As a resident of Austin, I naturally have thought a lot about the recent historic, unprecedented, record-breaking, rather odd winter storms and ensuing losses of life and property. Some people simply blame Republicans, which is somewhat fair and certainly was amplified by infamous narcissist Ted Cruz’s politically-puzzling vacation during the peak of our hardship. Climate change is commonly mentioned in the context of the storm to imply a causal relationship, and I lean that way, though it’s hard to say for sure.
I’ve dug a little deeper and in an unusual direction. This is the development of a hypothesis, food for thought, and maybe not much more besides some links to in-depth articles. I’ll start off with the most immediately apparent event and work backward.
Winter Storm Uri/Viola and climate change
Climate scientists differ on whether weather events involving extremely cold temperatures can be attributed to global warming. The concept is unintuitive but has some proponents. “Some studies say the warming Arctic might be causing a ‘wavy’ jet stream that is pushing Arctic air further south, into places like Texas,” says Jeff Goodell in Rolling Stone. In an interview by the Houston Chronicle, NASA scientist Gavin Schmidt explains:
We know that, during the winter, the Arctic has warmed up a lot. The temperature difference between the tropics and the poles has actually gone down a little bit. There’s some indication that that will make the situation slightly more wavy.
Then there’s other data that suggests that if you go higher up in the atmosphere, the situation reverses, and that would suggest less waviness.
For the sake of argument, pretend for a moment that we’re talking about an extreme summer heatwave leading to many heatstroke deaths, blackouts from everyone trying to run their AC at the same time, and so on. Those things happen every year in Texas. It’s clear that global warming only makes that sort of thing worse and more frequent, so it’s not far-fetched to think the same would happen at the other extreme. If you can’t get behind this assumption, you’ll probably want to stop reading here because I’m going with it.
Climate change and overpopulation
The phrase “climate change” carries a virtually universal connotation of human-induced environmental destruction, and that’s precisely what makes it just as real as a bathtub full of snow in a Texas home during… you get the idea.
It seems to follow that the more humans there are, the more climate change is going to happen. Is that really the case? New technology, processes, and regulations, are always being implemented to reduce and counteract our carbon footprint.
Unfortunately, our best efforts to mitigate the environmental impact of increasing population have failed by a wide margin to keep up. Here is a sampling of findings on the subject:
- According to a 2009 study, each child born in the U.S. increases the “carbon legacy” of their mother (the “carbon emissions of [her] descendants, weighted by their relatedness to [her]”) by 5.7 times. (No offense, mom…)
- The same study shows that having a child results in about 40 times more greenhouse gases than one saves by performing various environmentally conscious actions (recycling, using LED bulbs, driving a Prius) over a lifetime.
- A related study found that having one fewer child saves 58.6 tons of CO2 emissions per year. For comparison, the study states that living car-free saves 2.4 tons of CO2 per year.
- Carbon dioxide emissions and population correlate highly.
Of course, responsible behavior and smart planning can help. People living in cities generate less CO2 than those living in the suburbs, for instance. It just doesn’t make as big of a difference as, say, never having been born. Boy, that sounds mean, doesn’t it?
So far, I’ve talked about emissions by developed countries, but what about the developing world? It’s commonly known that birth rates are higher in poorer countries. In the country of Niger in 2018, the average woman had 6.9 children. It’s also safe to say that their rate of consumption is much lower — in 2018, each U.S. citizen generated 16.1 tons of CO2 while each Nigerien generated an amount equal to around one percent(!) of that. So does it really make a difference for the purpose of climate stabilization to worry about growth in populations with such a small impact? According to Population Connection:
…a singular correlation between population and environmental catastrophe is, in fact, a dangerous oversimplification.
I’ll put aside for the moment that ignoring population growth in the third world disregards the basic tragedy of the conditions the people of Niger and surrounding states are living in (more on that to follow). It’s a big problem for the developing world not so much because of how their emissions impact us, but more because of how our emissions impact them. Extreme droughts related to climate change are cited in the 2019 State of the Climate in Africa report as a contributor to an increase in malnourished people in sub-Saharan Africa by 45 percent within seven years.
Still, folks in developing countries contribute to climate change too. In early stages of industrialization, they tend to pollute a lot. According to one study, “a 40 percent reduction in per capita emissions in the developed regions would be outweighed solely by the effects of demographic growth elsewhere in the world” over the period of 2000–2050. China’s population growth rate has stabilized at 0.4 percent annually, but their current crowded population of 1.4 billion stems from a government-encouraged birth rate in the 1960s of around six per woman. (In the 80s, they said “oops!” and implemented their fascist Family Planning Policy.) To be fair, a lot of their pollution is essentially the developed world’s fault (we’ve thrown much of our dirtiest industry over the fence to them).
Overpopulation and gender inequality
What makes someone want to have a bunch of babies? I wouldn’t know, but it stands to reason that one wouldn’t do it if she thought she had better things to do. In the countries with the highest birth rates (central/west Africa), women aren’t even allowed to have other things to do. To be clear, many women — and girls — in those countries are forced to bear children.
Looking at the big picture: comparing the aforelinked list of birth rates by country with this report on gender inequality by country, there’s a clear correlation. Norway, the report’s number-one country for gender equality, is ranked 167th in birth rate (well below replacement rate). An Iranian study showed a correlation between stereotypical gender attitudes and higher birth rates. That gets to my main point: generally, advancing rights of women and girls would reduce the number of children they have (which, in turn, would do a lot to slow down global warming and associated weather phenomena). It’s worth noting that mortality rates, although higher in developing countries, don’t have much effect on relative rates of total population growth.
Some sources conclude that improving gender equality would actually increase birth rates. I was skeptical but it makes sense in the narrow context of societies that are already fairly egalitarian. They point out that when men accept a more equal share of child-rearing responsibilities, women — who work, whether they have children or not — have more time and energy free to have more children. If they can expect to bear the responsibilities of both a 50’s housewife and — like — a 90’s professional lady with the shoulder pads and everything, then they won’t bother. By that token, it seems that a graph plotting equality scores against birth rates would have a minimal birth rate somewhere near but not all the way to the far right (not politically, obviously).
What about other solutions for overpopulation? Some advocate for economic development as a way to promote progressive gender norms and thus reduce birth rates. That causality has somewhat played out in the developed world. It seems to work both ways: GDP is 25 percent lower on average in countries with a female-to-male school-enrollment ratio less than 0.75. Efforts have been made in Africa to put more women into mines to collect our precious metals for us and ostensibly to empower them with access to a source of income. I’m not sure that improving conditions for women by way of expanding an economy and/or vice versa really gets at the heart of the ecology issue — it hasn’t proven helpful in that regard — but maybe.
There are also the eco-fascists who believe that humanity is irredeemably destructive and stupid and that some eco-dictator should take over the world and force everyone to throw away their technology and stop reproducing. I won’t entertain this maniacal notion, but I must admit that at times, I’ve been overwhelmed by all the cruelty in the world and thus tempted to take such a pessimistic stance.
Our primary focus for the dual purpose of slowing climate change and improving the lives of all humans should be on empowering women, especially those whose state of oppression is exploited by the developed world.
I’d like to share my primary inspiration for this article. The Population Media Center is a non-profit organization that believes we can save the planet through cultural change. Their educational and entertaining productions for TV, film, and radio, are tailored to demographics in which women and girls lack basic reproductive rights. Their approach is humane and I hope that you’ll consider supporting their cause.
I hope this writing has been educational and entertaining as well. Special thanks to our neighbors for letting us take water from their pool when Austin ran out of water so we could flush our toilets.