For Many Reporters Covering Climate, Population Remains the Elephant in the Room
By Wudan Yan
In June, New York Times journalist Andy Newman wrote an article titled, "If seeing the world helps ruin it, should we stay home?" In it, he raised the question of whether or not travel by plane, boat, or car—all of which contribute to climate change, rising sea levels, and melting glaciers—might pose a moral challenge to the responsibility that each of us has to not exacerbate the already catastrophic consequences of climate change. The premise of Newman's piece rests on his assertion that traveling "somewhere far away… is the biggest single action a private citizen can take to worsen climate change."
But that's not true. In 2017, Seth Wynes of Lund University in Sweden and Kimberly Nicholas of the University of British Columbia estimated the carbon emissions that various individual lifestyle choices would have. The foremost way to reduce climate change, their report said, would be to have one fewer child (which would otherwise annually contribute an additional 58.6 tons of carbon dioxide, on average in developed countries, according to the researchers' estimates). The runner-ups were living car free (2.4 tons of carbon dioxide per year), and not taking one transatlantic flight (1.6 tons of carbon dioxide per year).
Newman told me that, although he fact-checked his article meticulously, neither he nor his editors caught the error on which he established the premise of his story. (In emailed comments, Newman wrote that not having a child "wasn't in the story simply because it did not occur to me while I was writing the story," though he questioned whether one should consider having a child "a single action." "It's the millions of activities that occur in the life of that human you've created that generate the CO2," he wrote. "To me it doesn't seem fair to compare taking a flight—a self-contained event that occupies only a few hours—with an entire lifetime of carbon emission.")
On the heels of Newman's piece, The Guardian published an interactive story focused exclusively on how much carbon dioxide is emitted per flight. A month on from Newman's story, Quartz published a story titled, "If you care about your impact on the planet you should stop flying." For that story, Quartz replicated a graph from the Wynes and Nicholas study, but failed to include the impact that not having another child would have. When I asked the reporter, Natasha Frost, why Quartz decided to omit part of the data, she said the graphing software couldn't fit the data properly on the graph.
If any article is only talking about flying less, or eating less meat, "it's borderline dangerous and misleading," Erica Gies, an independent journalist who has written about population and her personal decision not to have children, says. "Or the writer is ill-informed, doesn't want to look at the reality, or open themselves up to the personal attack that is writing about it."
If not having another child saves more than 20 times more carbon per year, why aren't more journalists talking about human population in proportion to the climate impact that it can have?
Environmentalists believe that overpopulation is how we arrived at our current climate crisis. To explain the impact humans have on the environment, they use the formula I = PAT: the human impact on the environment (I) is the product of population (P), affluence (A), and technology (T). "Changing population is the one factor—the one that's most movable — that will have the most impact," activist and documentary filmmaker Terry Spahr says.
Environmental activist Bill McKibben, who, in 1999, wrote Maybe One about his decision to have just one kid due to the climate crisis, believes population is not discussed as much because population growth is not immediate and birth rates in America are already at an all-time low. "If indeed we have a decade to make transformative change, there are other things"—such as taking on the giant institutions of the fossil fuel industry—"that are more crucial," McKibben told me.
The issue of population was more widely discussed in the 1970s, after biologist Paul Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb, a warning that the world population was spiraling out of control. Population growth then led India to implement a program to forcibly sterilize men, and China to introduce its one-child policy.
Around the same time, mainstream environmental organizations in the U.S. such as the Sierra Club, World Wildlife Foundation, and Audubon Society, all embraced policies and platforms that would limit population growth. (The Sierra Club, for instance, believed that the population of the U.S. should be stabilized by limiting immigration.) But they eventually got rid of it. "It got twisted by people," says Spahr. That is, "if you believed in population policies, you were racist, or colonialist, imperialistic, or a believer in euthanasia and all kinds of crazy things." As a result, says Spahr, population control "lost its presence as a real, viable and important part of the conversation."
That backlash can intimidate writers keen to discuss how population and reproductive choice are tied into climate impact. Ash Sanders, who recently published an essay in BuzzFeed about why she chose not to have children, was initially nervous to pitch the story for those very reasons.
