The world population officially reached 8 billion people this week. Some have already argued that this is serious news for the planet, but I see things differently.
This is no cause for panic. Population growth and human flourishing should not conflict with reducing greenhouse gas emissions and protecting our planet. As climate activists, we must not forget about humans in favor of our natural world. We must advocate for both to thrive. Not only are future generations the ultimate reason we want to fight climate change, we must encourage the next generation to become innovative leaders ready to solve our world’s complex problems. Advocating extreme population control measures or encouraging young people not to have children is inhumane, plain and simple.
As a backdrop, the world’s population continues to grow for a number of reasons: high birth rates in economically developing countries and rising average life expectancy due to advances in education and health care. But in developed countries such as the United States or countries in the European Union, population growth is so slow that those countries may not even be able to maintain their current population. Even though the world’s population is growing, we are not derailing. In places like Japan, there are even more seniors than the working generation, and things are only expected to get worse. This means that there are also very real concerns about population decline in many countries.
Speaking of Japan’s aging population, average life expectancy continues to rise – projected to reach 77 years by 2050 – and people around the world are living longer, more meaningful lives. As the quality of life improves, people will become more concerned about climate change and seek solutions to protect our environment. More importantly, wealthy countries can afford to fight climate change. While developing countries still lag behind the average in terms of life expectancy and quality of life, significant progress has been made in reducing global poverty and improving living conditions. These steps should be celebrated, not condemned as a climate catastrophe. Humans are not the enemy here; greenhouse gas emissions.
In pursuing climate solutions such as deploying clean energy, restoring natural ecosystems and developing other innovative, emission-reducing technologies, we must do so in a way that maintains – or better yet improves – the quality of life around the world. Equating climate action with sacrifice is not an inspiring message. We must create a future that is even better than our present.
It is true that energy demand will continue to increase and for some countries continued rapid population growth will put pressure on resources. But the answer isn’t to take an anti-human, back-to-nature approach. The answer is to move forward and create innovative solutions to the challenges that arise from having more people on the planet. Just as the world worked together to improve air quality after signing the Montreal Protocol in 1987, we must continue to work together – as leaders did at the UN Climate Summit COP27 this month – to combat the effects of a changing climate.
Simply put, optimism is what is missing from the climate dialogue. Flashy headlines decry a climate apocalypse without acknowledging that our world’s population is growing as more people survive into their childbearing years. That is good news. Now we need to work on solutions that keep the planet healthy for our growing population.
Benji Backer is the president and founder of the American Conservation Coalition (ACC). Follow him on Twitter: @BenjiBacker