Elon Musk says 'population collapse' is a bigger threat than climate change. Is he right?
Kyle Bagenstose, USA TODAY
At the Cannes Film Festival this summer, many attendees reveled at the "Top Gun" reboot, a throwback to the past. But on the sidelines a smaller crowd witnessed something more solemn: the possibility of a dark and tragic future.
"Plan 75," a film by Japanese director Hayakawa Chie, explores the potential dangers of her country's aging society, where nearly one-in-three people are currently 65 or older. Set in a near-future dystopia, the film depicts a nation whose healthcare and pensions systems have become so overburdened by the elderly that the government aggressively markets a policy to pay for final bucket list items and then euthanize anyone over 75.
While technically the stuff of science fiction, demographers say the film arrives at a time when humanity really is aging.
The global fertility rate has decreased by half since 1960. In countries responsible for 85% of the world's gross domestic product – the United States, Germany, Japan, even China and India – births have fallen below the “replacement rate,” meaning that unless offset by immigration, population will begin to decline as older generations depart.
The United Nations calculates the world population will now peak in 2084, before starting to fall by the century's end.
In a world where economies are designed around growth and social systems depend on the young supporting the old, forward thinkers are beginning to wonder what comes next.
Consider Elon Musk, Tesla CEO and business magnate, now most prominent among their ranks.
“Population collapse due to low birth rates is a much bigger risk to civilization than global warming,” Musk wrote on Twitter this summer. “Mark these words.”
But is he right?
Population concerns are nothing new
For centuries, humans have pondered the ideal size of humanity.
But experts warn such efforts usually end in folly, and that our species has within its grasp solutions to prosper whether populations rise or fall.
“It's up to us and how the world responds,” said Lauren Johnston, a professor at the University of Sydney's China Studies Centre and economic demographer.
For much of the last few centuries, those fretting about overpopulation have had the spotlight. In 1798, English scholar Thomas Malthus published an influential essay that laid out an idea known as the “Malthusian trap,” which holds that population growth inevitably exceeds food and other resources, leading to famine and poverty. The work inspired anxiety in England and helped lead to the first national census of England, Scotland and Wales.
Such concerns echoed loudly in 1968, when Stanford University professor Paul Ehrlich and wife Anne Ehrlich published "The Population Bomb," a book that predicted global famine leading to the deaths of hundreds of millions of people within decades.
But most experts say such predictions have not come to pass. Particularly in the past 50 years, a “Green Revolution” in agriculture has used new farming methods to reap more calories per acre of land, leading world hunger to decrease even as the population doubled.
Although studies show such practices have created additional problems – driving water pollution, contributing to climate change, and perhaps even decreasing the nutritional value of food – Johnston points out that many nations are now facing the opposite of starvation.
“In most countries there has been a sufficiently productive response to population growth that there hasn't been a famine,” Johnston said. “Now there's obesity.”
Underpopulation on the horizon?
As concern over having too many mouths to feed has waned, an opposing one has risen: too few people to work.
That's an especially obvious worry in China, which infamously implemented a one-child policy in 1980 to address exponential population growth projections. Its current population of 1.4 billion remains the world's largest.
But realizing the aging trajectory of its society, in 2016 China eliminated the policy and has also limited pensions and social programs for the elderly, Johnston said.
Many other nations are or soon will be facing similar challenges.
To maintain a steady population without immigration, a nation has to achieve a fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman, experts say. But the fertility rate is just 1.7 in China and Brazil, 1.5 across the European Union, and 0.8 in South Korea, the lowest of any country, according to the World Bank. The rate is 1.6 in the United States, where the population is still rising only due to longer lifespans and immigration, which is projected to outpace natural births by 2030.
Globally, it's primarily African nations like Nigeria, where the fertility rate is 5.2, that are contributing to population growth. But as those nations develop, some experts expect fertility rates to fall as well, contributing to the possibility of unprecedented global population decline.
“There's never been anything close to a parallel,” Johnston said.
Some experts are ringing alarm bells on what that could mean for societies.
In their book "Reversal: Ageing Societies, Waning Inequality, and an Inflation Revival," economists Charles Goodhart and Manoj Pradhan warn of mounting fiscal crises, "as medical, care, and pension expenditures all increase in our ageing societies."
Nations could wind up burning the candle at both ends: as a higher percentage of people become retirees they require more public resources, while at the same time the taxable working population shrinks. Problems could be exacerbated as rates of Alzheimer's and other costly elder illnesses increase, while labor shortages create inflationary pressures. As countries face these challenges, their societies and politics could destabilize.
"Our view of the future is not encouraging, but it is coherent and plausible," Goodhart and Pradhan write.
So Musk is right?
Not so fast, says Daniel Kammen, a professor of sustainability at the University of California, Berkeley and former Science Envoy to the U.S. State Department.
While aging societies do pose possible challenges in the future, Kammen says the world is facing a current full-blown crisis right now: climate change.
And adding more people to the Earth's population will only further complicate humanity's lagging efforts to fight global warming, experts say.
“There's no ideal number, but certainly I would say there are too many people on our planet for our current lifestyle,” Kammen said.
Kammen believes the entire conversation about population is a red herring, a view commonly held among population experts.
Instead, he says the focus should be on whether or not countries are wisely using resources. That's when the wealth of nations like the U.S., and not their population, come into focus.
A study in the journal Nature Sustainability this year found that the world's wealthiest 10% of people produce 47% of its carbon emissions, compared to just 10% of emissions for the entire bottom half of the economic ladder.
To put it another way, World Bank data shows the average Nigerian's carbon footprint is 0.6 metric tons each year. With the globe currently emitting about 34 billion metric tons of CO2 annually, that means it could currently support 58 billion people if they had a Nigerian carbon footprint.
On the other hand, the average American uses 14.7 metric tons of CO2 each year, meaning the world could support just 2.3 billion people if everyone had an American footprint.
The same effect can be seen within countries. While many Americans believe that population-dense cities hold the most blame for carbon emissions, work from Kammen and his colleagues show the carbon footprints of urban Americans are actually substantially less than rural residents, with suburban residents surpassing both. That's true both on a per capita basis and in total: about half of U.S. carbon emissions come from suburban settings, while less than a third come from urban.
Ultimately, Kammen said, the question is how to reduce resource footprints, especially in wealthy nations. The smaller they get, the more people the planet can support.
“While it sure seems like there are a lot of people on our planet, our individual impact is much more measured by the ways in which we amplify or minimize our footprint,” Kammen said. “If you make it about population, you avoid how critical our patterns of consumption are.”
Experts also say the challenges of population decline are not insurmountable.
Johnston says it will come down to smart planning and cooperation. If populations do peak and fall, governments can mitigate the repercussions by sharing resources more equitably. That will likely include sacrifices among the older generations. Not with their lives as "Plan 75" depicts, but through higher retirement ages and adjustments to pensions and benefits.
Other experts note that it may be possible to maintain productivity levels with fewer people, through increased education or even possibly with the assistance of technologies like Artificial Intelligence and automation. In the end, people of working ages may also need to sacrifice in the form of higher taxes.
But such a future will inevitably look different than the world we live in now, and Goodhart and Pradhan warn a lot will be riding on whether or not societies accept such changes.
"We doubt that politicians, facing rising health and pension costs, will be prepared or able to raise taxes enough to equilibrate the economy via fiscal policy," they wrote.
Population 'cures' can be worse than population collapse
While population decline comes with challenges, experts warn that attempts to reverse course are often at best ineffectual, and at worst hateful and destructive.
After all, they note, the basis of population decline is personal freedom.
Reiner Klingholz, a population researcher and author based in Germany, notes that smaller families and a more developed lifestyle often go hand-in-hand. As a society becomes wealthier and more educated, its fertility rate invariably falls.
That's particularly tied to women's education and empowerment. When women become more educated, both professionally and on sexual reproduction, they are presented with life choices beyond homemaker and often choose to have less children, experts say. Development also brings increased wealth, which creates societies that are overall healthier and happier, even if the fertility rate is lower.
“Look at Sweden and Denmark,” where fertility rates stand at 1.7, Klingholz said. “People are very happy in these countries.”
Also troubling: Concerns about population decline often boost xenophobia.
In the United States, "Great Replacement Theory" – an unfounded conspiracy that political leaders are intentionally replacing white Americans with non-white immigrants – has moved from extreme right-wing circles into mainstream discourse.
