Adam Aron recently posted a call to support a petition to electrify the UC Campus to fight climate change. To his dismay, I was not welcoming. It is a friendly disagreement: I consider his to be a commendable but futile effort. Why? It is not because I am less alarmed than he is. It is because I am more alarmed. I think Aron underestimates the problem by many orders of magnitude, and there are better ways to make a dent. Focusing on UC electrification seems like a distraction to me. Feel free to sign, but please keep your eyes on the ball.

Facts: From 6 to 100 Gigatons of CO2 ?

Start with evidence. The facts are important not only for climate skeptics and deniers but also for environmentalists and idealists!

  • Some estimates suggest that the planet can sustain as much as 20 gigatons human CO2 emissions per year without too much further global warming.

  • In 1950, the average per-person CO2 emission in the world was about 3.2 tons per person per year (t/py). With 2 billion inhabitants, humanity emitted about 6.4 gigatons of CO2 per year. This was entirely sustainable. In fact, before humanity cranked up CO2 emissions, it is possible that earth was headed for another small ice age.

  • Fast forward to 2018. The average per-person CO2 emission has by now increased from 3.2 t/py to about 4.4 t/py. But the real problem is that earth now has 7.8 billion inhabitants! In about 50 years, earth will have about 10 billion inhabitants. Thus, humanity is already emitting about 37 gigatons per year today and seems to be heading towards 50 gigatons per year by the end of the century. This is unsustainable.

Who is responsible?

  • Current emissions by country (originally courtesy of Thomas Schulz, more detail here):

    There are already about 6 (out of 7.5) billion people alive today who aspire to Western standards of living. Unless there will be dramatic technological change, this will increase their CO2 emissions. If they will emit at European emissions levels (8 t/py) and if population growth stops at 8 billion people, then earth is already heading for 80 gigatons per year.

  • Population growth by country: The countries with the highest population growth are almost all in Africa.1 Religious mandates are also very harmful. The Abrahamic Western religions (Christians, Muslims, and Jews) encourage population growth. Moreover, there are feedback effects. The evidence suggests that high population growth is a key cause of poverty (see the Demographic Transition) and vice-versa. When populations become more secular and richer, they have fewer kids, if only out of more selfish reasons.

  • What will be the interaction of individual CO2 emissions and population growth? Will Africa and the Indian subcontinent—with its forecast 4 billion people by 2100—raise their standards of living and emit more CO2 per capita?

It is not absurd to fear global emissions of 100 gigatons human CO2 emissions per year if nothing dramatic were to change—about 5 times as much as the planet can sustain. Human population pressure and CO2 emissions on these scales will also cause global species extinction (including in the oceans) on a scale that is barely imaginable today. The world will not come to an end (especially not for the wealthy), but it will be a greatly diminished marble in our black universe.

It is only then that you are ready to ask yourself the important questions.

Conceptual Questions

  • If you emit no more CO2 (stop taking airline flights, bicycle instead of drive a car, and use no more heating/AC [which incidentally are the main components of your CO2 emissions and all about equally important]), is this going to help?

  • If you convince all of CA (or Germany or the EU) not to emit any more CO2, is this going to help?

  • If you convince all of the US not to emit any more CO2, is this going to help?

  • If the US/EU enact strict CO2 taxes and forced reductions, will this actually reduce or increase CO2 emissions? What industries/plants can move to cheaper and more polluting locales?

  • Will politicians, especially in poor countries, follow “good CO2 reducing examples” set in OECD countries?

  • Should past CO2 emissions be taxed? Should rich countries today pay to remove past CO2 emissions? Will their citizens consent?

  • Should poor countries be compensated for the emissions put out by developed countries over the last 100 years? (In 1950, the planet had only 2 billion people. The remaining 5.5 billion were added mostly by countries in Asia, then Africa, then Latin America.) Will their citizens consent? Should the “allowable” CO2 budget be per-head alive today?

  • Should rich/other countries be held responsible for CO2 emissions from (more) children born in poor countries?

  • Is it good or bad that CO2 emissions also usually comes with harmful local pollution?

  • Does it matter whether humans are responsible? Or is all that matters what is coming towards us and what we can do to address the problem? (Would it be the same if natural processes like volcano eruptions were changing the global CO2 balance?)

Action Questions

  • Is all lost? (No!)

  • Can we be ready for higher global temperatures? Who will it impact badly? Who not? When?

  • What are the low-hanging fruit (no-brainers)? (Only CO2?)

  • What can you do realistically to help reduce CO2 emissions?

  • What energy and CO2 removal technologies can be deployed at a meaningful scale to reduce CO2 emissions by a factor of 5 ? (Dilithium crystals do not qualify! Fusion is not yet feasible.)

  • What population control measures can be deployed at a meaningful scale to reduce population growth ?

Next Steps

Take Brad Cornell’s (and my) climate course at UCLA Anderson. Some of our answers to these and other questions appear towards the end our Warren Olney podcast How The World Works.

  1. UN Factbook, Highest Annual Population Growth Rate Countries: Bahrain (4.3%), Oman (4.1%), Niger (3.8%), Eq Guinea (3.6%), Angola (3.3%), Uganda (3.2%), Congo (3.2%), Burundi (3.1%), Tanzani (3.1%), Chad (3.0%). For these countries, population doubles roughly every 20-25 years. However, high population growth rates matter less for small countries than for countries like India (1.1%) or China (0.4%).