Addressing the United Nations climate summit in New York in September 2014, President Barack Obama declared: “There’s one issue that will define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other, and that is the urgent and growing threat of a changing climate.”
American public opinion lags well behind, however. A New York Times/CBS News Poll in September found that only 46 percent of respondents think that global warming is having a serious impact now (26 percent of total Republicans, 47 percent of Independents, 61 percent of Democrats). Ten percent hold that global warming does not exist (18 percent of Republicans, 10 percent of Independents, 3 percent of Democrats). In contrast, 54 percent accept that global warming is caused mostly by such human activity as burning fossil fuels (35 percent of Republicans, 53 percent of Independents, 67 percent of Democrats). The responses of those who are in denial of climate change are what might be expected from people who tend to denigrate science and think the world is only six thousand years old.
Scientists are close to unanimous in recognizing that climate change is real and that it is largely anthropogenic, that is, caused by human activity. As the New York Times reported on September 30, “the overall global warming trend has been definitely linked to human emissions.” The picture that the science community supports follows.
Climate change and global warming are caused by the excessive buildup of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and this is due to the ever-increasing burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas), which are finite resources, as well as the excessive burning of wood, which, though renewable, can be overused to the point of unsustainability. Hacking down tropical rain forests for agricultural and other uses is inadvisable because these forests’ soils are nutrient-poor and rapidly exhausted by agricultural overuse. Deforestation and desertification, in turn, reduce the forests’ capacity to absorb carbon dioxide, further contributing to climate change and global warming.
Global warming is causing the melting of glaciers and the polar and Greenland ice caps, which causes rising sea levels, already noticeable in many areas. Just imagine what a sea-level rise of a foot or two this century would do to the 40 percent of the world’s population living in coastal areas. Where will all these people go? How much will it cost to move to higher ground? Get the scary details from oceanographer John Englander’s 2012 book High Tide on Main Street.
Think of what we are doing to the world’s oceans, the two-thirds of Earth’s surface that belongs to nobody and everybody. All the major fisheries, which feed hundreds of millions of people, are in danger of being exhausted. Industrial fishing is depleting edible seafoods while, according to writer Lewis Pugh in the September 29, 2014, New York Times, the seafloor is being littered with tires, plastic junk, bottles, cans, shoes, and clothing. As for arable land, soil erosion and nutrient loss are felt even in rich agricultural areas such as Iowa. And then there is the accelerating biodiversity and habitat loss worldwide, including the vanishing of plant and animal species that haven’t even been studied yet.
We are seeing the depletion of finite resources and the overuse of renewable ones, plus the accumulation of waste, much of it toxic and some of it radioactive. Expanding human populations on a planet with finite, shrinking resources will inevitably lead to increased sociopolitical instability and violence.
Despite all of the above, there is too little talk about human overpopulation, which has tripled to more than seven billion since 1945. Scientists such as humanist Julian Huxley were sounding the warning bells in the early 1950s. Biologist Paul Ehrlich shook things up with his 1968 book The Population Bomb. Twenty years ago, we saw the massacre of up to a million people in the tiny, overpopulated central African country of Rwanda, where about 10 percent of the country’s population was killed. (See my column, “Rwanda’s Horror Twenty Years Later,” FI, December 2014/January 2015.) Scientist Jared Diamond, in his classic 2005 book Collapse, traced the downfall or near-downfall of a number of societies due to overpopulation and failure to protect fragile environments.
The 1975 National Security Study Memorandum 200 report mentioned in my previous column noted that there were about thirty million abortions per year worldwide in the mid-1970s. Alan Weisman reports in his superb 2013 book, Countdown, that there are now about forty million abortions per year worldwide, a great many of them dangerous and illegal. If these hundreds of millions of abortions had not occurred, world population today would exceed nine billion. What is obviously needed is the universal availability of contraception and legal, safe abortions, plus total equality of rights and education for women. Women enjoying equal rights and being educated translates to smaller families, healthier children, and more stable and sustainable societies.
Finally, let’s note two important new books. In their 2014 book Hope on Earth, scientists Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb in 1968, and Michael Charles Tobias bring us up to date on the full slate of environmental and population crises, concluding that world population already exceeds our planet’s carrying capacity. Ehrlich in particular pins the blame largely on the Vatican and the Catholic bishops, while noting that “Catholics use contraception as much as non-Catholics, and they have abortions with even higher frequency.” As I have written elsewhere, Pope Francis could earn the gratitude of the whole world by rescinding the Vatican’s irresponsible condemnation of contraception, which was issued in 1968 by Pope Paul VI in defiance of the overwhelming majority of his own advisers. Francis also could and should end the Vatican’s unique status as the only religious entity that enjoys permanent observer status in the United Nations General Assembly, which it has misused for decades to impede international efforts to slow population growth and promote women’s rights of conscience and religious freedom with regard to reproduction.
University of Utrecht environmental philosopher Floris van den Berg’s 2014 book, Philosophy for a Better World, is a magnificent, compelling book on ethics, moral reasoning, and our responsibility to protect our one and only planet for our fellow world-citizens and for those who come after us. Van den Berg calls on all of us, of every religious persuasion and life stance, to reduce consumption, reuse, recycle, quit eating animals (it takes far more land and water to produce a pound of meat than a pound of grain), and reduce the distance between the haves and the have-nots.
Only 36 percent of eligible voters bothered to participate in our November 4 national intelligence test. Of those who did, majorities opted for politicians who are skeptical of climate change, wish to continue the concentrating of wealth in the top 1 percent, oppose women’s fundamental right to reproductive freedom of choice, and disdain the public schools that serve 90 percent of our children and the church-state separation principle that is necessary for full religious liberty. But there were a few bright spots.
Hawaii voters rejected, 55 to 45 percent, Amendment 4, a sleazy, foot-in-the-door attempt to allow the diversion of public funds to faith-based private schools. That is the same percentage by which Florida voters rejected Jeb Bush’s signature school-voucher plan two years earlier. This brings to twenty-eight the number of state referendum elections between 1966 and 2014, in which
many millions of voters from coast to coast voted by an average two to one margin to reject vouchers, tax credits, and other gimmicks to allow government to compel taxpayers to support faith-based, special-interest private schools.
Two thirds of Colorado and North Dakota voters rejected proposed “personhood at conception” amendments designed to deny women the right to end problem pregnancies. And California voters reelected state school superintendent Tom Torlakson, whose opponent had been generously supported by tons of money from billionaire blame-the-teacher school pseudo-reformers.
Edd Doerr is the president of Americans for Religious Liberty and the former president of the American Humanist Association.