Gies wrote her first piece about population control for Forbes in 2011. For a long time, she says, it felt like no one else was willing to write about it.
"I got a lot of shame," she says. "People told me: if you're so concerned, you should kill yourself. And having a child in most cultures is an automatic good, so people hear you criticizing them and their choices when you talk about your own choices." But at the same time, Gies says, she received heartfelt messages from people who felt similarly, supported, and seen.
Although journalists are reaching a consensus on the gravity of the climate crisis, there is no such consensus on how to link the issue of population with climate change—or whether the link should be made at all. Talking about not having children, Frost says via email, raises "complicated ethical questions about the difference between actions where if everyone took them, the world would likely be a better place (like not eating meat), and ones where everyone doing them would make the world worse (like not having children, if you think the human race is a valuable thing to protect)."
David Roberts, an environmental journalist with Vox wrote in a 2017 article that he refused to talk about overpopulation because it was morally and politically fraught. In that article, he explains that discussing things such as empowering women would be an indirect way to get at population. (I.e., if you educate women on family planning and give them opportunities for income, they will opt to have fewer children.)
Gies, meanwhile, says population needs to be discussed directly. "That's the problem: we haven't been talking about it directly," she says.
Spahr says he's seen the conversation about population and climate change become more public over the last five years. Prince Harry recently announced that he and his partner, Meghan, will only be having two children because of climate change (although having two children will merely hit the replacement rate and not actually reduce climate impact). In February, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked whether or not it's ethical to have children given the climate crisis.
Given the urgency of crisis, says Sanders, "we need to attack climate change from so many different structural and cultural angles. I don't think population is the silver bullet, but I think it's the one tool we have that we're not talking about enough. I think there are ways to have this conversation ethically that will lead to freedom and choice."
The #planet cannot accommodate the "alarming rate" of human #overpopulation and our unsustainable use of natural resources. Experts agree that human population growth must end quickly for the planet and all of its inhabitants to survive.https://t.co/ntfUk9eH72— InDefenseOfAnimals (@IDAUSA) October 11, 2018
Wudan Yan is an independent journalist in Seattle, Washington. Her work has appeared in California Sunday Magazine, Discover, Harper's, High Country News, The New Yorker, The New York Times and The Washington Post, among others.
Editor's Note: This article has been updated for clarity.
This story originally appeared in Columbia Journalism Review. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Democrats in the House and Senate have introduced legislation to ban some of the most toxic pesticides currently in use in the U.S. D-Keine / E+ / Getty Images
By Jake Johnson
Democrats in the House and Senate on Tuesday introduced sweeping legislation that would ban some of the most toxic pesticides currently in use in the U.S. and institute stronger protections for farmworkers and communities that have been exposed to damaging chemicals by the agriculture industry.
- California Bans Pesticide Linked to Brain Damage in Children ... ›
- Hawaii Bans Use of Toxic Pesticide Chlorpyrifos - EcoWatch ›
- Trump EPA OKs 'Emergency' Use of Bee-Killing Pesticide on 13.9 ... ›
BP, the energy giant that grew from oil and gas production, is taking its business in a new direction, announcing Tuesday that it will slash its oil and gas production by 40 percent and increase its annual investment in low-carbon technology to $5 billion, a ten-fold increase over its current level, according to CNN.
- World's Largest Fund Manager to 'Reshape' Investment Portfolio to ... ›
- Oil Companies Are Thinking About a Low-Carbon Future, but Aren't ... ›
- BP Announces Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Target, but Offers No ... ›
By Alex Thornton
The Australian government has announced a A$190 million (US$130 million) investment in the nation's first Recycling Modernization Fund, with the aim of transforming the country's waste and recycling industry. The hope is that as many as 10,000 jobs can be created in what is being called a "once in a generation" opportunity to remodel the way Australia deals with its waste.
