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July 13, 2015

One of the numerous myths challenged in Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato Si' is the belief that population control is a key to halting climate change. This is a bit of hokum repeated so often that it has gained the status of an obvious truth.

Yet this so-called truth is little more than an attempt to blame the poor for the ecological sins of the rich. Or, as the pope put it, "To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues" (LS50).

The issue, as the pope states it, quoting a statement by the bishops of New Zealand, is that "20 per cent of the world's population consumes resources at a rate that robs the poor nations and future generations of what they need to survive" (LS 95). Hans Joachim Schellnhuber of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research maintains that a 10 per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by wealthy nations would be far more effective in controlling climate change than any population control measures in poorer nations.

Further, roughly a third of the world's food production is discarded, despite widespread hunger and famine. There is enough food to feed the world's people; it is just not fairly distributed.

As well, population control programs have been notoriously insensitive to the cultural norms of people in poorer nations, and have at times been marked by deceit and coercion.

This is not to suggest that population growth is irrelevant to climate change. Local imbalances in population can make excessive demands on the environment through actions as diverse as cutting down vast amounts of trees to heavy use of automobiles.

However, the world's greatest ecological problem is not too many people, but too much consumption. Effective solutions to climate change can only be found when the issues are correctly stated. Blaming higher birth rates in low-income regions for problems caused by overconsumption by the wealthy is no way to deal with climate change.