John Flicker John Flicker, 7/10/2008 [Archive]

World Population Day - Slow Population Growth

Slower Population Growth Would Benefit People, Birds, and Climate

By John Flicker

July 11, 2008

Like canaries in the coal mine, birds are an important indicator of our planet's health. For thousands of years, they have been one of our most important early warning systems, predicting the change of seasons, the coming of storms, and the rise of toxic levels of pollution in the food chain.

Today, birds are telling us that our climate is changing—and in many places, it may change more quickly than they can adapt, signaling complex ecosystem changes that will have serious consequences for wildlife and humans alike. We know that avoiding the worst consequences of global warming will require bold strategies for reducing our dependence on fossil fuel, expanding renewable energy, and managing our land and forests more thoughtfully. These are commonsense approaches that those of us concerned about the climate crisis have been advocating tirelessly.

But in most discussions of the global warming challenge, the issue of human population growth is conspicuously absent, even though the growth of the human family over the next generation and beyond will be a critical factor in determining the magnitude of the problem and our ability to respond.

The numbers are staggering. By 2050, the world's population is expected to grow from today's 6.7 billion to somewhere between 7.8 and 10.8 billion, according to demographers at the United Nations. More people will mean more cars and buses, more electricity used, and more pressure on the forests and ecosystems that absorb carbon dioxide. There is no question that addressing global warming over the next 50 years will be easier with slower population growth.

The good news is that we already know how to encourage slower population growth. We can do it through positive and cost-effective programs like providing educational opportunities for girls, expanding economic opportunities for women, and expanding access to effective family planning information and services to the millions of couples around the world who want to plan their families. These are win-win strategies that are desirable in their own right, and will have the added value of relieving pressure on our overtaxed resources.

Historically, the United States was a world leader in supporting voluntary international family planning programs around the world. Unfortunately, U.S. funding for these international programs has declined dramatically, even as the need has increased. Currently, the U.S. trails most of the developed world in supporting family planning.

An unfortunate example of this came just two weeks ago, when President Bush announced that he would once again withhold funding for the United Nations Population Fund (as he has done every year for the last seven years). This agency works in more than 150 countries to provide reproductive health and family planning services, make motherhood safer, prevent HIV/AIDS, and promote gender equity. Each year, the U.S. Congress appropriates funding for the United Nations Population Fund, but President Bush refuses to release the funds. Given the important work that this agency does around the world to slow global population growth and save lives, President Bush's announcement appears callous and short-sighted.

July 11, World Population Day, reminds us that there are still many in the world who don't have the information and services that will allow them to determine freely and responsibly the number and timing of their children. When people can plan their families, they can plan their lives. They can plan to beat poverty. They can plan on healthier mothers, healthier children, and a healthier planet. We have a responsibility to current and future generations to ensure that all people have the family planning information and services that many of us take for granted.

If we are going to get serious about addressing the threat of global warming, our policymakers must do more to craft comprehensive solutions that address multiple facets of the problem. Addressing rapid population growth can also be a part of the solution--for people, for wildlife, and for the future of the planet.

John Flicker is president of the National Audubon Society. Comments can be sent to

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