Are the Grandkids Worth It? Climate Policy Depends on How We Value Human Population

Climate change has the potential to cause massive and lasting suffering on a scale that dwarfs the threats posed by many of the more palpable and familiar crises that monopolize our headlines and thinking today. But as a recent study reminds us, that suffering also depends on another key factor beyond the degree of climatic change: Human population, or the number of people living on the planet as the climate changes.


The international study, led by researchers at Princeton University and the University of Vermont and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, examines the impact of population growth and population ethics on climate policy. 

They found that the costs of climate change always increase if the population grows, and that a smaller population—and higher investment in human development programs—could save tens of billions of dollars or more annually on climate change prevention policies, especially in wealthier countries.

While the study focused on utilitarian and cost-benefit economic modeling, as well as climate and development policies, it also raises key questions about human rights. Namely, what sort of changes in family planning policies could also be ethically and legally possible as means of protecting future generations?

Right now, the dominant family planning model prioritizes subjective parental choice as a means of families determining—largely based on whatever limited resources they have—things like the number of children they will have, as well as the timing and spacing of those children. But there are alternatives to this model that better reflects the spirit of human rights, and also includes the interests of children and the community.

What if we also considered the fundamental human right of future children to be born above a certain minimum threshold of well-being, and set that threshold by considering what children need to be ensured equality of opportunity, or a fair start, in life?

What if, as part of that right, we recognized a duty on the community and parents to cooperate to ensure that all children were born above that threshold?

This approach, called the Fair Start family planning model, could be used to replace traditional family planning that focuses exclusively on what parents want, to also consider what children need. It could also be used to mitigate climate change and its impacts, as well as improve child well-being, equity and restore nature.

Whether we choose an economic or human rights approach, the recent population ethics study is a potent reminder that climate change and the policies we need to address it should be foremost in our minds. In the long run, it is a greater threat than many of the crises vying for our attention today. If we make the right decisions now, our grandkids will thank us.

For more information about the Fair Start moder, visit havingkids.org.

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