Law and Economics: Can the US and the rest of the world stop population growth?

I made a comment on the radio over the weekend about climate change being a “good liberal cause” and I went on to say that my own opinion on global warming was far from resolved.

The point of the commment was that I’ve been a climate change skeptic, but that I don’t really think that one of the best things we can do to combat the warming temperatures is to seal ourselves off from the growing world population.

Which is true, but here’s the big snag: We can’t just shut the door on climate change and have the best possible outcome. Climate change does affect global population, and many countries are already seeing the results of an unanticipated issue with climate change.

More and more headlines from around the world tell of dirty fuel shortages. For instance, in India, the recent cuts on hydropower led to a shortage in transportation. A further impact of cutting back on renewable energy is reducing the strain on older and less reliable public infrastructure, so a problem that should have been addressed decades ago has come to fruition due to an incomplete response.

Not surprisingly, the situation in India highlights an issue I raised in a recent column called “When the Embarrassing Truth Comes Out.”

India in particular is feeling the effects of climate change. It is facing unprecedented population growth, and over 2,000 babies are being born daily and their existence is well under threat due to the ineffective management of population issues. This coupled with an unhelpful near-exclusive focus on rural population management in India, is putting an enormous strain on resources and infrastructure — water, transportation, food production, etc. — in the country.

Just over a decade ago, The New York Times wrote about the crippling depletion of sources in the Andaman Islands, off the Indian coast. Today, when tides rise in the islands in the spring and summer and inundate coastlines, the water comes as high as eight feet in some places.

The same pattern is being repeated in parts of the developing world throughout the tropics, including Africa, which has been hardest hit in the heat.

The NRDC’s “Safeguarding Our Future” report, last year, found that 140 million Indians are exposed to water scarcity — a number that has more than doubled in the last decade. With a growing population, the threat to a billion people is growing.

What is the solution? Economists have increasingly realized that population control is as much a threat to economic growth and world stability as climate change is, and the need to stop it has become a serious cause for debate.

Having children is likely the biggest factor in the destabilization of areas in the developing world, and it is widely recognized that major conflicts and national governments come into play as nations claim land for their own. Just look at the present-day crises of land grabbing in Latin America or the probable conflict over the reclamation of Great Barrier Reef (and Great Barrier Island) to Australia.

These kinds of conflicts have huge negative impacts on local economies, and in extreme cases could get the entire region destabilized.

So, at the end of the day, I still have to say that the solutions to the Earth’s growing population and climate change are not nearly as clear cut as many people would have you believe. First, we cannot control the rate at which humans reproduce. Like world hunger and population control, not only is it within our grasp to stem the problem, we have to. At the same time, there are obviously some social policy interventions we can attempt.

The question of what we do about population issues and population issues related to climate change will be a challenge for long into the future.

Walter Robinson is an expert on law, economic development and public governance. A former IBM Fellow, he worked on Big Blue’s Global Corporate Responsibility program and served as general counsel of IBM’s global law practice.

Leave a Comment