This column is titled “The Elephant in the Room” because there is an aspect of the climate crisis that is rarely talked about, or at least not given primacy of place in ranking the many factors involved in heating up our planet. The issue is population, the number of people we have now, and the number the Earth will soon be supporting.

Much of the discussion on the climate crisis is appropriately focused on how we can wean ourselves from fossil fuels and switch to renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. We talk a lot about how we can increase efficiency and modify our behaviors to lessen our footprint on the planet. We speculate about how we can adapt to a hotter earth and build in resilience to its adverse effects on not just us but on every living creature. What we don’t talk much about is how the increasing number of humans on the planet reduces or cancels out progress we make in those efforts.

Why not? It’s impossible to ignore population growth as a major driver of the climate crisis. So why the silence? Why do we ignore the elephant in the room? Why is it not front and center in every policy discussion?

A big part of the reason is because it is a subject fraught with controversy. It carries with it the issues of birth control, abortion and family planning, all of which generate heated disagreement from people with opposing views. This polarization has, to an extent, resulted in numbing of policy conversation, some sort of mutual understanding that it’s best to just not talk about it.

That is not to say that no one is talking about it; there are many organizations and individuals who are, but, at least in my opinion, on balance the subject does not get its warranted attention in the public square in terms of the climate crisis.

Look at it this way, as an issue of scale. Anything that involves 8 billion people is difficult to sustain. This includes food, water, shelter, security, all the big-ticket items for human life on earth. How can these essentials be provided to such a massive number of people of different cultures, faiths and levels of development? Does the planet have the resources to meet these challenges, and for how long?

And, each of us is a consumer of both the essentials mentioned above, but also a seemingly unlimited number of what could be considered non-essentials, items that are nice to have but aren’t really attached to our ability to survive.

And then, rounding out the boundaries of how to provide for 8 billion people is the issue of waste. How much of the bounty the earth provides do we just use and then throw away, and what is the impact on the planet?

These are really big questions, and the answers are sometimes nuanced, or indirect. The subject certainly takes more than one column to describe. In terms of the climate crisis, the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center points out that while from 1968 to 2012 global carbon emissions per capita declined slightly, total carbon emissions into the atmosphere steadily increased.

More people, more emissions. The earth’s human population has increased from about 1 billion in 1800 to nearly 8 billion now, a period of only 200 years, and we are adding about 83 million people each year, 99 percent of which in “less developed” countries.

Speaking of “less developed” countries, the International Energy Agency recently predicted that the number of air-conditioners worldwide would increase more than three-fold, from 1.6 billion to 5.6 billion, by 2050, just 32 years from now, and would, absent improvements in efficiency, consume as much electricity as China does today for everything that requires electricity. Most of this increase will come from units installed in countries and regions that don’t have many today. Whereas it’s estimated that 90 percent of U.S. households have air-conditioning, the IEA report points out that, “When we look in fact at the hot countries of the world, in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, where about 2.8 billion people live, only about 8 percent of the population owns an air-conditioner.”

And comfort isn’t the only issue. A University of Birmingham study estimates about 200 million tons of food are lost each year due to a lack of cooling or refrigeration. They also point out that cooling is essential to preserving many medicines.

There’s plenty of room for increased efficiency for air-conditioning and other cooling. The IEA indicates that AC units sold in India, for example, use double the electricity of more efficient, available, but more expensive units. They also estimate that if left unchecked, India could need as much as four times the electricity in 2040 as it uses today. Even with their plan as part of the Paris Agreement to reduce electricity use, it would still double, and reliance on coal for this increase would in turn more than double their emissions. Much of this increase is tied to population.

Stay tuned for the next edition of “As The World Burns.”

— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis. This column appears the first and third Wednesday of each month. Please send comments to

Crossposted from the Davis Enterprise

 Published online June 18, 2018
Printed June 20, 2018 edition page B2