Climate Change Requires Innovative Solutions, Not Population Control

By Sam Mulopulos

By now almost everyone has heard the bleak story: climate change will soon end civilization unless humanity does something. Population engineering is the newest proposed answer to dealing with the issue. Unfortunately, population engineering is not really a solution at all; it is merely a twenty-first century rebranding of discredited Malthusian views.

Population engineering, as it's euphemistically called, contends that if human beings have fewer children, the climate would be better off. They assert that fewer children would result in a greater reduction in greenhouse gas emissions than tripling nuclear energy or doubling vehicular fuel efficiency. People beget more people, and more people beget pollution. However, the population engineering crowd has things backwards. Instead of focusing on population reduction efforts, those concerned about climate change should focus on pollution reduction and improving energy efficiency, which are themselves impossible without human capital.

Aspiring population engineers argue that state-sponsored ad campaigns combined with ending tax breaks for families or levying fines on each additional child a couple brings into this world are the right ways to reduce pollution and save the Earth.

Yet, population engineers misunderstand where solutions to problems come from. For example, Johns Hopkins bioethicist Travis Rieder argues that more people will only yield further climate disaster, effectively resurrecting the thoroughly discredited arguments of Thomas Malthus. In 18th century England, Malthus argued that humanity's burgeoning population would outstrip global food production, causing widespread famine and misery. Ever since, fearmongers have invoked Malthus to persuade others of the hopelessness of humankind's future sustainability as a species.

This is all to say that population engineers have been beguiled by the ghost of antiquated thinking. Solutions don't just appear out of nowhere. They are developed, tested, and tried through the collaborative efforts of countless people and communities. Malthus was wrong not because enough food appeared to prevent famine at the eleventh hour. Malthus failed to account for the fact that more people meant more brains and hands to develop increasingly effective, efficient methods of food production to provide more calories to more people.

The same logic is true for climate change. Yes, the population engineers are right that it is unlikely that any one single child will be the one to save the planet. But that misses the point. We shouldn't think that the solution to international climate change will come at the hands of some savant messiah, but it will come from the deliberate work of millions of people: diplomats, engineers, inventors, teachers, and, yes, parents who work collaboratively in a free market to share ideas, institute best practices, and design and implement the technology to fix the planet's problems. Rome wasn't built in a day, and it wasn't built by a single person either.

Take the airplane for example. The commercial jet aircraft is not the product of a lone individual. The Wright Brothers demonstrated that heavier-than-air flight was possible, but it was hundreds of thousands of other people, working over the course of a century, who developed the technology for jet engines, cabin pressurization, and fine-tuned instruments. Even today, thousands of people are working on the next round of innovations to make air travel cleaner and smarter. At this moment, Airbus is not just hiring a single engineer to develop better products. In fact, in 2012, Airbus had 12,000 openings for new innovators, for which they hired 9,000 employees.

Another example comes from the Atlantic coast, where scientists and engineers at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute worked with experts and stakeholders in the fishing community to design a new net that reduces bycatch of the region's diminished cod stock. After much collaboration, these eco-innovators realized that because cod consistently swim downwards after being ensnared, an ultra-low-opening bottom trawl net provides a means for cod to swim free while still catching the trawler's preferred fish, the haddock.

No single person on this project woke up one morning with this solution in mind. Creative ideas, like this one, originated collectively from the research and experiences of many different people. Limiting the number and diversity of individuals who can contribute to the development of solutions is a shortsighted and self-defeating approach to environmentalism.

Fortunately, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute isn't alone. There is plenty of inspiring work being done by people to address global environmental challenges. More people with the brain power to dream up solutions and the muscle power to implement them is exactly what the countries of the world need. No matter what anyone says, people are much more than just pollutants.

Sam Mulopulos is an Energy and Environment Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, and legislative staffer in the U.S. Senate. He has a degree in political science, and a concentration in environmental studies from Grinnell College. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the U.S. Senate or any of its members.