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The Eighth Wedge
Entry 7: November 7, 2012
If you have read Al Gore's book "An Inconvenient Truth," Page 280 has a chart of seven wedges representing different approaches to controlling carbon emissions contributing to climate change. The chart is based on a paper by Robert H. Socolow and Stephen W. Pacala published in the journal Science. The paper proposed seven strategies to level off emissions: energy efficiency, renewables, clean coal, forests, soils (stop deforestation and agricultural tilling), fuel switch (coal to gas, oil to heat pump, etc.), and nuclear power.
Source: Pacala, S., and R. Socolow. "Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50 Years with Current Technologies." Science 305 (August 13, 2004):968-972.
The premise of the paper is that there is a way to control carbon emissions through these techniques that could successfully mitigate human impact on climate. However, even though the paper talks about current technologies, there are many uncertainties in the success of these strategies. Clean coal, for instance, could be too costly to implement and it relies on unproven technology such as carbon capture and storage. But what if we were overlooking an eighth wedge, a strategy that doesn't require any new technology at all?
The most public faces of the movement to control climate change, Al Gore and Bill McKibben, suffer from an unfortunate bias. Both are ignorant of the need to control global population as the eighth wedge, one of the most practical and technologically feasible approaches to reducing carbon emissions. Gore is a politician, and McKibben a Christian minister. Politicians subscribe to the myth of growth as a necessity for economic health. Governments and businesses only view themselves successful when they grow. In order for government to grow, it needs more taxes. The easiest way to get more taxes is to have more people to govern. Christians, as well as most other organized religions, also make the need to grow a central pillar of their faith. Religions only view themselves as successful when they spread, and the pull of increasing the population of followers (the biblical "be fruitful and multiply") is so strong that you'll never hear someone in any major faith advocate population control for the health of the planet.
What the movement needs is new spokespeople who can clearly present the need for population control as a useful tool to reduce carbon emissions. It's unlikely that Gore or McKibben will change their positions. Population control should not be coercive, but done through proper incentives it could be very successful without infringing on people's basic rights.
Without curbs on population growth, many hoped-for reductions in carbon emissions depend on unproven technologies. These include batteries that are more efficient and less expensive, improvements in renewable power generation such as better photovoltaic cells, biofuels, fuel cells, more efficient automobiles, LED lighting, large-scale energy storage schemes to store intermittent power from the wind and sun, and other innovations. While I am optimistic that many of these things will come to pass, the costs for them will not be affordable in developing countries for decades at the earliest. Even in the developed world, economic problems are putting a damper on these technologies. Some of these technologies depend on elements such as lithium which are scarce and confined to just a few nations. That means that the distribution of materials needed to reduce carbon emissions will be geographically and politically skewed, likely ending up among powerful and influential nations and less available to less fortunate peoples.
In contrast, population control is something that doesn't need any revolutions in technology to achieve. We already know ways to accomplish it, and every nation can do something right now. China has had great success with its one-child policy, though now there are indications that it may relax that policy at a time when it's needed the most. Since it's more coercive than it needs to be, in the long run it could be made more humane and still prove beneficial. Empowering women through education and increased availability of birth control methods has been clearly shown to reduce birth rates and improve economic prosperity. Many governments, including the United States, have in place tax incentives that encourage large families. Removing these incentives would also reduce population growth. Controlling population is something that every nation can do, though it might be in different ways depending on cultural and political norms. In the case of population control, there needn't be the kinds of geopolitical inequities that are bound to happen if we only depend on technology and exotic materials to solve the climate change problem. In reality it may prove difficult to get all countries to participate, but at least having a non-technological tool to reduce carbon emissions will improve the chances of getting everyone to participate in bringing those emissions under control.
McKibben has argued that population control is unfair to developing countries because the developed world is the largest source of carbon emissions. While true, this ignores the reality that developing nations seek to raise their living standards and along with that comes increased carbon emissions. If you think we've got trouble now, wait until everyone in India and China owns an automobile. When that day arrives, we can write off any hope of controlling carbon. McKibben also forgets that eliminating tax incentives for families to have more children in the USA would make our country a much better global citizen in terms of carbon emissions. That step alone would give us much more clout in encouraging other nations to control growth of their populations. For instance, we could eliminate the tax deduction for dependent children on income taxes in excess of two children per family. This change could be done gradually over a period of 18 years, connecting the deductible amount to the birth date of each child so that only new children would come under the provision of a decreased deduction. Families with children born before the phaseout period would not experience any change in taxes. The dirty secret behind McKibben's line of reasoning is that by giving the developing world a pass, the USA doesn't have to do anything to change its ways either. Since every child born in the US has a huge carbon footprint, it's a bit self-serving to call population control an unfair strategy when our own country's growing population has one of the greatest impacts on the planet's carbon budget. Per capita, a US person is responsible for four times the emissions of a person in China. (source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/datablog/2009/sep/02/carbon-emissions-per-person-capita)
I'm not the only one who supports this idea. The Guardian has an article along similar lines at http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/oct/31/stemming-population-growth-climate-change.
Attempts to reach international agreements on climate change have failed to produce much in the way of success. What's needed in the face of this reality is work on smaller pieces where success might be possible. We might be able to reach an international agreement on population if each nation had a plan that was tailored to its situation.
The problem with population control isn't technology, it's politics and religion. No one in government wants to go against organized religion or against the inbred bias of taxpayer-funded growth. That's unfortunate, because the only barrier to adding an eighth wedge to our arsenal to fight climate change is human stubbornness.