10 Billion Reasons Climate Should Be Our Top Priority


Photo credit: James Cridland via Flickr/CC BY

Much proverbial ink has been spilled over the UN's latest population projections, which predict that the planet will be shared with 10 billion people by the end of the century. And it's going to require a lot of adjusting to make room for 3 billion more folks -- we're going to hit 7 billion later this year. And if we hope to continue to coexist with the natural world that we've flourished in, it means reexamining our food production, water usage, energy generation, and resource consumption on a global scale. But most of all, it means addressing climate change.The New York Times has a Room for Debate on the topic, but most of the debaters don't go into detail about climate: The WWF's Jason Clay argues that more efficient food production is vital, Jamais Cascio imagines a world with more efficient energy usage people abiding by "a primarily vegetarian diet, with meat protein coming from "cultured meat" producers". David Bloom, meanwhile, focuses on Africa, where the bulk of the population growth will take place in the second half of the century.

He notes that the projections see Africa -- currently home to 1 billion people -- tripling in size. Much of that growth will take place in countries that are unstable, see high poverty levels and severe food shortages. And if you factor in a warming climate, it becomes a recipe for disaster. And it's a good example of why confronting climate change should be the most important consideration in thinking about a 2100 world with 10 billion people.

Climate change is already leading to a spread of desertification across Africa's drier environments, and dust storms and heat waves are a problem right now. Entire bodies of water are drying up. Warming will likely force millions of refugees into also-overpopulated regions and states, and conflicts are likely to ensue, existing ones exacerbated.

Of course, climate change will have similarly severe impacts in places other than Africa, places where populations have been booming as well. We've already seen how heat waves can have devastating impacts on grain production (recall that the heatwave that swept Russia last year crippled its harvest, on which millions depend -- it was enough to turn grumpy, skeptical old Medvedev into a climate activist). Rising sea levels and more frequent flooding will force people out of some coastal regions like Bangladesh. Insect-borne diseases will spread more readily as the warming climate expands the range of mosquitoes.

I could go on. But the point is, a world crowded with 10 billion people, all of whom aspire to consume at the same destructive pace Americans do, is going to be difficult enough to balance without more arid climes, rising sea levels, and increasingly frequent extreme weather events. In other words, climate change will make life miserable for billions of people, and impact just about everyone else. Producing enough food, generating enough energy, and securing a clean water supply for that many people may well be possible if we haven't jabbed a stick into the eye of the world's ornery climate system.

Put simply, adequately managing a world that supports 10 billion people means dealing with climate change.

UPDATE: The post has been corrected to more accurately reflect Jamais Cascio's statements. And in an email to me, Cascio adds the worthy insight that it may not even be possible to reach a population of 10 billion unless we adequately address climate disruption.

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