Population Growth: The Elephant in the Room at the Paris Climate-Change Conference

By Jerry Kammer on December 1, 2015

The big item on the international diplomatic stage for the next two weeks will be the talks in Paris aimed at reaching agreement on actions to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The big item that is being ignored in the run-up to the talks is the other major factor in the climate-change equation: the population growth that is accelerating the emissions. The billowing growth of the number of human beings is the elephant in the climate-change room.

According to United Nations projections, Earth will grow from its current population of 7.3 billion people to 8.5 billion in 2030, on a trajectory that could take it to 11.2 billion by the end of the century. During this period, India is projected to replace China as the world's most populous country,

The story of India's surging population has a lot to do with biotechnology. In the 1970s the "Green Revolution", led by American biologist Norman Borlaug, took India from the edge of famine to food self-sufficiency by creating a six-fold increase the yield of wheat. That miraculous accomplishment negated the prophecy of Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich, whose 1968 book The Population Bomb had predicted widespread famine and starvation in India and elsewhere.

Borlaug's miraculous accomplishment encouraged those who believed that technology would save the world from self-destruction through overpopulation. But as Alan Weisman points out in his remarkable 2013 book Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth, that optimism "was not shared by Borlaug himself."

Borlaug warned that: "We are dealing with two opposing forces, the scientific power of food production and the biologic power of human reproduction. ... There can be no permanent progress in the battle against hunger until the agencies that fight for increased food production and those that fight for population control unite in a common effort."

Borlaug died in 2009. Weisman writes that the scientist who replaced him at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, Hans-Joachim Braun, was angry at the failure of a United Nations meeting to include population growth on its agenda. "We talk about global warming, we talk about all the problems, but the underlying, biggest problem — population growth — wasn't mentioned once."

Braun's comment brings to mind the equally exasperated comment by Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson in his book The Diversity of Life: "The raging monster upon the land is population growth. In its presence, sustainability is but a fragile theoretical concept."

Wilson is one of many scientists who have called for a reduction of immigration in order to limit the growth of the U.S. population. They have been denounced as racists and xenophobes by radical immigration activists who – with funding from liberal foundations including the Ford, Carnegie, and MacArthur foundations – push for unlimited immigration as a means of providing opportunity to the world's poor.

These same activists have succeeded in making efforts to limit immigration taboo in many liberal circles. They have muzzled voices like those of the Population and Consumption Task Force of President Clinton's Council on Sustainable Development. In 1996, the task force concluded that: "reducing current immigration levels is a necessary part of working toward sustainability in the United States."

Carbon emissions are largely the result of human consumption. Human consumption is a function of lifestyle and numbers. By fixating on lifestyle and technologies related to lifestyle, the Paris talks are ignoring the elephant that looms over their elegant Parisian setting.