Help Us Stop Unsustainable U.S. Population Growth


Center for American Progress Joins Climate Change Skeptics in Denying Reality

Monday, December 13, 2010


In the liberal political circles I frequent, I often hear exclamations of amazement regarding climate change deniers. "How can these people reject the mountain of evidence that the world is warming? How can they deny the scientific consensus regarding humanity's leading role in disrupting the climate? How, in good conscience, can they ignore climate change's potentially disastrous impacts on their own children and grandchildren?" After Tuesday's elections, we might add: "How can climate change skeptics not just pay no penalty for denying reality, but actually be rewarded at the polls?"

These are good questions, but I can't say I share my friends' amazement. The fact is, people often believe what we find comforting. We accept or reject new information not on its objective merits, but on whether it coheres with our hopes, dreams and worldviews. Conservatives who believe passionately in the goodness of an endlessly growing market economy may be ill-equipped to digest the evidence that this wonderful wealth-making machine is causing significant ecological problems. If they do accept such a possibility, they still may not be in the best position to judge whether minor or major tinkering is needed to solve those problems.

Liberals love the machine a little less, I think, and thus tend to be a little more willing to engage in major tinkering. But we have our own blind spots, as I was reminded last month when the Center for American Progress came out with a new report titled "From a Green Farce to a Green Future: Refuting False Claims About Immigrants and the Environment." []

Among the "false claims" supposedly refuted are the following:

  • More people tends to lead to more pollution and put greater strains on natural resources.
  • Stabilizing America's population has an important part to play in reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Since immigration accounts for most current and future projected population growth in the U.S., reducing immigration would help Americans combat global climate change.

Not only are such claims false. According to author Jorge Madrid, they are obviously false: "phony environmental arguments." So those who put them forward must be "intentionally misleading" people, as a cover for "nativist organizations and hate groups" (p.1).

But is it obviously false that population growth tends to make our environmental problems harder to solve? Not according to the President Clinton's Council on Sustainable Development, which concluded in its 1996 report:

"Managing population growth, resources, and wastes is essential to ensuring that the total impact of these factors is within the bounds of sustainability. Stabilizing the population without changing consumption and waste production patterns would not be enough, but it would make an immensely challenging task more manageable. In the United States, each is necessary; neither alone is sufficient."

Presumably the President's Council on Sustainable Development was not a hate group, intentionally trying to mislead people. Yet one of the Council's ten main suggestions for creating a sustainable society was: "Move toward stabilization of U.S. population."

What about claims regarding the need to reduce immigration and stabilize U.S population, in order to rein in America's greenhouse gas emissions? Obviously false? According the Department of Energy, between 1990 and 2003, per capita U.S. CO2 emissions increased 3.2 %, while total U.S. CO2 emissions increased 20.2 %. The reason for the discrepancy is that during that same period, America's population increased 16.1 %. More people drove more cars, built more houses, ate more food, took more vacations, and did all the other things that emit carbon. Population growth accounted for four-fifths of increased emissions during this period, with per capita consumption growth accounting for only one-fifth. Popula­tion growth greatly increased total emissions and it is total emissions, not per person emissions, that quantify America's full contribution to global warming.

Given such facts, those who choose to deny the connection between population growth and increased greenhouse gas emissions would seem to have a difficult task! Perhaps that is why they often resort to name-calling, guilt-by-association, and other rhetorical sleights of hand. Their arguments, by themselves, are unpersuasive. As chief U.S. climate negotiator Harlan Watson said in an interview in 2007: "It's simply arithmetic. If you look at mid-century, Europe will be at 1990 levels of population while ours will be nearing 60% above 1990 levels. So population does matter."

Looking to the future, scientists are calling for steep reductions in U.S. emissions, in order to avoid potentially catastrophic climate change. Meanwhile, four successive federal administrations and two decades of U.S. Congresses have failed to commit to even modest reductions. Environmentalists need to redouble our efforts to turn this around. But given political inertia, the economic costs involved and the stranglehold Big Oil and Big Coal seem to have on government energy policy, it seems highly unlikely that our country will do enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the coming years with the added hurdle of doubling our population over the next six or seven decades, as we are on track to do at current immigration levels. It just doesn't add up. "It's simple arithmetic." If we want to curb our greenhouse gas emissions, Americans must stabilize our population. This should include increased funding for family planning, continued access to safe, legal abortion, and reduced immigration.

Of course, American environmentalists are free to spin out fantasies where our population continues growing rapidly and we still drastically reduce carbon emissions, through miracles of technological creativ­ity or ethical self-sacrifice. Perhaps as techie magazines like Discover and Wired have suggested, we may all move into immense high-rises in a few mega-cities, and let the rest of the landscape return to nature. Perhaps Americans will start taking seriously Jesus' sayings about the unimportance of wealth and material possessions, focus instead on what is really important in life and quit buying second cars and big houses ("for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also"). Meanwhile, back in the real world, such sce­narios are implausible. They therefore are morally sus­pect as a justification for continued inaction on U.S. population growth.

Given the dif­ficulties of getting 300 million Americans to curb our consumption, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, there is no reason to think we will be able to do so with two or three times as many Americans. If Al Gore is right that meeting the climate challenge is the moral imperative of our time, then indulging such fantasies seems wrong. And it seems wrong regardless of whether those fantasies come from the right or the left of the political spectrum.