Perhaps nowhere is this tension more apparent globally than in Hungary, where the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban is now offering about $30,000 and a raft of subsidies on homes and cars for Hungarian families with at least four children, while opposing new immigration.
“Instead of just numbers, we want Hungarian children. Migration for us is surrender,” Orban said in 2020.
Such rhetoric stands in stark contrast to most economists, who according to Goodhart and Pradhan, value immigration as a tool to offset population decline and boost a country's workforce and productivity.
Attempts to instead fix population decline through economic policies like tax incentives often fail due to the ties between women's empowerment and lower fertility rates, said Per Espen Stoknes, director of the BI Centre for Sustainability and Energy at the Norwegian Business School.
“Men can't tell women how many children they should have,” Stoknes said. “It's not really about the issue of (resources). It's really about what kind of life do women want for themselves?”
A happier future?
Johnston says that in the end, population decline doesn't have to be a crisis. Ultimately, as with climate change, it comes down to wise resource allocation.
If humanity can cooperate and efficiently distribute resources through immigration and economic policies, it could build a world with where people are fewer but more educated, and in which productivity and ingenuity still flourish.
But that's a big "if."
“It might be so much healthier if there's a smaller population overall, but much more cooperation,” Johnston said. “If China goes from 1.4 billion people to 800 million, but people go from peasants to middle class, how on Earth is that going to be a bad shift?”
Kyle Bagenstose covers climate change, chemicals, water and other environmental topics for USA TODAY. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kylebagenstose.
Electricity and water systems are inextricably linked through water demands for energy generation, and through energy demands for using, moving, and treating water and wastewater. Climate change may stress these interdependencies, together referred to as the energy-water nexus, by reducing water availability for hydropower generation and by increasing irrigation and electricity demand for groundwater pumping, among other feedbacks. Further, many climate adaptation measures to augment water supplies—such as water recycling and desalination—are energy-intensive. However, water and electricity system climate vulnerabilities and adaptations are often studied in isolation, without considering how multiple interactive risks may compound. This paper reviews the fragmented literature and develops a generalized framework for understanding these implications of climate change on the energy-water nexus. We apply this framework in a case study to quantify end-century direct climate impacts on California’s water and electricity resources and estimate the magnitude of the indirect cross-sectoral feedback of electricity demand from various water adaptation strategies. Our results show that increased space cooling demand and decreased hydropower generation are the most significant direct climate change impacts on California’s electricity sector by end-century. In California’s water sector, climate change impacts directly on surface water availability exceed demand changes, but have considerable uncertainty, both in direction and magnitude. Additionally, we find that the energy demands of water sector climate adaptations could significantly affect California’s future electricity system needs. If the worst-case water shortage occurs under climate change, water-conserving adaptation measures can provide large energy savings co-benefits, but other energy-intensive water adaptations may double the direct impacts of climate change on the state’s electricity resource requirement. These results highlight the value of coordinated adaptation planning between the energy and water sectors to achieve mutually beneficial solutions for climate resilience.
Los Angeles Times
by Sammy Roth
For the original, click here.
If there’s one thing to understand this Earth Day about California’s role in confronting the climate crisis, it’s this: Just because the state considers itself a global leader doesn’t mean it’s doing nearly enough.
Gov. Gavin Newsom admitted as much last year. As monstrous wildfires carved a path of destruction from the giant sequoias of the Sierra Nevada to the mountains around Los Angeles — bringing smoke-choked orange skies to the Bay Area and raining ash to Southern California — Newsom said, “Across the entire spectrum, our goals are inadequate to the reality we’re experiencing.”
“We’re going to have to do more, and we’re going to have to fast-track our efforts,” Newsom told reporters as he stood among freshly charred trees in Oroville. “While it’s nice to have goals to get to 100% clean energy by 2045, that’s inadequate.”
Now leading scientists are offering the governor a far more aggressive path forward.
That path is laid out in a not-yet-published paper (available on arXiv) from a team of researchers led by UC Berkeley’s Daniel Kammen, whose work for an international climate science panel helped earn a Nobel Peace Prize. The researchers make the case that California must ratchet up its ambitions dramatically, and immediately.
The scientists call for the state to reduce its planet-warming pollution nearly 80% by 2030, rather than the currently mandated 40%, through what they describe as a “a wartime-like mobilization of resources.”
Why should the Golden State double its efforts?
