Condoms and Climate (02/25/14)

Breathing, eating and consuming, an individual human being produces tons of carbon every year – population may be the key to curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Populations are expected to skyrocket in developing areas like sub-saharan Africa, generating even more carbon pollution. Reducing population growth could also help fight climate change, but in the wake of India’s forced sterilizations in the 1970s and China's mandatory one-child policy, nationwide family planning has a stigma. Malcolm Potts, a professor of family planning at UC Berkeley, believes talking about condoms should be as natural as talking about cabbages. “They're not a medical thing. They are choices, they should be available. Like cabbages, they should be where your vegetables are.” Alan Weisman’s most recent book Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth addresses the question of the world’s teeming masses head on. Weisman and Potts recently sat down at The Commonwealth Club to tackle the sensitive topic of our growing population and its part in straining the earth’s resources. Both Weisman and Potts emphasized that education is key to reducing growth rates, and in particular, the education of girls. And the reverse is true as well. “People in developing countries want fewer children,” says Potts, “because they all know the power of education and they all know if you have a smaller family, your kids are more likely to get educated. But if we remove the barriers between family planning, the knowledge and means to do it, then even illiterate people will have fewer children.” Equating the world’s bourgeoning population with climate change, says Weisman, is a no-brainer. “We’ve jet propelled society. We can do all these incredible things. We have electricity but we also have these waste products and they float up into the atmosphere. And the more of us demanding this stuff, the more carbon dioxide is up there. There's more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere right now than there has been in 3 million years.” Solving our climate problem could be simpler – and less expensive – than we think. “Carbon-free energy, we don't know how to do that really well yet, but even if we did, it would be really expensive.” Weisman says. But birth control? “This doesn't involve any technological leaps. To make contraception universally available, it's been calculated that it would cost about a little over $8 billion per year.” “For 200,000 years, there was not a population explosion. We were roughly in balance with our environment” says Potts. “We've done wonderful things to reduce infant mortality. And we're being blind and stupid and curious about not offering people family planning at the same time.” Alan Weisman, Senior Radio Producer, Homelands Productions; Author, Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? (Little, Brown & Company, 2013) Malcolm Potts, Fred H. Bixby Endowed Chair in Population and Family Planning, School of Public Health, UC Berkeley This program was recorded in front of a live audience at The Commonwealth Club of California on February 25, 2014. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit

by Climate One