept or reject new information not on its objective merits, but on whether it coheres with our hopes, dreams, and worldviews. Conservatives who believe passionately in the goodness of an endlessly growing market economy may be ill-equipped to digest the evidence that this wonderful wealth-making machine is causing significant ecological problems. If they do accept such a possibility, they still may not be in the best position to judge whether minor or major tinkering is needed to solve those problems.

Progressives, I think, love the machine a little less, and thus tend to be a little more willing to engage in major tinkering. But we have our own blind spots, as I was reminded yesterday when the Center for American Progress came out with a new report titled "From a 'Green Farce' to a Green Future: Refuting False Claims About Immigrants and the Environment." Among the "false claims" supposedly refuted are the following:

  • more people tends to lead to more pollution and greater strains on natural resources.

  • stabilizing America's population has an important part to play in reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

  • since immigration accounts for most current and future projected population growth in the U.S., reducing immigration would help Americans combat global climate change.

Not only are such claims false, according to author Jorge Madrid, they are obviously false: "phony environmental arguments." So those who put them forward must be "intentionally misleading" people, as a cover for "nativist organizations and hate groups" (p.1).

But is it obviously false that population growth tends to cause environmental problems or make them harder to solve? Not according to the President's Council on Sustainable Development, which concluded in its 1996 report:

"Managing population growth, resources, and wastes is essential to ensuring that the total impact of these factors is within the bounds of sustainability. Stabilizing the population without changing consumption and waste production patterns would not be enough, but it would make an immensely challenging task more manageable. In the United States, each is necessary; neither alone is sufficient." (Chapter 6)

Presumably the President's Council on Sustainable Development was not a hate group, intentionally trying to mislead people. Yet one of the Council's ten main suggestions for creating a sustainable society was: "Move toward stabilization of U.S. population."

What about claims regarding the need to reduce immigration and stabilize U.S. population in order to rein in America's greenhouse gas emissions – are they obviously false? According the U.S. Department of Energy, between 1990 and 2003, U.S. per capita CO2 emissions increased 3.2 percent while total U.S. CO2 emissions increased 20.2 percent. The reason for the discrepancy is that during that same period, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, America's population increased 16.1 percent. More people drove more cars, built more houses, ate more food, took more vacations, and did all the other things that emit carbon. Population growth accounted for four-fifths of increased emissions during this period, with per capita consumption growth accounting for one-fifth. Population growth greatly increased total emissions and it is total emissions, not per person emissions, that quantify America's full contribution to global warming.

Given such facts, those like Jorge Madrid who choose to deny or downplay the connection between population growth and increased greenhouse gas emissions would seem to have a heavy burden of proof with which to contend. At a minimum, it seems absurd to claim that making this connection is obviously false.

Looking to the future, scientists are calling for steep reductions in U.S. emissions, in order to avoid potentially catastrophic climate change. Meanwhile, American politicians have so far avoided committing to even modest reductions. Given the costs involved and the power of inertia, it seems highly unlikely that our country will do enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the coming years with the added hurdle of doubling our population over the next six or seven decades, as we are on track to do at current immigration levels. Of course, we can spin out fantasies where our population continues growing rapidly and we still drastically reduce carbon emissions. But if Al Gore is right that meeting the climate challenge is the moral imperative of our time, then indulging such fantasies seems wrong – regardless of whether those fantasies come from the right or the left.

* * *

The Center for American Progress bills itself as a think tank providing new ideas to further a progressive political agenda in the United States. But in this instance, its goal appears to be to help true-believers not think about the possible connections between population growth and environmental issues. In addition to ad hominem attacks against those who make the population/environment connection, author Jorge Madrid deploys two main tactics to sprinkle woofle dust in the eyes of his readers.

First, Madrid sets up straw man arguments, rather than honestly dealing with the real arguments of his opponents. For example, he writes that "the assumption that immigrant-driven population growth alone drives the U.S. carbon footprint is false" (p.2). The key word here is "alone." Of course, neither population nor population growth alone drives our carbon emissions, which are a function of population multiplied by per capita consumption. But population is very important, as has already been demonstrated. Double U.S. per capita energy consumption and all else being equal, you double U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Double U.S. population and all else being equal, you also double U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Or consider this example of what Madrid calls "a classic green farce argument against immigrants":

"The more people added to a society, the more taxing it will be on natural resources, resulting in increased environmental destruction. This is usually followed by a typical green farce solution: fewer people . . . The reality is that our environmental impact is not just determined by our numbers, but how we use resources – how we produce and consume energy, and what policies we put in place to shape these decisions." (p.3)

The key words here are "just determined." No population stabilization advocate I know would deny that other factors besides population also play a role in our environmental impacts. The classic formulation, by Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren (currently President Obama's chief science advisor) is I = P x A x T, where environmental impact (I) is a function of total population (P) times per capita consumption (A, for "affluence") times the technologies used in production (T). All three factors are important, none can be neglected, if we truly want to create a sustainable society. Population advocates realize this, despite this author's efforts to suggest otherwise.

Jorge Madrid's second tactic to confuse his readers is simple: make up facts. For example, he asserts that "population numbers affect emissions but consumption is by far the greater factor" (p.5). Madrid provides no argument for this astounding statement, or citations to back it up, for the obvious reason that it is nonsense. It is like saying that the length of a rectangle is more important than its width in determining its area.

Here is a second example of a make-believe fact cut to fit a pre-conceived position. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this statement crosses over into deliberate obfuscation designed to confuse readers:

"Cities with large immigrant populations do not have the highest levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Los Angeles, a city with an immigrant population of over 40 percent, had the second-lightest per capita carbon footprint in the United States according to a 2008 Brookings study." (p.5)

Note the slide from "levels of greenhouse gas emissions" in the first sentence to "per capita carbon emissions" in the second. These are not the same thing! In fact, another 2008 study that identified the top-twenty CO2-polluting U.S. cities and suburbs listed Los Angeles second, trailing only Houston in total greenhouse gas emissions. The reason is obvious: L.A.'s population is so huge that even with a relatively low per capita carbon output, all those capitas generate a tremendous amount of carbon.

It would be easy to point to similar confusions, deliberate or otherwise, in this report, but astute readers will find them easily enough themselves. The key point is that such statements and the report as a whole show clear evidence of a commitment to ideology over truth. With "Earth in the balance," I think such a commitment is dangerous.

When President Bush told the country, a few years ago, that he was committing the U.S. to lowering the amount of carbon generated per unit of GDP by a seemingly large percentage, environmentalists were quick to note that under likely economic growth scenarios, our total carbon emissions would still rise. We called out Bush, rightly, for his failure to do enough to limit carbon emissions and his dishonest attempt to cover up that failure. But when Jorge Madrid discusses cities' per capita greenhouse emissions and notes that cities with high immigrant populations tend to have lower per capita emissions, while neglecting to mention that these cities also tend to have high total carbon emissions due to large and growing populations, the case seems exactly the same. In both cases, we have a willful obscuring of the truth, designed to mislead fellow citizens. In both cases, we have an unwillingness to confront reality.

Environmentalists or the leadership over at the DNC may not want to hear it, but current immigration rates into the United States are unsustainable. They are helping undermine any hope we still have of doing our fair share to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit global climate change. Apparently, climate change denial can take many forms.