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Population, Land-Use and All That

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 8:40 PM GMT on July 02, 2007

Population, Land-Use, and All That

I have moved the blog discussion towards population, maybe more than I should, but with some purpose. If you go back and look at the comments peppered among the entries, there are many comments that climate change is not the primary problem. There are also other comments that many of the things that are casually attributed to climate change are, first and foremost, more closely related to the things we do, like build million dollar houses on barrier islands.

As many of you know, Roger Pielke Jr. has written extensively on hurricanes and global warming . In the 2005 paper, linked above, Pielke and his co-authors examine the attribution of increased damage from recent hurricanes to global warming. I know some people who have used this paper to discredit the science of global warming. If you read this paper, it does not challenge the science of global warming. The paper draws the conclusions that it is "premature" to conclude that the impact of recent hurricanes can be connected to global warming. In the end, Pielke makes the argument that premature attribution of cause and effect allows, essentially political, attack on the scientific foundation of climate change. It keeps policy from forming.

Population increase, consumption, migration to the coast, deforestation of mountain slopes all exist in the same world as climate change exists. I used to try to organize all of these pieces in something like a flowchart or a circuit diagram. More recently, I am drawn to something that is more of a "biological" model; that is, for example, population demand on resources and climate change both exist. They are related to each other. Sometimes that relationship is clear and strong, sometimes it is more subtle. The relationship changes with time --- like organisms. There is some value in recognizing the complexity of the relationships, and that they change with time.

For example, it is clear that much of the destruction of New Orleans by Katrina is related to a series of land-use and disaster preparedness decisions that were simply not adequate. New Orleans has been in a vulnerable location from the beginning, and its vulnerability increased over the decades for many reasons. The real role of climate change will be to increase New Orleans' vulnerability in the future. (What do you think about "rebuilding New Orleans?")

It is important to separate the climate change issues from other related issues such as land-use. It allows for the development of more robust strategies for adaptation and mitigation. It makes the problem of climate change more tractable; it removes some of the points that perpetuate nonproductive arguments.

Returning to the issue of population and consumption--so far in all of the discussion of climate change and responses to future of climate change, there is the sacred notion that the economy needs to continue to grow. The United States sets economic growth as a criterion of its culture. Other nations set similar requirements for robust economies, plus lay a claim to develop improved standards of living. If you require economic growth, if you require the use of energy for economic growth, if you connect energy use with standard of living, if you rely on burning ancient stored carbon-based fuels, then economic growth requires, today and tomorrow, increased emissions of carbon dioxide. (This leads me to one of my small number of conclusions--we will have to figure out how to sequester carbon dioxide.) So, yes, climate change is a problem of population and economic growth, and we as a species seem to claim both of these as inalienable rights. The fact that climate change is a problem of population and economic growth does not make it a less real problem. We are not allowed to dismiss the consequences; we are not allowed to reject the knowledge that we have.


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