The paper rattles off a dizzying series of facts about the climate consequences already confronting Californians: 4.3 million acres burned in 2020, about 4% of the state; nearly $150 billion in health and economic damages from smaller firestorms two years earlier; and conflagrations so bad experts didn’t expect to see them for another 30 years. Not to mention worsening droughts, rising seas and hotter heat storms that are far deadlier than many people realize.
And despite the state’s long track record of leadership in phasing out fossil fuels, it’s now falling behind, the researchers say.
There’s no better sign of that than President Biden — once viewed with extreme skepticism by climate activists — trying to pass an infrastructure bill that sets a national goal of 100% clean electricity by 2035, a full decade ahead of California’s target.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti endorsed the same 2035 goal in his State of the City address on Monday. That followed the release of a first-of-its-kind study by the federally funded National Renewable Energy Laboratory finding L.A. can achieve 98% clean energy as early as 2030, and 100% by 2035, without increasing the risk of blackouts or disrupting the local economy.
Garcetti said in an interview that Newsom and the state Legislature should “absolutely” follow L.A.'s lead.
“This should encourage California to see that it’s achievable everywhere. If the biggest city in the state with the largest municipal utility in the country can do this, you can do it too,” Garcetti said.
“The reason why is obvious. This whole world, governments are missing their goals. Weather events are becoming more extreme, and the threat is greater today than it was yesterday,” he said.
There are other examples overseas of governments picking up the pace.
The United Kingdom plans to ban the sale of gas cars by 2030, half a decade ahead of Newsom’s deadline for California. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently set a target of slashing carbon emissions 68% by 2030, far more aggressive than California’s aim. Volvo says it will produce only electric vehicles by 2030. Finland is aiming for a carbon-neutral economy by 2035, 10 years ahead of California.
Lawmakers in Washington state also vaulted ahead of California last week, setting a goal to end the sale of gas cars by 2030.
“There’s a lot going on that we’re not taking advantage of,” Kammen said in an interview.
Kammen has previously served as a Coordinating Lead Author for the United Nations-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. His coauthors on the new paper include UC Merced cognitive scientist Teenie Matlock; USC sociologist Manuel Pastor; UC Santa Barbara sociologist David Pellow, UC San Diego climate scientist Veerabhadran Ramanathan; UC Santa Barbara political scientist Leah Stokes; and Tom Steyer, the billionaire climate activist who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination last year.
The group used a modeling tool developed by the Climate Center, a Santa Rosa-based nonprofit, to analyze how much the Golden State could cut emissions over the next nine years without causing energy costs to rise significantly. They determined a reduction of 77% below 1990 levels was feasible, largely because solar panels, wind turbines and batteries are getting so cheap.
“We didn’t work back from a target. We worked forward from what are the current price declines we’re seeing on the renewable and storage side,” Kammen said in an interview. “The 80% comes in at a sweet spot, where the prices don’t rise that much.”
What would those changes look like in practice?
Under one pathway laid out in the paper, which is being reviewed by the journal Environmental Research Letters, California would need to reach 100% clean electricity by 2030. That would require building new infrastructure — including lots of offshore wind turbines — at a pace Kammen described as “a bit scary.” Emissions from transportation, the largest source of climate pollution, would need to fall by 70% in nine years, almost certainly necessitating an end to the sale of gas cars sometime this decade.
“It’s really designed to be a wake-up call,” Kammen said.
There’s little question a wake-up call is needed.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported this month that concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane, the two most important greenhouse gases, reached record levels in 2020, rising rapidly despite a pandemic that slowed the global economy. The planet is already 1.2 degrees Celsius warmer than it was before the Industrial Revolution, nearing the 1.5 degrees that scientists have set as a target for staving off dangerous tipping points.
To watch the interview and discussion video, click hereon the KQED website.
Fighting Climate Change Amid Wildfires, Extreme Weather and Presidential DenialOn Monday, during a trip to California, President Trump refused to acknowledge the role climate change has played in generating wildfires that have burned more than 3 million acres and killed at least 26 people, including one firefighter battling the El Dorado Fire east of Los Angeles. Trump asserted that poor forest management was to blame and that the weather would get cooler. But Trump’s denial of climate change is at odds with public opinion. According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, more than 70% of Americans believe that climate change is happening, and nearly 60% believe that it is mostly due to human activities. Meanwhile, California remains a leader on fighting greenhouse gas emissions, with more than 30% of its energy coming from renewables like solar and wind, a figure that is mandated to double in a decade. Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom said the state would accelerate its climate change strategies, including a goal to get to 100% carbon-free electricity by 2045.
