Schweiger: Addressing Over-Population in a Rapidly Overheating World

President Joe Biden, joined by Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry, Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen and Director of the National Economic Council Brian Deese, attends the Leaders Summit on Climate Thursday, April 22.

Larry J. Schweiger
Pittsburgh Current Climate Columnist

President Biden claimed in his State of the Union speech, “When I think about climate change, I think about jobs. There’s no reason why wind turbine blades can’t be built in Pittsburgh instead of Beijing. None.”

Biden proposed a $2.3 trillion “American Jobs Plan” to make the most significant investment in U.S. jobs, climate-resilient infrastructure, and communities in history. He offered a “Made in America Tax Plan” to pay for it by getting corporations and the mega-wealthy to pay their fair share. All of this would help our economy but its passage is doubtful with Congress.

During a recent infrastructure hearing, Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) repeatedly pressed Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan to tell him how much the Earth’s temperature will go down when we spend trillions. Regan was caught off guard and responded, “I don’t have a figure in front of me that specifies how much, in isolation, this bill lowers world temperature based on just U.S. participation.” Regan added that the effects would be just part of Biden’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to spur international cooperation. In a quick comeback, Kennedy retorted, “So we’re just going to spend $2.3 trillion and find out, on a wing and a prayer?” Kennedy revealed his ignorance by repeatedly pressing Regan and Regan failed to address the question head-on. 

The truth is, even if all carbon pollution on the planet ended tomorrow, the average temperature would continue to increase for decades. The pollution already spewed into the climate system is not fully expressed and will continue to cause the upward momentum of temperatures through the loss of albedo while arousing other feedbacks. Because of the long lag times of temperature momentum, much more warming is baked in.

We must understand that it’s later than it has ever been. Ending carbon pollution is not about lowering the Earth’s fever. It is about preventing a perilous situation from getting much, much worse. 

We are in a climate crisis. NOAA reported during the recent 30-year period that the U.S. had experienced the most significant rises in temperatures. The current annual U.S. temperature is 1.7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than yearly temperatures in the early 20th century.

The Earth is warmer today than it has been in human history. Current carbon dioxide levels are sufficient without ongoing carbon pollution to push the Earth to hit the highest temperatures experienced in more than the past three million years.

With Trump lurking in the shadow, the Republican Party holds onto the dangerous lie that climate change is a hoax and a plot by the Chinese to make the U.S. non-competitive. Trump did enormous damage to the momentum of the Paris Accord when he reneged. He also abandoned EPA’s Clean Power Plan ending what he called the “Obama Administration’s war on coal.” Trump pushed extensive leasing on Federal lands, including in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and offshore. Trump promoted other fossil fuel developments across America, including the Keystone XL pipeline and other ill-conceived pipeline developments. When one party, holding sway in the Senate and the courts, refuses to confront reality, it is increasingly hard to see how America shows leadership to the world.

Temperatures all over the Earth have rapidly moved outside of human experience. Even if all signatory nations do their part to limit carbon dioxide emissions further and hold worldwide temperatures to the so-called “safe” limit of 2 degrees C, the Earth will experience increasing water scarcity, widespread drought, and other crop stresses. These degrading changes will pose an enormous threat to the food supply for much of the world’s population. We have left the climate regime that watered our crops and provided fresh water to support nearly 8 billion people and provided an extraordinary context for human civilization and nature. 

Since one billion people currently rely on fish harvested from the oceans, coral reef systems that provide nursery waters for fish are rapidly declining. Acidic waters caused by carbonic acid limits the uptake of calcium vital for shell development and finfish. A recent study shows increased ocean stratification caused by ocean warming alters the primary production of phytoplankton. Zooplankton, the base of the fish food chain, is decreasing in response to a warming ocean. This decline unchecked will cause a fishery collapse worldwide. Carbonic acid, warming waters, pollution, and poor fisheries and coral reef management will undoubtedly trigger a food crisis. Fish and shellfish stocks will collapse unless we act fast to end all carbon pollution.

The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research suggests that over 600 million people will face new or aggravated water scarcity if the world hits 3.5 degrees C. of warming above pre-industrial levels, as it is projected to do under current climate pledges. Nearly a half billion people, particularly in the Near and Middle-East, will experience severe water scarcity. About 668 million people either live in water-scarce river basins or experience water scarcity. Water shortages are aggravated as the earth overheats. The U.N.’s 2016 World Water Development Report estimated that by 2050, around 200 million people could be displaced by desertification, sea-level rise, and increased extreme weather events.

Imagine an ecologically shrinking planet with a population explosion crisis. The combination dramatically compounds the dangers. Human numbers have doubled since 1970, and food consumption has tripled while energy use has quadrupled. The number of fish and wildlife populations has been cut by more than half worldwide during the same time-period. The human population is out of balance with nature. According to a recent report by the World Wildlife Foundation and The Zoological Society, wildlife populations have fallen by a staggering 58 percent between 1970 and 2012. 

In the face of climate change, ocean acidification, fisheries depletion, coastal dead zones, deforestation, and the fast-approaching sixth-great-species-extinction, life support systems are strained and may be on the verge of collapse. Internationally respected naturalist Sir David Attenborough has warned that the many dangers facing the Earth’s ecosystems from climate change, pollution, and habitat changes are colliding with profound population growth. The Population Reference Bureau calculates that if current trends continue that by 2053, human populations could hit 10 billion. I do not think that projection will be even possible with declining food and water resources. As world populations continue to grow, the world’s capacity to provide food and water and sustain vulnerable communities is rapidly shrinking and severely strained in many regions. Calamity is in our future if we fail to take corrective action to stop climate pollution and confront the exploding population risks.

The world’s capacity to supply food and water is shrinking while the number of mouths to feed continues to grow. So many of the significant threats facing our planet would be less challenging and more manageable if there were fewer people. All threats are made worse by an exploding world population. Yet, there seems to be a taboo on bringing over-population into the open. Sir David challenges those who pretend that population is not a problem. His compelling views are in his 2011 RSA President’s Lecture. 

In my lifetime, the Earth has gone from 3 billion people to nearly 8 billion. This growth is not sustainable. We are leaving this threat to the next generation. As a father and now a grandfather, I fully understand the desire to nurture. I grieve over the Hobson’s choice we leave to the next generation. They must face family planning on a profoundly damaged planet. 

With growing evidence of a worldwide environmental crisis, more-and-more young men and women struggle with questions about starting a family. A recent NPR segment, asks “Should we be having kids in the age of climate change.” In more significant numbers than ever before, informed young people are alarmed by the declining environmental conditions on Earth, and ask, “should I plan on having children?” It’s a tricky question, and each must make their own decisions with their eyes wide open.

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Schweiger: Addressing Over-Population in a Rapidly Overheating World