Decoupling Population from Global Warming

No environmental issue, other than global warming, generates as much controversy and misguided rhetoric as overpopulation. (The disclaimer at the top of the Wikipedia entry that I link to speaks for itself.)

The population issue has loomed so large in the environmental movement that greens these days have a tendency to consider it part of the global warming equation. It’s not.

So Joe Romm is to be applauded for his post today, aptly headlined, “Consumption dwarfs population as global warming threat.”

Romm is obviously smart enough to recognize that Al Gore’s or Thomas Friedman’s carbon footprint dwarfs that of a family of ten living in a mud hut in Haiti or the Philippines.

So this makes me wonder if Romm’s simplistic posts on catastrophic floods and wildfires are cynical attempts to rouse greater public concern.

I think he’s taken the wrong tack there and that it undermines his otherwise credible stances, be it on the hydrogen  economy or, as he demonstrates today, on population.

I will say this: the obvious teeth-gnashing by his acolytes in the comment thread of the post is enjoyable.

3 Responses to “Decoupling Population from Global Warming”

  1. Do we honestly have the luxury of leaving a potential wedge on the table because it isn’t the most important contributor to climate change? And who says “population” is only about rapid growth in the developing world? If discussions of population deflect in any way from consumption as a focus, it is counter-productive. But why are these discussions mutually exclusive and narrowly constructed? We need to move beyond the oversimplification arguments common in the classic UN megaconference divide pointing fingers back and forth saying too much consumption, no, too many people. There are a set of important analytical questions that serious IPCC types are investigating in this realm – why throw it overboard before we even have the results of their research? Preliminary work from Brian O’Neill for example presented at the Wilson Center at

  2. Keith Kloor says:

    Your point is a good one. There’s a really important exchange between climate scientists and policy experts just posted over at Andy Revkin’s blog, in which Roger Pielke, Jr., asks why we can’t chew gum and walk at the same time when it comes to climate policy.

    So your argument is perfectly reasonable. However, I will say that the population issue tends to get tossed in rather too conveniently with global warming. I should have been more precise in my post and said that population is not a major part of the climate change equation.

    So you’re right: population shouldn’t be thrown overboard. But neither should it be steering the ship. Can we agree on that?

  3. Absolutely, no one I know looking at pop connections wants to steer the climate ship. One would really have to be kind of crazy to want to steer the ship given where it is heading. But just a seat at the table, the research table at this point, to not define as out of bounds important research questions that could in fact offer diversified options on the policy side.  Climate is really big in scope already and it has sensitivities, but to define out the pop topic also sounds a lot like succumbing to timidity of not looking at it because it is politically sensitive (even much of the source of the sensitivity in the US has nothing to do with the issues at hand).  Perspectives like Suzanne Petroni’s “An Ethical Approach to Population and Climate Change”  offers direction on how to keep the focus in its proper place vis a vis consumption while still asking the questions.

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