Climate Change and Overpopulation
By Fyodor Berkovich
Since the dawn of abstract thinking, humanity has pondered how it will meet its end. From the Quran, to the Bible, to countless other sources throughout history, prophecies where all of humanity dies are plentiful. Ironically, it would appear that the day of the fulfillment of the doomsday prophecy is coming, and even more unbelievably (to most) is that it is likely that man will die by his own hand. Man has finally become so powerful that he is changing the very climate itself, and the Earth is finally beginning to react. Humans the world-over burn coal and use other dirty energy sources while at the same time not considering where the waste of their work will go. It is not unreasonable, even without extensive research, to see how so much energy being harnessed at the same time can be released, and that this release is at the very least unnatural. The truth is that all controversies over climate change take root either in economics, for the larger corporate players on the field, or denial in the lives of everyday people who do become informed and involved in an issue that may well be unsolvable. The heaviest truth of the matter to grasp is there is little that can be done about climate change: human birth rates are increasing exponentially and our energy needs are drastically increasing as a result. Given the increasing energy needs per capita to maintain what the first world calls a “desirable living standard,” carbon dioxide emissions will continue to increase as cleaner energies remain unaffordable for all but the wealthiest.
What is climate change, and why is it projected to be so devastating? Most Americans have probably already heard of it; they do teach it in public schools now, after all. The idea is that because of the vast amount of atmospheric pollution that is a byproduct of humanity’s quest for energy, Earth’s natural climate regulation systems have been skewed. The theory is that this is already changing the climate, seemingly by warming the globe; thus, the now-obsolete name “global warming.” The reason that was scrapped was simply because there is more to it: extreme weather, flooding, and toxins in the atmosphere, to name a few. Thus, a more apt name would be global climate change rather than warming simply because warming will be the least of our concerns.
Now that the question has been answered pertaining to what climate change is, the natural order of things demands an answer as to why it is happening. The reason is simple: modern life demands energy. Energy, the capacity or power to do work, falls into varied categories including mechanical, electrical, and chemical. It is also necessary to differentiate between primary, secondary, renewable, and non-renewable energy sources. Primary energy exists prior to human modification: an example is wind. Secondary energy, on the other hand, must be modified by humans to create, such as gasoline. These are considered easier to harness due to their high yield when heated.
Renewable energy is that which will be harvest-able as long as the earth and sun exist, such as wind, solar, and hydro. Nonrenewable energy sources such as uranium, coal, and fossil fuels are finite.
Another important scientific concept that comes from the Second Law of Thermodynamics to understand is entropy. To summarize for the purposes of this essay, entropy is the level of disorder in a system on a microscopic level. The lower the entropy, the easier it is to harness the energy. A high enough level of entropy and the system is effectively useless in terms of energy. During any chemical reaction, such as turning coal into gasoline, entropy either stays constant or increases. This type of reaction is irreversible. For example, one cannot convert gasoline back to coal. On a universal scale, this means eventually all energy will become unusable by humans.
According to the article “Our Energy Future: Resources, Alternatives, and the Environment” by Christian Ngo, the reason humanity has not been a threat to its environment before the industrial revolution was because humanity harnessed renewable energy resources (such as burning wood to cook meals, which is an example of a renewable biofuel) and later, in Europe, hydro-energy and wind energy via windmills and river mills. Intuitively, this type of energy does not have much of an impact on the environment. This is because in historic times, most things were done through human labor, and “the human body is actually extremely energy efficient: even more so than any hybrid car, or any technology we have ever come up with.” The problem is that human labor is being replaced by technology due to it being cheaper, but technology is also much less efficient than human labor, and its by-products (carbon dioxide, monoxide, and other harmful gases) are unnatural and inherently harmful to the environment unlike human waste because there are no potent enough natural filters to be able to dispose of or reuse it all. Mostly, the problem is carbon dioxide as it is the greatest greenhouse gas besides water, “accounting for nearly half the heat energy trapped by Earth.”
So how does this cause climate change? Essentially, the industrialization of humanity as a whole is not natural. Because the waste that goes into the atmosphere and water is also unnatural, it means the earth’s natural ecosystem is poorly equipped to deal with it. This is compounded by the fact that according to worldpopulationhistory.org, “Humanity’s population has increased by 6 times and counting over the past 150 years.” While no one knows Earth’s true carrying capacity due to the multitude of variables involved, worldpopulationhistory.org cites, “Today, our global footprint is in overshoot. It would take 1.5 Earths to sustain our current population. If current trends continue, we will reach 3 Earths by the year 2050”. In short, this means that without industrialization, humanity cannot sustain such a population, as earth cannot replenish its resources fast enough. Another important note: humanity can no longer survive on biomass fuels alone such as in the days of our ancestors. However, due to advancements in biotechnology, the US Department of Energy states that “According to the 2016 Billion-Ton Report sponsored by DOE, the U.S. could sustainably produce—at $60 per dry ton—between 991 million dry tons per year (base-case assumptions) and 1,147 million dry tons per year (high-yield assumptions) by the year 2030. This is while continuing to meet the demands for food, feed, and fiber.”
How is this problem solvable? Many prominent scientists believe there are methods to avert climate change, starting with energy. Oil, considered extremely harmful to the environment when combusted due to the emission of “greenhouse gases,” is also inefficient.