Waste Mountain<p>The need for a dramatic increase in Australia's recycling capacity pre-dates the COVID-19 pandemic. <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-12-27/where-does-all-australias-waste-go/11755424" target="_blank">Australians create approximately 67 million tons of waste a year</a>, and like in many wealthy countries, much of that was sent overseas. That all changed when China announced it was <a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/10/china-has-banned-foreign-waste-so-whats-the-future-of-world-recycling" target="_blank">banning the import of a huge range of foreign waste</a> and recyclables. Soon <a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/05/malaysia-flooded-with-plastic-waste-to-send-back-some-scrap-to-source" target="_blank">other countries followed suit</a>, and Australia was forced to look for alternative solutions.</p>
Biggest exporters of plastic. Statista
Waste Export Ban<p>Australia has adopted a strategy of taking responsibility for its own waste. Starting in January 2021, it is phasing in <a href="http://www.environment.gov.au/protection/waste-resource-recovery/waste-export-ban" target="_blank">bans on the export of different forms of waste</a>. By mid 2024, Australia's home-grown recycling industry will have to deal with an extra 650,000 tons of waste plastic, paper, glass and tires.</p><p>"As we cease shipping our waste overseas, the waste and recycling transformation will reshape our domestic waste industry, driving job creation and putting valuable materials back into the economy," federal environment minister Sussan Ley said in a <a href="https://uk.reuters.com/article/us-australia-waste/australia-to-set-up-132-million-fund-to-boost-recycling-following-export-curbs-idUKKBN247060" target="_blank">statement to Reuters</a>.</p>
Timeline for Australia's waste export ban. Australian Government
Trash Into Treasure<p>The benefits to the environment of boosting recycling rates are well known – less landfill, less plastic in our ocean, reduced need for virgin materials, and lower carbon emissions. The Recycling Modernization Fund initiative aims to divert more than 10 million tons of waste from landfill, part of an <a href="http://www.environment.gov.au/protection/waste-resource-recovery/publications/national-waste-policy-action-plan" target="_blank">overall strategy to reduce the total waste generated per person by 10%</a>, and push <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/resources/7381c1de-31d0-429b-912c-91a6dbc83af7/files/national-waste-report-2018.pdf" target="_blank">Australia's total resource recovery rate from 58% in 2017</a> to 80% by 2030.</p><p>But like many countries, Australia is focusing on the economic benefits of better waste management as well.</p><p>"This will mean Australia converts more waste into higher valued resources ready for reuse locally by manufacturers and brands in their packaging and products," Rose Read, CEO of the National Waste and Recycling Industry Council, <a href="https://uk.reuters.com/article/us-australia-waste/australia-to-set-up-132-million-fund-to-boost-recycling-following-export-curbs-idUKKBN247060" target="_blank">told Reuters</a>.</p>
Green Jobs<p>The great potential of the circular economy to create green jobs is being recognized across the world.</p><p>In the UK, the Waste and Resources Action Program has launched a <a href="https://wrap.org.uk/buildbackbetter" target="_blank">six-point plan which it claims could add $90 billion to the economy, and create 500,000 new jobs</a>. Investment in the circular economy forms a significant part of the <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/14/us/politics/biden-climate-plan.html" target="_blank">$2 trillion climate plan that Democratic candidate Joe Biden</a> is taking into November's US presidential election. And the <a href="https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_20_940" target="_blank">European Union has put its Green New Deal at the heart of its plans for recovery</a> from the economic shock of COVID-19.</p><p>The World Economic Forum's <a href="http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_The_Future_Of_Nature_And_Business_2020.pdf" target="_blank">Future of Nature and Business</a> report identifies 15 systemic transitions with annual business opportunities worth $10 billion a year that could create 395 million jobs by 2030.</p><p>As is the case with Australia's Recycling Modernization Fund, a combination of private enterprise and government investment can offer ways to get people back to work by building a more environmentally sustainable economy.</p>
- The Complex and Frustrating Reality of Recycling Plastic - EcoWatch ›
- U.S. Products Labeled Recyclable Really Aren't, Greenpeace ... ›
- Mutant Enzyme Recycles Plastic in Hours, Could Revolutionize ... ›
The Great American Outdoors Act is now the law of the land.
