Humanitarian Policy, Population Growth and Global Warming

It is scientifically and humanly possible to increase the supply of food in this world. Some countries are approaching that issue by buying land in some of the poorest countries in order to raise enough food to feed their own populations and increase the supply of food in the country leasing or selling the land.

It is also scientifically and humanly possible to improve our ability to save many lives, especially in the poorest parts of the world as well as in our own backyard. And many private and governmental organizations are working on that effort around the globe.

But those humanitarian efforts are also tied to the fight against global warming. Increasing the supply of food and improving the health of populations, will have the predictable effect of increasing the population. Demographers talk about curves in which that impact will eventually respond to greater life expectancy, but that’s a ways down the road. Meanwhile, an increase of the population will increase pressure on all of the resources that affect global warming. And global warming will have the reverse effect – it will reduce the livability of our planet, and the water, land, weather and air that make life possible or endurable.

It will be a cruel joke if our humanitarian efforts cause greater pain, sickness and suffering through the impact on the global population. Of course that is exactly what has been happening. Plainly that is not what is desired by all of us who try to alleviate what suffering we can now.

Here I want to refer to the abortion controversy but my purpose here is not to express or promote my own views. Both sides in that debate are trying to express humanistic views, about life and about not killing or torturing people, My point is only that Roe v. Wade changed the discussion from the debate about population policy that we were having before Roe to a debate about rights. And in the rights we have protected, we have not been able to protect the billions of people who will inherit an increasing inhospitable world, one whose warmer climate will sustain more disease, and less land and drinking water to provide the necessities of life. Those consequences are also part of the right to life that we all believe in. And somehow, our protection of the right to life that all of us assert has to protect the human beings who live on and will inherit this earth. The right to life is not separable in that sense. I don’t believe that point separates people by their position on abortion but it does often get lost in the debate. And the debate turned population policy into one of the third rails of politics.

Some global warming is now inevitable because of the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere. But scientists tell us that ways to slow global warming and limit how far it will go are technologically feasible. What is lacking is the political will.

Many of us got the point some time ago. But our politicians are afraid to take the necessary steps for fear of being electrocuted on the third rails of politics – taxing, spending and abortion.

We have to convince our representatives that we will back them if they use the tools of government to solve our common problem; that we support them when they use the tax system to steer us into different energy systems; we will support them when they arrange solar and wind systems in our communities; we will support them when they regulate to push industry in environmentally sounder directions, and by regulations protect those businesses that want to be greener but fear competition from those businesses that don’t.

Global warming has been one of those overriding issues that have risen out of a scientifically informed public. Success requires pushing our elected representatives to take action, not just positions; to make effective rules and incentives to solve the problem, not just statements of support. Our families, our communities, our country and our world requires no less.

– This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report on November 24, 2009

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