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How Is Population Growth Related to Climate Change?

Cody Peluso Dec 02, 2022

Two of the major concerns facing the world today are overpopulation and climate change. While at first glance these two issues may appear unrelated, the truth is that they are inextricably linked. Overpopulation is directly contributing to climate change, and that, in turn, is causing devastating effects, especially in communities with less wealth. Recognizing the relationship of overpopulation to climate change is key to solving both issues. Overpopulation is filling our dumps with plastic, overpopulation is causing deforestation across the world, overpopulation is causing massive pollution by dependence on fossil fuels. Overpopulation means more factory farms, more consumption and the earth cannot handle much more. In my humble opinion, one can’t address climate change without addressing sustainable populations.  

The Relationship between Overpopulation and Climate Change 

The massive increase in world population in the 20th century was the fastest in human history. It came on the heels of the Industrial Revolution, and the combination of the two factors led to a huge increase in carbon emissions. The carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere in 1950 was around 300 parts per million, but just under 70 years later, that number had increased to 400 parts per million. This is a huge increase in a geologically minuscule period. During that same time, the world’s population increased by over 5 billion. These two facts are closely related. 

People need food to survive, and as the world’s population grows, so too does the demand for food. To meet this demand, agricultural development has caused deforestation on a large scale. The shrinking forests are unable to counteract the effects of the increasing carbon emissions, causing temperatures to rise. This, in turn, has caused desertification, especially in the already vulnerable Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The resulting loss of arable land means less food production, which threatens to leave millions undernourished. A related problem is water scarcity, caused by increased salinization and the drying up of rivers, lakes, and streams.  

Because of the increased need for agriculture, precious water resources are being used to grow food, leading to less water available for human consumption. Agricultural water use tends to consume water at a rate greater than natural processes can replenish it, causing further loss of water and increased desertification. 

Overpopulation Fuels More Problems and Causes More Misery 

The largest increases in population are coming from the global South. These countries are at times unable to meet the basic requirements of their population, and the problems grow as the population does.  

 In poor communities, population growth spurs migration from rural areas to cities, as young people head to where they will have a better opportunity to find employment. However, due to economic instability, the jobs are simply not there. Small, weak economies cannot meet the rising demands on them, and urbanization leads to thousands of people living in poverty in relatively close quarters. Inadequate sanitation results in disease that spreads quickly, causing illness and death.  

Cities are also vulnerable to natural disasters, especially in cities without adequate infrastructure. With the increase in severe weather events brought on by the changing climate, the chances of major disasters occurring in cities rise exponentially. Many coastal cities are especially at risk due to rising sea levels. Flooding brings more disease and wreaks tremendous damage to infrastructure.  

The nations from the global south that are most at risk from climate change are also the ones least equipped to mitigate its worst effects. Lack of financial resources prevents actions that would lessen the damage done by climate change.  

Inequitable Distribution of Resources 

To be sure, more developed nations, with slower population growth, are major contributors to climate problems – and work must be done to impact consumption. The negative ramifications of these unsustainable lifestyles have an outsized impact on poorer countries and communities – places without the insulating effect of wealth. 

Every person deserves a standard of living that allows for healthy, flourishing families and communities.  In other words, the environmental footprint of places with rapidly growing populations should receive a more just proportion of the world’s resources. This means that these growing populations, by human rights and equity standards, should consume more.  

And it is no secret that population growth itself is an indicator of gross inequity. Looking across any number of indicators – ranging from reproductive health and rights to education opportunities – population growth depends on the oppression of women and girls. 

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report that included the following conclusion: “Globally, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita and population growth remained the strongest drivers of CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion in the last decade.”  

The relationship between population growth and climate change is obvious, and to combat the worst effects of climate change, the overpopulation problem must be dealt with – by empowering women and girls. Failure to do so will cause frustration and setbacks in the battle against climate change. The first step must be to recognize the population growth problem and its impact on climate change. By doing so, efforts can be directed to slow the rate of population growth, leading to improving the health and well-being of billions of people and far more success in dealing with climate change.