The climate solution requires turning away from fossil fuel dependence. Human population numbers offer no useful pointers toward changes and policies that might facilitate a transition towards structurally different, non-fossil energy, transport, agricultural and consumption regimes.
Handing out condoms and other contraceptives will not counter huge fossil fuel use, particularly in industrialised countries. Reducing the number of births will not dent the massive annual subsidies that oil companies receive in tax breaks, estimated at over $100 billion.
It is not surprising, however, that a worsening climate situation is increasingly attributed not to continued fossil fuel extraction but to too many people.
Whenever global environmental crises, Third World poverty or world hunger are at issue, whenever conflict, migration or economic growth are discussed, economists, demographers, planners, corporate financiers and political pundits (at least in the Global North) frequently invoke overpopulation.
More than 200 years ago, at a time of immense social, political and economic upheaval and deprivation in England — triggered by the enclosure of common lands and forests on which peasant livelihoods depended — free market economist Thomas Malthus wrote a story about how nature and humans interact. The punchline was his mathematical analogy for the disparity between human and food increases.
Harnessing politics to mathematics, he provided a so-called neutral set of arguments for promoting a new political correctness — one that denied the shared rights of everyone to subsistence, sanctioning instead the rights of the "deserving" over the "undeserving", with the market as arbiter of entitlements. This is the essence of the overpopulation argument.
Today, a range of industries use the same argument to colonise the future for their particular interests and to privatise communally-held goods. In climate debates, the talk is of teeming Chinese and Indians causing whole cities to be lost to flooding through their greenhouse gas emissions — unless polluting companies are granted property rights in the atmosphere through carbon-trading schemes and carbon offsets.
These are the tools of the official approach to the climate crisis that aims to build a global carbon market worth trillions of dollars.
Carbon trading continues to give incentives to polluting industries to delay change and continue extracting fossil fuels. Carbon offsets end up increasing fossil fuel emissions rather than compensating for them, and reinforce fossil fuel dependence. In the process, the land, water and air on which many communities depend is usurped.
Two centuries ago, Malthus was compelled to admit that his mathematical and geometric series of increases in food and humans were not observable in any society.
He acknowledged that his "power of number" was just an image — an admission that demographers have since confirmed. For more than 200 years, his theory — that it is the number of people that causes resource scarcity — has been refuted endlessly by demonstrations that any problem attributed to human overpopulation can more convincingly be explained by social inequality, or that the statistical correlation is ambiguous.
Overpopulation arguments and the policies based on them persist, however, because of the ideological advantages they offer to powerful political and economic interests to minimise redistribution and restrict social rights.
Malthus's great achievement was to obscure the roots of poverty, inequality and environmental deterioration. The "war-room" mentality generated by predictions of scarcity-driven apocalypse has always diverted attention away from the awkward social and environmental history of discredited policies and projects.
In climate change debates, overpopulation arguments serve: to delay making structural changes in away from the extraction and use of fossil fuels; to explain the failure of carbon markets to tackle the problem; to justify increased interventions in the countries deemed to hold the surplus people; and to excuse those interventions when they cause further environmental degradation, migration or conflict.
In sum, the climate solution requires turning away from fossil fuel dependence. Human population numbers offer no useful pointers towards changes and policies that might facilitate this.