Skip to main content

We don't need another billion people

By Alan Weisman, Special to CNN
October 15, 2013 -- Updated 1942 GMT (0342 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Alan Weisman: In the next 12 years, world is expected to add another billion people
  • We have to cut greenhouse gases to stay on safe side of a 2-degree Celsius limit, he says
  • Weisman says the fastest and easiest way to limit carbon emissions is population control
  • Weisman: We need to educate women and give them access to contraception

Editor's note: Alan Weisman's new book is "Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?" (Little, Brown and Co). He is also the author of "The World Without Us," a 2007 New York Times and international best-seller translated into 34 languages.

(CNN) -- Charles Darwin once said that we can understand some parts of nature and the universe, but we can't comprehend them.

For instance, take the fact that in the next 12 years, we're projected to add another billion people. Since a billion seconds equal 31.7 years, at the rate people are arriving, we can't even count them.

Or that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change now says that if we want to stay below a 2-degree Celsius (3.6-degree Fahrenheit) increase in average global temperature, we can't emit any more carbon dioxide than what's released by burning 1 trillion tons of carbon. But we've already used more than half our allotment.

Alan Weisman
Alan Weisman

There's a direct link between those two hard-to-grasp figures -- the more humans, the more carbon.

Every mile we drive, ours cars emit about a pound of carbon dioxide. The average U.S. driver clocks 12,000 miles per year, pushing six tons of carbon out of his auto's tailpipe. The quarter-billion cars in the United States expel 150 million tons a year. In the whole world, there are now well over 1 billion cars.

Those numbers are mind-boggling, even before we add the exhaust from our industries, power plants, and home heating and cooling. No, we can't easily comprehend the sheer scale of the problem, let alone imagine what we can do about it. But maybe this helps to frame it.

Climate change's impact on businesses

According to the World Resources Institute, to stay on the safe side of a 2-degree Celsius increase, we'd have to go back to the amount we were expelling in 1990 -- and then cut that in half.

How might we possibly do that? It will depend on how wisely we address the matter of those billion new humans.

Here are four ways to cut greenhouse gases, from the most unlikely to the most plausible:

The first is to trap them before they float skyward and start acting like glass in a greenhouse. This is possible -- theoretically. We know how to capture carbon dioxide from smokestacks (though not from all those cars). We'd then have to dig deep holes to pump it underground and somehow keep it there. One way is to inject the gas into underground saline aquifers, turning their contents into salty carbonic acid, which would then react with surrounding rocks until the carbon dioxide becomes entombed in solid carbonates.

That's very neat but very expensive. The only attempt in the United States, in West Virginia, was abandoned in 2011 by American Electric Power because it would have cost two-thirds of $1 billion, even with the Department of Energy footing half the bill. Realistically, we'll never afford this -- and we're one of the rich countries. Imagine the rest of the world doing it.

The second possibility is finding new ways to produce clean energy. We must keep trying, but so far we can't concentrate enough diffuse sunlight or intermittent wind to run all our cities and factories (and it's hard to hang solar panels or wind turbines on cars).

Also, a 2012 paper in Environmental Research Letters by former Microsoft chief technology officer Nathan Myhrvold and Carnegie Institution physicist Ken Caldeira showed that the carbon debt incurred by construction of renewable energy plants, including mining their materials, takes decades to amortize before their energy is truly emission-free. And exotic methods such as controlled nuclear fusion, which powers the sun's core, are enticing but perpetually decades away.

Third, we can use incentives such as carbon taxes and moral persuasion to bring down energy consumption. Again, these help, and must be encouraged. Although a number of countries and some U.S. states have passed carbon taxes, consumption is exceedingly hard to control in a world where, for example, even the world's poor masses, increasingly living in cities, manage to get cell phones. Whether the power is pirated or not, they plug in their chargers nightly. Despite all our best efforts to conserve and consume less, global carbon emissions reached a record high in 2012, and keep climbing.

Last, however, if we can't control consumption, we can control the number of consumers. This is technology we already have, and it's cheap. Every woman, everywhere, could have contraception.

Most of us would find coercive government limits on child bearing abhorrent. But giving women access to contraception and to education makes draconian edicts unnecessary. An educated woman has an interesting and useful contribution to make to her family and her society. Since she can't easily do that with seven children hanging on her skirts, most women who get through secondary school want two children or fewer. Providing access to contraception and educating women may be the fastest path to giving our planet a break.

In September, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change presented compelling evidence that seas are rising faster than ever in human history. The last time there was this much carbon in the atmosphere, at least 3 million years ago, oceans were 30 to 100 feet higher. Much of the world's most widely consumed foodstuff, rice, is grown near sea level, and the cost of protecting it with coastal dikes would be astronomical.

This month, a team of University of Hawaii climate modelers added in the journal Nature that in just seven years the tropics will be experiencing average temperatures unprecedented in recorded history -- and within a generation, so will the entire planet, unless we stabilize greenhouse gases in the next 20 years.

Population management can't do it all; we need a full-court press on all fronts. But if we want a secure future, we need to start with the fastest, most affordable way we know to limit carbon emissions: by bringing fewer emitters into the world.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alan Weisman.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0032 GMT (0832 HKT)
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1119 GMT (1919 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1212 GMT (2012 HKT)
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 0148 GMT (0948 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT