Population and Climate Change: Thanks to my friend Agustín!

Population and Climate Change: Thanks to my friend Agustín!

By: Fernando Miralles-Wilhelm

Inspiration comes from the strangest of places. About a year ago, I was talking with my good friend Agustín at a party -yes, this is the kind of conversation I get distracted with when I socialize! He was telling me he “was not yet convinced” about the impact of humans on climate change. “I think it’s all natural”, he said repeatedly while we sipped a little wine. This is the same guy that just a few years back was saying he was “not convinced” that climate change was real. Yes, I know what you are thinking -what are you doing with friends like this? But wait, don’t judge so quickly!

First, I have to say that I make an effort to keep a broad range of friends, and I value Agustin’s friendship tremendously -I don’t tell him this because it could quickly go to his head. But when later I stopped to think more clearly (wine effect gone away) about that conversation, he had actually made an incredibly relevant point; one that for me framed one of the most important science and policy issues of our times.

So here is why I think Agustín hit the nail in the head.

Long before climate change got on our radar as a grand challenge for society, it was widely recognized that human population was having an impact on our planet, and that we needed to consider population growth as an important factor in sustainable development -a term we started to use years before climate change. Our understanding of this notion is not new, in fact it goes back for more than two centuries to the times of Thomas Malthus, and it has taken different forms throughout the years.

However, we have struggled – and continue to do so- with what to do about it. As an example, some of you may remember the population control campaigns that were promoted in many places around the world in the 1970s, as a way to slow down population growth; they did not work. In retrospect, this is not a surprise, as population control in itself may not be viable for a variety of reasons -I don’t want to go down that path in this post to keep it short, but just think about reasons ranging from personal freedom to religious beliefs to economic impacts.

Perhaps the latest of these efforts is the consideration of population growth into the climate change scenarios that have been published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In these scenarios, human population is introduced as a factor that defines the input of emissions of GHGs into the atmosphere – the per capita approach. We haven’t really arrived yet at a point in the debate and in our knowledge where science and policy can answer how climate change may actually impact human behavior, quality of life, and how human change is interacting with climate change. Science needs to tell us how climate and population – two very dynamic variables- change and in doing so, feedback each other; while policy efforts need to address how to translate this feedback into actionable adaptation and mitigation measures that are politically, financially, socially and culturally viable. And this is precisely what Agustín was trying to tell me that day.

Obviously, the human-climate change issue is a complex one, much more than can be discussed in a post on this blog. And while I am not saying we will solve it any time soon, I will tell you that shying away from a complex problem is the worst way to solve it. In future posts, I will write about many of the current efforts (including my own) to understand and act on what I think is one of the most important societal problems of our times: untangling the relationship between humans and climate as a matter of development.

Taking my own advice, I have started working on this issue as part of a team if researchers. And I have Agustín to thank for it☺