[COMMENTARY] This Earth Day, Let’s Have an Uncomfortable Discussion

This April 22, President Biden will host up to 40 world leaders at the Leaders Summit on Climate. The Earth Day Summit will be convened just two weeks after the President submitted his request for fiscal year 2022 discretionary funding to Congress. The request includes racial inequity and climate change among the four “compounding crises of unprecedented scope and scale” currently faced by the United States. Environmental justice, Tribal capacity to address climate change, racial equity in agriculture, and resilience of frontline and underserved communities to climate change laudably are prominent in summaries of requested funds for major agencies. Noticeably absent from President Biden’s request, and often absent from discussions about equitable mitigation and adaption to climate change, is a reference to the size and distribution of the human population. 

The effects of population size on quality of life, including physical and mental health, are well understood. For example, a publication in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicated that a peak in population size of 8.5 billion (from a current 7.8 billion) not only is more likely than continued population growth to maximize the average individual level of happiness but will facilitate improved health and educational outcomes. Instead, prominent and respected media outlets such as Marketplace, National Public Radio, and The New York Times are raising concerns, sometimes grave, that reductions in national birth rates may harm economic growth and the capacity for eldercare. Population policy may be informed by thoughtful debate about trade-offs among the effects of demography on environmental quality, climate-change impacts, and other societal values. However, such debate is predicated on a willingness to have difficult or uncomfortable conversations that go beyond racial and cultural identity to the national and global effects of population policy and personal fertility choices.

President Biden’s request for discretionary funding includes reinvestment in the United Nations Population Fund, the organization’s agency for sexual and reproductive health, which supports voluntary family planning and the health of girls, women, and mothers. Additionally, the request would expand access to family planning in the United States under Title X. Moreover, the Administration aims to establish the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity and to support programs on climate and health at the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Biden Administration clearly recognizes the nexus among women’s health and education, human health, and climate change. Yet relations among population size, emissions of greenhouse gases, and undesirable effects of climate change rarely are highlighted.

For more than 50 years, scientists have referenced the notion that the negative effects of human society on the environment reflect the interaction between population size and per capita resource use. Emissions of greenhouse gases, in turn, tend to increase as affluence increases, even when higher-income individuals settle in neighborhoods designed to have small carbon footprints. Accordingly, access to family planning is a major path for mitigating the rate and magnitude of climate change, especially as less-developed countries seek a higher standard of living. Models suggest that future increases in population size also are likely to increase the demand for surface water and groundwater, both of which are being depleted by aridification, regardless of realistic scenarios of water-use efficiency.

Some may fear that discussion of fertility in the context of climate change could lead to government interference with reproductive freedom, or perhaps to unwarranted rhetoric about “birth panels”. To the contrary, family planning emphasizes self-determination and personal agency—the ability to choose how many children to bear, whether none or a dozen. Nevertheless, the power of choice often leads to fewer births and delayed age at first reproduction, both of which gradually reduce population size and lead to a more even age structure. There also are fears about decreases in fertility leading to social instability as the population grows. Notwithstanding reductions in births in some higher-income countries, the global population obviously is increasing. The Biden Administration’s American Jobs Plan, released on March 31, would expand access to elder care under Medicaid, and increase wages for home care workers. Furthermore, criteria for some United States visas include extraordinary ability, such as talent in the sciences, education, business, athletics, and some arts. These precedents seem to suggest the possibility of temporary or permanent immigration from countries with increasing population sizes as a means of augmenting the eldercare infrastructure or economic sustainability in the United States. 

Of course, there are social barriers to population redistribution as a means of both decreasing emissions and safeguarding elder care and economic potential. Immigration is highly contentious, and differences in culture and language affect personal interactions and social services. This Earth Day, however, let’s contemplate substantive action and encourage transformative thinking about population and climate change. Let’s do the work.

About the Author

Erica Fleishman is Director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, a professor in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University, and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project. 

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