Pro-environmentalists have condemned continued use of fossil fuels. To compound this issue, despite the fact that oil is a finite resource that will run out eventually, coal is still plentiful.
According to the US Energy Information Administration, “As of December 31, 2014, estimates of total world-proved recoverable reserves of coal were about 1,237 billion short tons, (or 1.2 trillion short tons).” Converted into kilowatt-hours, this is about 10^12 kWh still left in the Earth’s recoverable coal supply, assuming recovery methods stay constant. This is enough to run the world for a long time, except coal is even more hazardous than oil for the environment. If humanity wants to minimize damage to the environment, its time is running out. According to NASA, “levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere are higher than they have been at any time in the past 400,000 years.” Humans are in an unexplored, unnatural, and unprecedented zone that carries extreme consequences.
There is a solution to this problem, but it requires being proactive, as according to Ngo, “switching between energy sources on a large scale takes decades.” If humans start switching to renewable energy sources (solar seems the most promising) by the time fossil fuels run out, it will most likely be too late given the current trends of pollution and its effect on our global climate. By too late, it is meant that humans will have destroyed Earth’s ecosystem to the point where it can no longer remain resilient through use of natural processes. This means most people would not be able to farm effectively and our population would drop exponentially. Even if there would be survivors at that point, the vast majority of humans will have died due to malnutrition, as our staple crops such as corn and rice are not immune to climate change’s devastating effects.
The invisible elephant in the room that most people are not aware of is that humanity as a whole as it is now cannot cope with such a crisis. This goes over the head of politics, economy, countries, and even war. Most people in the world blame the United States for this entire crisis, but the United States is not the reason for the problem. To put it in perspective, The World Bank measured carbon dioxide emission by ton per capita of China to be around 7.5 tons per person in 2014, which seems miniscule compared to the United States’ seemingly whopping 16.5 tons. In other words, the USA has about twice the carbon dioxide footprint per person than China. However, according to The Union of Concerned Scientists, China accounts for over twice the carbon dioxide emissions compared to the USA. How is this possible when every person is contributing only half of what people contribute in the USA? The answer is simple: China has a population about 4 times larger than the United States. So, the key problem is caused by population.
It must be stated also that it is actually not the population of countries that is contributing vast levels of CO2 to the atmosphere, but the industrialization of said countries. Nigeria has a large population which is also the fastest growing on the planet, but according to The World Bank, its CO2 emissions are only 0.5 tons per capita, which is relatively negligible due to the poverty of the country. The problem is that humanitarians wish to increase these (and other impoverished people’s) standards of living through industrialization, which is the only method known. It is an uphill battle to attempt to raise the average standard of living in a population that grows exponentially; “industrialization causes carbon emissions per capita to multiply.” In other words, a better life requires energy, and current energy sources lead to pollution. Thus, the more people industrializing, the more greenhouse gases. However, it must be noted that population itself is not directly linked to emission, it only links upon industrialization.
Why is there not a way, even with our growing population, to create a global shift to cleaner energy? The point that must be understood is there is no way to stop climate change, given what such an effort would require and the powerful economic counter-incentives that exist for continuing to use dirty energy. Dirty energy is that which significantly pollutes the atmosphere when it is obtained, utilized, or refined/processed, mostly through carbon dioxide. Clean energy is defined as energy that causes insignificant unnatural influence on the atmosphere. The reason for this is because clean energy is like the organic section at the supermarket: expensive. In other words, dirty energy is cheaper and as such is favorable in poorer economies. Thus, if solar energy and other clean energies become cheaper than dirty, non-renewable fossil fuels, pollution levels would decrease as it would be profitable to harness these new energy forms. Making this energy affordable is the job of science (such as what Tesla is doing).
Governments, however, cannot overcome the laws of economics on a global scale. For example, if the United States attempts to create sanctions that favor cleaner energy, it will become less economically competitive for the time being, compared to a country that relies on cheaper, dirtier energy. This will cause China or India to attempt to seize an economic advantage via exploitation, spinning an unending prisoner’s dilemma with only victor being the economically advantageous fossil fuel. The only sliver of hope is that renewable, clean energy will become cheaper than its dirtier, non-renewable alternative, which will cause a chain reaction, ultimately cutting the head off the snake of pollution. It is worth recalling that oil prices are increasing, which will force cleaner energy to be economically superior at some point. This is inevitable, which is why the only thing the United States can do is be on the vanguard, working in a pro-active manner so this day arrives sooner.
In this scenario, it makes sense to prepare for the worst case possible: dirty fuel remains cheap and accessible, while cleaner, renewable energy does not work its way into the mainstream. The only solution to combat this is reducing or stopping population growth so that humanity’s total energy needs cease increasing. It’s simple math: less people equal less total energy needed. If technology advances enough in the meanwhile to provide a greater fraction of humanity’s energy needs via renewable, clean sources, then pollution levels will drop. The problem with this is it is considered politically impossible to get humanity to control its own population.
There is, however, another way that is not politically impossible. There could exist a way to reduce CO2 emissions in total, but there is a very high price to be paid: an anti-humanitarian one. Overpopulation contributes to Carbon Dioxide emissions only if the population industrializes. Preventing the industrialization of impoverished countries promises a solution, but at an excruciatingly ugly price: human suffering. Thus, we are at a crossroads: help humankind, or help nature. Unfortunately, this is a choice that is obvious, as humans cannot exist without their world.
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