The Center for American Progress bills itself as a "think tank" providing new ideas to further a progressive political agenda in the United States. But in this instance, its goal appears to be to help true-believers not think about the possible connections between population growth and environmental issues. In addition to ad hominem attacks against those who make the population / environment connection, author Jorge Madrid deploys two main tactics to sprinkle woofle dust in the eyes of his readers.

First, Madrid sets up straw man arguments, rather than honestly dealing with the real arguments of his opponents. For example, he writes that "the assumption that immigrant-driven population growth alone drives the U.S. carbon footprint is false" (p.2). The key word here is "alone." Of course, neither population nor population growth alone drives our carbon emissions, which are a function of population multiplied by per capita consumption. Double U.S. per capita energy consumption and all else being equal, you double U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. But double U.S. population and all else being equal, you also double U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Or consider this example of what Madrid calls "a classic green farce argument against immigrants:"

"The more people added to a society, the more taxing it will be on natural resources, resulting in increased environmental destruction. This is usually followed by a typical green farce solution: fewer people . . . The reality is that our environmental impact is not just determined by our numbers, but how we use resources-how we produce and consume energy, and what policies we put in place to shape these decisions." (p.3)

The key words here are "just determined." No population stabilization advocate I know would deny that other factors besides population also play a role in our environmental impacts. The classic formulation, by Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren (currently President Obama's chief science advisor) is I = P x A x T, where environmental impact (I) is a function of total population (P) times per capita consumption (A, for "affluence") times the technologies used in production (T). All three factors are important. None can be neglected, if we truly want to create a sustainable society. Population stabilization advocates realize this, despite efforts to suggest otherwise.

Jorge Madrid's second tactic to confuse his readers is simple: make up facts. For example, he asserts that "population numbers affect emissions but consumption is by far the greater factor" (p.5). Madrid provides no argument for this astounding statement, or citations to back it up, for the obvious reason that it is nonsense. It is like saying that the length of a rectangle is more important than its width in determining its area. Once again: according to government figures, between 1990 and 2003, population growth was the main cause of increased greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Denying that reality doesn't take any carbon out of the atmosphere.

Consider a second example of a made-up fact. "Cities with large immigrant populations do not have the highest levels of greenhouse gas emissions," states Madrid, falsely. "Los Angeles, a city with an immigrant population of over 40 percent, had the second-lightest per capita carbon footprint in the United States according to a 2008 Brookings study" (p.5). Note the slide from "levels of greenhouse gas emissions" in the first sentence to "per capita carbon emissions" in the second. Of course, total emissions and per capita emissions are two different things. An honest discussion would not try to obscure this.

In fact, another 2008 study that identified the top twenty CO2-polluting U.S. cities listed Los Angeles second in total greenhouse gas emissions, trailing only Houston. []

The reason is obvious. L.A.'s population is so huge that even with a relatively low per capita carbon output, all those capitas generate a tremendous amount of total carbon. "It's simple arithmetic." "Population does matter."

Of course, Madrid is right that many big cities with large percentages of immigrants have relatively low per capita capita greenhouse gas emissions. In some cases, this could be a function of high population densities, in others, like L.A., of high poverty levels. Both tend to cut down on per capita energy use. But immigrants aren't moving to the United States to remain in poverty, and in many cases they or their children eventually move out of the city to sprawling, auto-centric suburbs. In any case, it is simply false to suggest that continued population growth can help lead to reductions in absolute levels of carbon emissions. By all means, let's commend cities like Los Angeles or New York for any success they have in driving down per capita greenhouse gas emissions. But it will be a hollow victory if total emissions go up, locally and nationally.

It would be easy to point to similar obfuscations in "From a ‘Green Farce' to a Green Future." But that is probably not necessary; astute readers will find them easily enough for themselves. The key point is that the report as a whole shows a clear commitment to ideology over truth. With "Earth in the Balance," I think such a commitment is dangerous.

When President Bush told the country, a few years ago, that he was committing the U.S. to lowering the amount of carbon we generate per unit of GDP, environmentalists were quick to note that under likely economic growth scenarios our total carbon emissions would still rise. We called out Bush, rightly, for this failure to really cut carbon emissions and for his dishonest attempt to cover up the failure. But when Jorge Madrid talks at length about how cities with high immigrant populations tend to have lower per capita carbon emissions, while neglecting to mention that these cities also tend to have high total emissions, due to their large and growing populations, the case seems exactly the same. In both cases, we have a willful obscuring of the truth, designed to mislead fellow citizens. In both cases, we have an unwillingness to confront reality.

Liberal environmentalists may not want to hear it, but current immigration rates into the United States are ecologically unsustainable. Continuing immigration at the highest levels in U.S. history will undermine American efforts to do our fair share to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Let's hope that the one area the next Congress finds bipartisan common ground on is not the continued denial of the facts regarding climate change. Also that the Center for American Progress and opinion-makers from across the political spectrum can foreswear rhetorical tricks and instead help Americans think more clearly about how to address global climate change. We have some hard decisions ahead, and time is not an unlimited resource as we try to create a genuinely sustainable society.


Philip Cafaro is Associate professor of Philosophy at Colorado State University and a former ranger with the U.S. National Park Service. He is a non-partisan, reality-based thinker. He does not believe you can cut taxes, start two new wars and balance the federal budget. He does not believe you can provide health insurance for thirty-five million people without it costing anyone any money. He does not believe he can have love affairs with his students and his wife will "just understand." He does not believe America can double its population and still create a sustainable society.

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