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Alexei Ustimov/ITAR-TASS/Newscom

Little emitters

Environment | Climate change becomes the latest excuse to push population control

Issue: "Do the math," Nov. 7, 2009

America's founding documents don't include a right to reproduce-according to America's science czar, John Holdren, in a 1977 textbook he helped to write. When people questioned the textbook's views on population control, the White House dismissed the "three-decade old, three-author textbook" and said that Holdren does not believe it's the government's job to determine "optimal population."

But while Holdren has been quiet on the subject of "optimal population" in the past few months, academicians and population control groups have not been as reticent. As world leaders get ready for the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen this December, recent studies are trumpeting population control as a solution to global warming.

A September cost-benefit analysis from the London School of Economics-but sponsored by the British population control group, the Optimum Population Trust-argues that family planning is a cheap way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. If organizations could meet the UN-calculated "unmet need" for family planning, it says, each $7 spent on family planning would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than a ton.

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While some debate whether catastrophic global warming is actually occurring and whether climate change is caused by humans, there are flaws in the population control solution even if both theories are true. Steve Mosher, director of the Population Research Institute, said the size of the human footprint is determined not inherently by people but by how they interact with their environment: "Some burn fossil fuels, some burn cow dung to heat their food. . . . You don't reduce the size of the human footprint on the human environment by reducing the number of tiny feet. This is just population control repackaged."

Another study from Oregon State University, "Family Planning: A Major Environmental Emphasis," measures the "carbon legacy" of having an "extra child," taking as its basic premise "that a person is responsible for the carbon emissions of his descendants." The study says each child adds about 9,441 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the "carbon legacy" of an average female.

But Mosher notes that studies like this leave no room for innovations or for people eventually solving the problems they create. The study assumes "current conditions"-a state in which greenhouse gas emissions stay the same. While the media touts the "9,441 tons" statistic, the study also finds that under the more optimistic scenario of actually reducing greenhouse gas emissions, having one child adds only 562 metric tons of carbon dioxide.

Also, some of the world's biggest polluters are already suffering from dangerously low birth rates. China, Russia, and Japan are all among the top six greenhouse gas emitters-yet all of them have fertility rates that are too low, not too high.

Russia's population has dwindled by 6.6 million since 1993 and its pop­ulation will shrink by another 11 million before 2025, according to an October UN report. Russia, No. 3 on a list of the top greenhouse gas emitters, already gives women incentives to have more children and has pushed up its birth rate; but the UN has warned that even that won't make enough long-term difference to reverse the trend.

Sixth on the list of greenhouse gas emitters, Japan is also making some of the most aggressive promises to cut greenhouse gas emissions. It is also worried that its shrinking population of young people won't be able to support its growing population of old people, so the government is offering parents $3,300 for each new child each year until the child turns 15.

Even China, which ties the United States for 20 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, is reportedly relaxing its one-child policy to ease the economic burden of its younger citizens. This is the pattern worldwide-more developed countries produce the most greenhouse gas emissions, but their fertility rate is also the lowest.

Christian groups that keep an eye on the UN say that they will be watching for any efforts to push pop­ulation control at the Sustainable Development Conference coming up at the UN in February, and at the Population Development Conference in April. "The solution to the problems caused by our numbers lies in our numbers," said Mosher. "Every stomach comes with two hands attached, every mouth comes with a brain. . . . People, using creative intelligence, can solve the problems caused by their numbers."

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