<div id="e0008" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ffc07febbf5d2d585ad06d3f43e2be56"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1290667833999929344" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">🚨Breaking News: The President has just signed the bipartisan #GreatAmericanOutdoorsAct. It will help: 🏗️ Restore… https://t.co/RPefKPMn7S</div> — Fix Our Parks (@Fix Our Parks)<a href="https://twitter.com/FixOurParksUS/statuses/1290667833999929344">1596554165.0</a></blockquote></div>
- Judge Rebukes Trump's Attack on Public Lands, Rules Coal Mining ... ›
- Great American Outdoors Act Passes House With Bipartisan Support ... ›
- Great American Outdoors Act Approved by Senate in Major ... ›
By Andrew J. Whelton and Caitlin R. Proctor
In recent years wildfires have entered urban areas, causing breathtaking destruction.
Survivors left everything to flee the Camp Fire's path. Andrew Whelton / Purdue University
Wildfires and Water<p>Both the Tubbs and Camp fires destroyed fire hydrants, water pipes and meter boxes. Water leaks and ruptured hydrants were common. The Camp Fire inferno spread at a speed of one football field per second, chasing everyone – including water system operators – out of town.</p><p>After the fires passed, testing ultimately revealed widespread hazardous drinking water contamination. Evidence suggests that the toxic chemicals originated from a combination of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/aws2.1183" target="_blank">burning vegetation, structures and plastic materials</a>.</p>
Pipes, water meters and meter covers after wildfires destroyed them. Caitlin Proctor, Amisha Shah, David Yu, and Andrew Whelton/Purdue University
Dangerous Contamination Levels<p>Benzene was found at concentrations of 40,000 parts per billion (ppb) in drinking water after the Tubbs Fire and at more than 2,217 ppb after the Camp Fire. According to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, children exposed to benzene for a single day can suffer <a href="https://engineering.purdue.edu/PlumbingSafety/resources/Benzene-Levels-in-Water.pdf" target="_blank">harm at levels as low as 26 ppb</a>.</p><p>The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends limiting children's short-term acute exposure to <a href="https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2018-03/documents/dwtable2018.pdf" target="_blank">200 ppb</a>, and long-term exposure to less than <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ground-water-and-drinking-water/national-primary-drinking-water-regulations" target="_blank">5 ppb</a>. The EPA regulatory level for what constitutes a hazardous waste is <a href="https://19january2017snapshot.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-06/documents/tclp.pdf" target="_blank">500 ppb</a>.</p><p>In early 2019, California conducted contaminated water testing on humans by taking contaminated water from the Paradise Irrigation District and asking persons to smell it. The state found that even when people smelled contaminated water that had less than 200 ppb benzene, <a href="https://engineering.purdue.edu/PlumbingSafety/resources/Dissipatiion-of-Burn-Related-VOC-From-Water.pdf" target="_blank">at least one person reported nausea and throat irritation</a>. The test also showed that water contained a variety of other benzene-like compounds that first responders had not sampled for.</p><p>The officials who carried out this small-scale test did not appear to realize the significance of what they had done, until we asked whether they had had their action approved in advance by an institutional review board. In response, they asserted that such a review was not needed.</p><p>In our view, this episode is telling for two reasons. First, one subject reported an adverse health effect after being exposed to water that contained benzene at a level below the EPA's recommended one-day limit for children. Second, doing this kind of test without proper oversight suggests that officials greatly underestimated the potential for serious contamination of local water supplies and public harm. After the Camp Fire, together with the EPA, we estimated that some plastic pipes needed <a href="https://engineering.purdue.edu/PlumbingSafety/opinions/Final-HDPE-Service-Line-Decontamination-2019-03-18.pdf" target="_blank">more than 280 days</a> of flushing to make them safe again.</p>
Plastic pipes can be damaged by heat and fire contact. Andrew Whelton / Purdue University
Building Codes Could Make Areas Disaster-Ready<p>Our research underscores that community building codes are inadequate to prevent wildfire-caused pollution of drinking water and homes.</p><p>Installing one-way valves, called backflow prevention devices, at each water meter can prevent contamination rushing out of the damaged building from flowing into the larger buried pipe network.</p><p>Adopting codes that required builders to install fire-resistant meter boxes and place them farther from vegetation would help prevent infrastructure from burning so readily in wildfires. Concrete meter boxes and water meters with minimal plastic components would be less likely to ignite. Some plastics may be practically impossible to make safe again, since all types are susceptible to fire and heat.</p><p>Water main shutoff valves and water sampling taps should exist at every water meter box. Sample taps can help responders quickly determine water safety.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9540d7e271306ed417112042a3efc9a4"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/GnlrzI1wdAI?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Smell Test Doesn’t Work<p>Under no circumstance should people be told to <a href="https://www.waterboards.ca.gov/press_room/press_releases/2018/pr122418_voc.pdf" target="_blank">smell the water</a> to determine its safety, as was recommended for months after the Camp Fire. Many chemicals have no odor when they are harmful. Only testing can determine safety.</p><p>Ordering people to boil their water will not make it safe if it contains toxic chemicals that enter the air. Boiling just transmits those substances into the air faster. "Do not use" orders can keep people safe until agencies can test the water. Before such advisories are lifted or modified, regulators should be required to carry out a full chemical screen of the water systems. Yet, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/aws2.1183" target="_blank">disaster</a> after <a href="https://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlehtml/2017/ew/c5ew00294j" target="_blank">disaster</a>, government agencies have failed to take this step.</p><p>Buildings should be tested to find contamination. <a href="https://www.purdue.edu/newsroom/releases/2020/Q1/study-your-homes-water-quality-could-vary-by-the-room-and-the-season.html" target="_blank">Home drinking water quality can differ from room to room</a>, so reliable testing should sample both cold and hot water at many locations within each building.</p><p>While infrastructure is being repaired, survivors need a safe water supply. Water treatment devices sold for home use, such as refrigerator and faucet water filters, are not approved for extremely contaminated water, although product sales representatives and government officials may <a href="https://undark.org/2019/09/19/camp-fire-california-drinking-water-carcinogens/" target="_blank">mistakenly think</a> the devices can be used for that purpose.</p><p>To avoid this kind of confusion, external technical experts should be called in assist local public health departments, which can quickly become overwhelmed after disasters.</p>
<div id="71cf9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="e059d199e8368d282a31601e372e4dda"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1204068265980547075" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">The Los Angeles City Council's Planning and Land Use Committee signed off on an effort to expand the city's fire-re… https://t.co/fP8Z8mUq7R</div> — IntlCodeCouncil (@IntlCodeCouncil)<a href="https://twitter.com/IntlCodeCouncil/statuses/1204068265980547075">1575907219.0</a></blockquote></div>
Preparing for Future Fires<p>The damage that the Tubbs and Camp fires caused to local water systems was preventable. We believe that urban and rural communities, as well as state legislatures, should establish codes and lists of authorized construction materials for high-risk areas. They also should establish rapid methods to assess health, prepare for water testing and decontamination, and set aside emergency water supplies.</p><p>Wildfires are coming to urban areas. Protecting drinking water systems, buried underground or in buildings, is one thing communities can do to prepare for that reality.</p>
- After a Quiet Summer, 'Dangerous' California Wildfire Burns ... ›
- California Wildfires: One of 'Greatest Tragedies' State Has Ever Faced ›
- Losses From California Wildfires Top $1 Billion, Expected to Rise ... ›
New satellite images have revealed 11 new throngs of emperor penguin colonies, lifting the number of known emperor penguin colonies by 20 percent and their total population by 5 to 10 percent, according to The Guardian.
- This Penguin Colony Has Fallen by 77% on Antarctic Islands ... ›
- Antarctica's Ice Is Melting 5 Times Faster Than in the 90s - EcoWatch ›
- Green Snow Is Spreading in Antarctica Due to the Climate Crisis ... ›
- Antarctic Penguin Poop Emits Laughing Gas - EcoWatch ›
By Zulfikar Abbany
"We don't have a definition of life," says Kevin Peter Hand, one early California morning when we speak via video. "We don't actually know what life is."