People and Global Warming: a Critical Link
IN an unprecedented joint statement, the presidents of the two most prestigious scientific bodies in the United States and Great Britain recently outlined the relationship between world population growth and the health of the global environment. In atypically dramatic fashion, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the Royal Society of London warned that "if current predictions of population growth prove accurate and patterns of human activity on the planet remain unchanged, science and technology ma y not be able to prevent either irreversible degradation of the environment or continued poverty for much of the world."
Noting that world population is growing at a rate of almost 100 million people a year and could double by the mid-21st century, the scientists argued that the upcoming United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) - the Earth Summit - should "consider human activities and population growth, in both developing and developed worlds, as crucial components affecting the sustainability of human society."
This declaration sent a powerful message to world leaders: Our environmental survival depends on stopping the population explosion that threatens to overwhelm the planet's ability to support humanity.
While population has been considered in the context of environmental problems such as soil degradation and deforestation, policymakers have neglected its relevance to global warming. The scientists' statement links population and global warming: more people, more pollution.
Ironically, the global warming treaty - expected to serve as the centerpiece of the Earth Summit - does not include a single reference to population in more than 60 pages of negotiating text. Only cursory attention has been paid to it in other preparatory meetings for UNCED, and no major population initiatives will be unveiled at the Earth Summit.
The critical link between population and global warming has only recently become an important focus for scientists and population experts. The results of these studies are best explained by former US Sen. Daniel Evans, chair of the NAS's global warming panel, who concluded in 1991 that "population is the single biggest driver of atmospheric pollution." According to a recent analysis by the United Nations Population Fund, between 1950 and 1985 (when population nearly doubled from 2.5 billion to just under