Opinion: Is overpopulation the root cause of climate change?

By James Bouffard
Staff Writer

Fear of overpopulation underscores much of the discourse surrounding environmental concerns.

Rhetoric and policies regarding this issue are not recent developments either. Historian Richard Harrow Feen notes the ancient epic of Atra-Hasis, written nearly 2,000 years before the birth of Christ, references overpopulation.

The problem was also addressed by Homer, Plato and Aristotle. Much more recently, Thomas Malthus argued food production could not keep pace with exponential population growth, and a catastrophe brought about by shortages would therefore ensue.

Malthus wrote of this in 1798. Interestingly, world hunger has trended downwards since then despite massive population growth. For example, the Food and Agricultural Association of the United Nations (FAO) found it decreased significantly over the past 20 years in regions with growing populations such as Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Developments of this sort cast doubt on those decrying overpopulation. Similarly, problems such as climate change may not really arise from more and more people as much as excessive consumption will.

Looking at carbon emissions by country further demonstrates this point. The Union of Concerned Scientists found the United States produced 4997.50 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions through fuel combustion in 2015.

For comparison, India, a country with over three times the population, emitted 2066.01 million metric tons. Our World in Data, an organization based out of Oxford University, also found the United States and E.U. countries produced nearly half of cumulative carbon emissions from 1750 onwards.

The increasing carbon emissions among developing countries is a very recent development, as well. For example, China and India respectively produced 3.76% and 1.25% of cumulative carbon emissions in 1980. These numbers are now around 12.75% and 3.04% percent. The developed world is largely responsible for this trend too, as the demand for cheap goods necessarily leads to greater industrialization.

Further, some areas of the world still barely contribute to climate change. Africa only accounted for 2.62% of cumulative carbon emissions as of 2015 despite being home to over a billion people.

Climate change is unequivocally driven by a handful of countries and not an exploding world population. This fact does not stop Westerners from bemoaning the growing number of people throughout the developing world.

Geographer Megan Youdelis notes some prominent environmentalists, like Paul Ehrlich, supported forced sterilization during the 60s and 70s while headlines from the past year include statements such as “Overpopulation is killing the planet” and “Overpopulation is an existential threat to humanity.”

Nothing seems to have changed from the time of Malthus or even antiquity. While more people certainly create more pollution, the true issue remains the excessive consumption of goods produced through environmentally detrimental means. Unfortunately, the climate crisis will never be solved or even mitigated until more attention is directed towards equitably distributing carbon-free technology.


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1 reply »

  1. JIm – suggest you read about energy and laws of nature and thermodynamics. Even if we overnight switched all energy sources to carbon free, the amount of destruction to our environment would continue unabated. Energy use, global wealth and material extraction rise and fall in tandem.
    We are in serious overshoot of the carrying capacity of the world and reducing consumption voluntarily is not happening nor will it happen to the degree necessary to live sustainably with 7.7 billion people.