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
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1340 GMT (2140 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 2153 GMT (0553 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 2305 GMT (0705 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT