28 November 2019

people have the power

For the time being, I promise, this will be the last post about climate change. But there is this one thing that has been bothering me and I have done a bit a lot of reading while I was knocked out with the (hopefully) tail end of this virus infection and I have discussed it with pretty much anybody who came my way in the last week.
It's the claim that we are just too many, that no matter what steps are taken to mitigate the effects of climate change, the sheer number of people on the planet will undo it all. It bothered me because in recent years I have edited a couple of scientific papers on population growth and the observable trends. Which all point to a halt and a decrease in the foreseeable future. This is not based on guesswork or estimations but on actual figures.
(Bear in mind that I am only the language editor correcting spelling and grammar, crossing out obvious stuff like tautologies, repeats and empty phrasing and so on. So, these findings just hovered somewhere in my subconscious, forgotten but not deleted. So from now on, all scientific errors are mine.)

So some facts first:
Between 1950 and 1987 (37 years, a bit more than one generation) the global population doubled from 2.5 to 5 billion people and the growth rate, i.e. the increase per year, peaked at 2.1% in 1962.

Since then, population growth has been slowing and along with it the doubling time. According to UN projections, by 2088 it will have taken nearly 100 years (compared to 37) for the population to double to a predicted 11 billion.

In other words:  The world population has now surpassed its peak rate of growth, and as the period between each billion is becoming longer and longer, population numbers are expected to drop.

Have a look at the video by the late Hans Rosling, Swedish physician and chairman of the amazing Gapminder Foundation, (according to Wikipedia) "a non-profit venture (. . . ) that promotes sustainable global development (. . .) by increased use and understanding of statistics and other information about social, economic and environmental development at local, national and global levels." More about Gapminder here.

(If you have the time, I urge you to take the short Gapminder test on global facts. Just to clear some cobwebs on the brain.)

Then I found some stuff on population growth myths especially in the context of climate change, where it is almost always used as an argument that we are fucked.

The first myth is that our planet cannot produce enough food for everyone.  It is true that according to the World Food Programme there are over 800 million people on the brink of starvation today. But at the same time, the world can still produce enough food to feed 10 billion people - as long as we avoid further climate disasters. People are starving because they cannot access/afford food, because their lives are affected by war and unrest and in case of crop failure, they are left without assistance, which is only a matter of organisation.

The second myth is that less people means less dangerous greenhouse gas emissions. This is based on the (simplistic) assumption that everyone’s contribution is equal. But sorry, no, it is the world's richest 10% who produce more than half of the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change - the world's poorest 3.5 billion people are only responsible for a tenth of that.
Here is a nifty graphic on these figures.

It is the greenhouse gas emissions of the consumer life style of the wealthy few that is causing climate change, not global population growth. Greenhouse gas reduction in our wealthy countries will have a much more dramatic effect on reducing climate change than stabilising growing populations in poorer countries.

I realise that even poorer populations will eventually emit more as they continue to develop. But according to scientific consensus and the Paris agreement, the world needs work on going carbon neutral now. Which means that by the time poorer nations may have developed a wealthier life style, we must have a working sustainable economy without fossil fuel consumption  – otherwise it would be too late anyway. So either we work on creating a world that can thrive on sustainable energy sources or we are fucked. It's that easy.

Don't get me wrong, stabilising the global population growth is important for a million reasons (and there are many ways to go about it) but it is neither the solution to the climate crisis nor is it the reason for it. It's a blame game argument and one that paralyses us. We use it to shrug our shoulders and just do nothing. And by doing so, we blame the world's poorest people for the mess we created with our life style choices.

Recently, I asked someone who is professionally involved in issues relating to the climate. My question was, what effect does population growth have on climate change issues.

The surprising answer: Seven billion people are not a dangerous mass, seven billion people can also translate into many million pairs of hands and many million minds with energy and ideas for change.


  1. Wow. It's good to know all that. It's something to hang on to when I feel like we have no hope at all. Thank you, Sabine.

  2. these are good things to think about. Thanks!

  3. Thank you for your research while recovering from the effects of that virus.

    I failed the Gapminder test in an impressive way and took it several times until I could score 100% (-:

    Yes. Many million pairs of hands and many million minds with energy and ideas for change. Without language editors, the scientific message would not be as clear and concise. Each of us something to contribute for the good of all on our beautiful planet.

  4. As you know I made a living in the USA editing, inter alia, academics' written stuff, turning formality into informality to render it more palatable for the magazine-reading public (And where did they go, eh?). Until the roof fell in, that is.

    I knew what this work entailed but never crystallised it into a single sentence. You have done just this and employed a phrase I intend to plagiarise. I can offer you no greater compliment.

    "Crossing out... empty phrases". What a beautiful conjunction of adjective and noun, so concise, so telling. So telling, in fact, that you caused me to sit up - metaphorically, that is - and check what I've already written for empty phrases. And yes. The longish phrase "turning formality... reading public" (No active verb; I know the drill) could be regarded as surplus to requirements. However, I'll leave it in for you to practice on. No doubt you'll find others.

    Yeah, I should be responding to your central message and I am dilatory in this. But I am eighty-four and yesterday's newspapers announcing the simultaneous deaths of Clive James and Sir Jonathan Miller somewhat silenced me, left me contemplating " a world too wide for his shrunk shank". I must, like the cobbler, stick to my last. Climate change demands attention to numerical detail and a style which grabs the reader's attention. You've done both and this is my salutation.

    1. Well, I work with scientists and they clearly are NOT writers. I am convinced that people who excel in science in school are miserable in most other subjects and never read anything apart from scientific texts. Mostly, I am correcting poorly constructed attempts at essays, cut and paste jobs and guesswork. We can all be very grateful for the text structure stipulated by the scientific publishers.
      With some of my clients I have to use pink or green as the colour to marke changes. If I use the standard red, I get flustered replies, ranging from blaming microsoft to the dog throwing up next to the laptop.

      Although it was to be expected, I was blown by the news about the death of Clive James. Apart from the poetry, did you ever watch his new year's eve shows on bbc in the early 1990s? They are still on youtube. Give yourself an hour or two of memory lane and laughter.

      I decided to forgive him for being a rude climate change denier, possibly a side effect of the chemotherapy drugs.

  5. I'm a bit more of a pessimist. I imagine there will be a massive war or widespread disease, a plague perhaps that will wipe out a large part of the population. The black death that killed almost half the population of Europe is thought by some to have had an effect on the climate. Mother nature can be drastic.

  6. I read an article or two about population growth and fertility rates. population growth is slowing for several reasons...increase in infertility and an increase in people choosing to be childless (yay birth control which makes this reliably possible). the causes of the increase in infertility weren't really addressed in what I read but it is my opinion that it's in relation to the increase of chemicals and poisons in our food supply and (and here I don't want to get into a discussion of how safe they are) GMOs (gene splicing one species to another is not the same as hybridizing). and perhaps a biological reaction to the population increase. one article said that unless fertility increases, eventually we won't be able to establish a stable population and humans would eventually die out. climate change unaddressed will do us in long before that though. saw another article yesterday that scientists are ringing the alarm that we are approaching the point of no return rapidly having reached the highest level of carbon in our atmosphere in (and here I cannot remember the time span but it was a looooong time) and important underpinning ecosystems are on the verge of collapse. once those are gone, the life they sustain will vanish as well.