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Copenhagen Needs Daylight: Overpopulation & Addiction to Economic Growth

All eyes are on Copenhagen today as the Climate Summit begins its two-week sprint to set the planet on a survival course. Here’s the official Climate Change Conference website, for you to see schedules and get more information.

While I encourage world leaders to get very serious about reducing emissions as seriously and quickly as possible, I’d like to share some perspectives that are pretty critical of what’s taking place in Copenhagen. I offer these in the spirit of pushing for a better outcome from the talks.

Too Little, Too Late: Clearly many are worried or already disappointed that the bar has been set too low. It appears the best one can hope for is that the world agrees to agree on emission reduction targets that are too little, too late. In fact, the word “reduction” shouldn’t even be included. Leading climate scientist James Hansen pretty clearly articulated this shortcoming in an interview with the UK’s Guardian: Copenhagen climate change talks must fail, says top scientist.

Ignoring the Most Effective & Least Expensive Solution: I’m glad to see a growing chorus raising the issue of overpopulation. This is the elephant in the room. It’s difficult enough to get serious emissions reduction targets; why completely stall the process by raising a topic so few leaders are comfortable addressing? Perhaps because – unchecked – population growth threatens to erase every gain we make in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The topic is so taboo we have to look outside the U.S. for front page stories. UK’s The Independent offers a succinct summary of the subject in Once taboo, population enters climate debate.

Recent reports have finally provided the analysis that points out both the huge negative impact of a growing population and the huge positive impact of reining in that growth. If we can just get over all the emotional baggage hindering rational consideration of the population factor, quick, voluntary reduction of the population growth rate everywhere would be the easiest and cheapest way to achieve climate change goals.

We Need an Alternative to Economic Growth: If there’s anything tougher than population to bring into the conversation, it’s economic growth. Other than an enlightened minority, everyone is rooting for economic growth. An insistence on economic growth is the single biggest limitation on every nation’s Copenhagen position. This insistence is resulting in unimpressive promises to increase CO2 emissions more slowly. That is not going to cut it. We seem to be willing to burn down the house to keep warm. Sadly the world is not ready to get unhooked from its growth addiction and irrational belief in perpetual economic growth. The news that recession is helping reduce emissions should cause us to pause and reflect. Check out:

Recession takes a bite out of U.S. GHG emissions

Carbon dioxide emissions cut by recession

If you want to dig into this economic growth obsession more deeply, I highly recommend Temporary Recession or the End of Growth by Richard Heinberg.

That’s a lot to chew on, so I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes, from famed environmentalist David Brower:

“There is no business to be done on a dead planet.”

Dave Gardner is producing the documentary, Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity, which examines the addictions and myths we must leave behind in order to become a sustainable civilization.

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