It seems like a plausible argument: More people means more carbon-dioxide emissions, and more carbon-dioxide emissions means more destructive global warming. So, in order to mitigate the ecological damage caused by human-induced climate change, a central element should be the promotion of policies intended to curb the growth of the world’s human population.

In a nutshell, that’s the case that the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) made in its State of World Population 2009 annual report , released last month during the run-up to the major international conference on climate change in Copenhagen, Denmark, Dec. 7-18.

But Catholic experts who monitor the population issue say the claim that population growth needs to be curbed to save the world from global warming is based on multiple unsound premises.

The new UNFPA report, titled “Facing a Changing World: Women, Population and Climate,” advocates the promotion of “reproductive rights” and “reproductive health” as a means to lower fertility rates and control population growth in order to reduce climate change. Nations should “fully fund family-planning services and contraceptive supplies within the framework of reproductive health and rights, and assure that low income is no barrier to access,” the report says.

According to the population division of the U.S. Census Bureau , the world population increased from 3 billion in 1959 to 6 billion by 1999. It projects the world population will grow, but at a slightly slower pace, from 6 billion in 1999 to 9 billion by 2043, an increase of 50 percent.

Nicholas Eberstadt , a Catholic political economist and demographer with the American Enterprise Institute , says that while there’s debate over whether science has established that current climate change is being driven primarily by human activity, it’s certainly “well within the realm of plausibility” that human actions could be causing climate change.

However, even if this is the case, “it’s not self-evident that population control is the first line of response that one would advance,” said Eberstadt, who served as visiting fellow at Harvard’s Center for Population and Developmental Studies from 1988 to 2002.

For one thing, it is developed countries — most of which have fertility rates below the level required to sustain their current population — that produce most of the human-generated carbon dioxide that climate scientists believe is primarily responsible for anthropogenic global warming.

UNFPA refers to this reality in its report. “The dominant responsibility for the current build-up of greenhouse gases lies with developed countries whose population growth and fertility rates, while fairly high in earlier centuries, have now mostly subsided to the point where family sizes of two or fewer children are the norm,” it comments.

But the report points out the situation is changing, with developing countries responsible for a growing proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Eberstadt counters that policies intended to restrain population aren’t the best way to help these countries reduce emissions. Energy efficiency in many developing countries is “appallingly poor,” he said. So carbon dioxide emissions could be dramatically improved by improving their methods of energy consumption.

“I would think that energy efficiency and technological improvements, given our tremendous and advancing state of scientific and technical knowledge, would be a place where one would train most of one’s attention,” Eberstadt said. 

‘Thorny Issue’

UNFPA official Richard Kollodge, in an e-mail response, said that the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded there is a clear correlation between population and climate change.

“On the role of population growth in climate change, the most recent IPCC assessment report states: ‘The effect on global emissions of the decrease in global energy intensity (-33 percent) during 1970 to 2004 has been smaller than the combined effect of global income growth (77 percent) and global population growth (69 percent); both drivers of increasing energy-related CO2 emissions,’” said Kollodge, who is the editor of the State of World Population 2009 report.

At the same time, the IPCC has always been wary of advocating openly for population-control initiatives. During a question-and-answer session in 1997 with environmental activists in Kyoto, Japan, then-IPCC chairman Robert Watson agreed population was a key issue in climate change, “but it’s such a thorny issue politically it is never undertaken in these discussions.”

Kollodge acknowledges that neither population nor consumption were addressed in the United Nation’s 1994 Convention on Climate Change or in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol that specified goals for implementation of the convention. And given the deep divisions among world leaders about what new climate change policies should be instituted, it appears unlikely the controversial issues of population control and promotion of “reproductive rights” will play a prominent role during the Copenhagen meeting.

According to Kollodge, UNFPA had longer-term objectives in releasing its climate change report now.

“The report aims to broaden the climate change debate to include critical issues of population dynamics, gender and women’s empowerment,” he said. “The report does not focus solely on the upcoming climate change conference because climate change is [a] challenge to be faced by humanity for decades to come. The report thus takes a much longer-term perspective on the problem.”

Critics of UNFPA suggest it is interested in climate change only as a means to continue to advance its population-reduction agenda.

“Organizations like UNFPA are very keen to keep fertility reduction happening, so they are interested in latching on to any ancillary issue to keep it going,” said Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-FAM).

Ruse said that in the current global demographic landscape, where the United Nations itself predicts most countries will have fertility rates below replacement levels by 2025, UNFPA’s continued fixation on population reduction through the promotion of “reproductive rights” makes no sense.

“It seems to me that UNFPA ought to close up shop, but they don’t,” Ruse said. “They keep making the case that fertility remains too high. As to why they do that, I do not have an answer.” 

Tom McFeely writes from British Columbia.

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