A panel of UC Berkeley experts discussed Monday what effect COVID-19 is having on the environment. (UC Berkeley video)
Ever so slowly, communities around the globe are cautiously easing shelter-in-place orders, and people are heading back to work — bringing with them damaging behaviors that hurt the environment and impact climate change, such as increased reliance on single-use plastic grocery bags.
But it doesn’t have to be that way, say four UC Berkeley environmental and energy experts. Instead, they say, the current COVID-19 pandemic offers lessons in how shared global solutions can help beat back the continued threat of climate change.
“We can restart the economy and put people back to work, and we have to do so in a way that we’re taking advantage of where renewable energy is today — then there’s a really positive opportunity,” said Dan Kammen, professor and chair of the Energy Resources Group and professor of public policy and nuclear engineering. “We have to put people back to work in a way that’s equitable and green.”
Disposable plastic bags have made a comeback as people have grown leery of being too close to other people and their possessions. In a number of cities and states, including San Francisco, new bans on plastic bags have been delayed or existing bans have been temporarily halted and customers ordered not to bring into shops their own bags, mugs or reusable items from home.
Kammen, along with colleagues David Ackerly, dean of the Rausser College of Natural Resources, Kate O’Neill, professor of environmental science, policy and management, and Valeri Vasquez, a Ph.D. candidate in the Energy and Resources Group, were part of a Berkeley Conversations panel that examined on Monday how the pandemic has caused seismic shifts in how we produce and consume goods and could also open a path to a more sustainable future.
“Right before the outbreak, we were actually starting to feel like we could make a real difference in terms of getting rid of single-use plastics and solving a lot of the issues with global waste streams,” O’Neill said. “But for any of us who’ve been in the Berkeley Bowl parking lot recently, one of the first things we might have noticed is a lot more litter. Plastic bags, rubber gloves, masks. This is something we’re going to have to push back on and really question. The main problem coming up is going to be reinstating zero waste policies once (the pandemic) is over.”
Vasquez underscored how the COVID-19 pandemic is revealing deep societal inequities and also demonstrating the interconnectedness of health, climate and sustainability issues.
“The public health and climate debates are really inextricably linked,” she said. “In our highly connected world, a disease that originated 3,000 or 6,000 miles away can be at our doorsteps in a day or less. So, the way that we mobilize against COVID-19 needs to be reflected in the way that we mobilize against that other big global affliction called climate change.”
Berkeley Conversations: COVID-19, are a series of live, online events featuring faculty experts from across the UC Berkeley campus who are sharing what they know, and what they are learning, about the pandemic. All conversations are recorded and available for viewing at any time on the Berkeley Conversations website.
Click here for conference details: April 26.
Many in the ML community wish to take action on climate change, yet feel their skills are inapplicable. This workshop aims to show that in fact the opposite is true: while no silver bullet, ML can be an invaluable tool both in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and in helping society adapt to the effects of climate change. Climate change is a complex problem, for which action takes many forms - from designing smart electrical grids to tracking deforestation in satellite imagery. Many of these actions represent high-impact opportunities for real-world change, as well as being interesting problems for ML research.
As the nation shifts abruptly into the fight against coronavirus, a question arises: could social isolation help reduce an individual’s production of greenhouse gases and end up having unexpected consequences for climate change?
The biggest sources of carbon emissions caused by our lifestyles come from three activities, said Kimberly Nicholas, a researcher at the Lund University Center for Sustainability Studies in Sweden: “Any time you can avoid getting on a plane, getting in a car or eating animal products, that’s a substantial climate savings.” Many people trying to avoid the coronavirus are already two-thirds of the way there.
Dr. Christopher M. Jones, lead developer at the CoolClimate Network, an applied research consortium at the U.C. Berkeley Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, said that “all these extra precautions that schools and businesses are taking to keep people home are saving lives, and that’s clearly what’s most important.” Having said that, he added that many of the actions people are taking in response to the coronavirus outbreak could have a benefit of a reduced carbon footprint — though others would have little effect or could even expand it.