Illustration of woman contemplating the earth.

Is Population Control a Climate Change Solution?

A proposal to solve climate change by reducing fertility violates the tenets of reproductive justice—and sparks tough ethical questions.

By Linnea Zimmerman and Travis Rieder

Reducing fertility is not the solution

By Linnea Zimmerman

When we counsel that limiting fertility (the number of children per woman*) is a necessary and sufficient solution to climate change, to whom are we speaking? It is not the already shrinking populations of wealthy nations, but those of poor nations, often in sub-Saharan Africa, where fertility remains high and arguments around “over-population” are invoked. A focus on the fertility of individuals in sub-Saharan Africa is, however, misguided.

Human activities are the root cause of climate change, so there seems to be an irrefutable logic to this argument: Reduce the number of people who consume to reduce consumption and thus reduce the creation of greenhouse gases. This argument ignores the fact that consumption is not equal. The average individual in sub-Saharan Africa contributes less than 0.8 cubic tons of CO2 annually while the average individual in the U.S. contributes 14.7 cubic tons, according to the World Bank. Substantial greenhouse gas reductions will not be made by reducing the fertility of individuals who contribute little to the problem; they will only be made by changing individual consumption patterns in wealthy countries.

Arguments that controlling fertility is a solution to climate change are contrary to principles of reproductive and environmental justice. Reproductive justice is rooted in the idea that all individuals have the right to have children, not have children, and parent their children in safe communities. Violations of reproductive justice can be found across time and place, but often focus on controlling reproduction of poor and marginalized people. Environmental justice addresses the inequitable exposure of communities of color and communities in poverty to environmental risks. In the context of climate change, these inequities manifest as food and water shortages, extreme heat, and increasingly frequent natural disasters. Again, these disproportionately impact poor and marginalized people. The suggestion that those who suffer the most from climate change must regulate their reproduction to solve problems caused by the wealthy violates the principles of justice and equity.

A logical reply may be that “We must all make sacrifices to address climate change.” I agree. But when we talk of fertility reduction, we are not asking sacrifices of ourselves—wealthy countries are experiencing historically low fertility levels—but of the most vulnerable.

Placing the burden of change on the reproductive processes of poor and marginalized people is an abdication of responsibility. We must instead support their fundamental rights as we reduce our own consumption patterns and demand that our institutions aggressively address the root causes of climate change. Only with this dedicated purpose and principle will we see true progress.

The procreative decisions of the world’s wealthy are morally serious

By Travis Rieder

Dr. Zimmerman and I agree that the traditional association between worries about “overpopulation” and the high fertility rates of poorer nations is morally problematic. This does not mean, however, that procreation should not be subject to ethical investigation. It may simply mean that such reflection has tended to arrive at the wrong conclusion.

Overpopulation is not a problem of raw numbers of people, as if the worry is about finding some plot of land for each person to stand on. Rather, the number of people on Earth is a problem when and because they are using resources at an unsustainable rate. Likely one of the best indications that the planet is overpopulated is climate change, as humans are emitting more greenhouse gases than the atmosphere can absorb without violently disrupting the climate. But as Dr. Zimmerman shows, the average American has a much larger carbon footprint than the average citizen from poorer countries. From a resource perspective, the number of wealthy people is a much bigger problem than the number of poor people, even if the fertility rates of wealthy populations are lower.

This raises a very different sort of ethical question than is typically asked: Should those who are wealthy by global standards intentionally choose to have fewer children for the sake of the environment?

When thinking about overpopulation, we often talk about population and consumption as two different variables. But at the level of the individual, the decision to add to the population can be seen as a decision about resource consumption. As an American, I know that any children I have will consume a (relatively) large amount of limited resources. Insofar as I think that I have a responsibility to reflect carefully on my own decisions that impact the global environment, that responsibility applies here. The procreative decisions of the world’s wealthy are morally serious.

Such considerations do not imply that the wealthy should stay childless, or that there is a strict duty to limit family size to any arbitrary number. It also certainly does not imply that any policy that restricts reproduction would be justified, but just because something shouldn’t be regulated or restricted doesn’t mean that it’s not something deserving careful ethical reflection. I have a daughter, and I believe my decision to bring her into the world was justified. But it came with a cost, and now I’m a debtor to the planet—I’ve taken more than my share, and so I must look for ways to pay back the Earth. Our discomfort in discussing population and procreative decisions should not let me off that moral hook.