Close Quarters: Population-Climate Panel Draws Crowd at Society of Environmental Journalists' Annual Conference

Panel Is Unique in Focusing on Population

Oct 23, 2008

At "Close Quarters: Could an End to Population Growth Help Stabilize the Climate?," the only panel on population at the annual Society for Environmental Journalists (SEJ) conference, Steve Curwood, host and executive producer of Public Radio International's "Living On Earth," pointed out that while it's "something we don't talk about at all in America," U.S. population growth increases emissions faster than developing-country population growth, due to our larger per capita consumption. Curwood discussed the major connections between population and climate change, such as water use; food production and consumption; economic growth; and migration. Hypothesizing that climate change will lead to great demographic shifts not only in developing countries, but also in the United States, he noted that historically, "we haven't dealt with them well."

The panelists explored environmental reporters' relative silence on the impact of population growth and other demographic dynamics on environmental issues. According to moderator Constance Holden of Science, the possible barriers to coverage—listed below—should be "irrelevant" to working journalists:

  • Population's association with controversial issues like contraception;
  • Fear of appearing anti-immigration;
  • The widespread belief that population growth is necessary for economic growth; and
  • The difficulty of researching and writing about the complex issues related to population and demographics.

Robert Engelman, vice president for programs at the Worldwatch Institute, criticized journalists for not delving into population's significant, albeit complex, impacts on the environment. Reporters may wish to avoid writing about problems they believe have no easy solutions, but it is just as important for them to explore these thorny topics as more straightforward subjects, he said.

As an example of a potential story angle, Engelman displayed a graph showing that U.S. carbon emissions and population grew by the same percentage between 1990 and 2004. Yet when the data are disaggregated by state, they reveal a very different, surprisingly diverse picture. Some states' populations and emissions increased roughly equally, but others, like Delaware, managed to decrease their emissions even while their populations grew. Engelman suggested that reporters could explore which factors had influenced the population-emissions relationship in their state.

Freelance writer Tom Horton explained how population growth has helped foil attempts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. As he wrote recently in Growing! Growing! Gone! The Chesapeake Bay and the Myth of Endless Growth, "[I]t seems questioning the expansion of the economy and the population are off the table, either because they are considered sacred cows, or they are just too hard to deal with. It is assumed we can cure the symptoms while vigorously expanding their root causes." In an interview following the panel, Horton lauded the efforts of integrated population-environment programs in the Philippines, saying Filipinos "are far more advanced than we are" in their understanding of the relationships between coastal management and population growth.

While "Close Quarters" was the only SEJ panel to directly address population, Dennis Dimick, executive editor of National Geographic Magazine, noted the importance of population in a panel he moderated on agriculture and climate change. In addition, keynote speaker Rajendra K. Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, briefly mentioned the opportunities presented by India's youthful population and the "demographic dividend." However, he did not use the opportunity to discuss global population growth's implications for climate change.

Experts & Staff

  • Roger-Mark De Souza // Director of Population, Environmental Security and Resilience, Wilson Center
  • Sandeep Bathala // Senior Program Associate, Environmental Change and Security Program, Maternal Health Initiative
  • Katharine Diamond // Program Assistant, Environmental Change and Security Program
  • Benjamin Dills // Program Assistant, Environmental Change and Security Program
  • Lauren Herzer // Program Associate, Environmental Change and Security Program
  • John Thon Majok // Program Associate, Environmental Change and Security Program
  • Schuyler Null // Web Editor and Writer/Editor, Environmental Change and Security Program, Maternal Health Initiative
  • Meaghan Parker // Writer/Editor, Environmental Change and Security Program
  • Sean Peoples // Multimedia Producer and Program Associate, Environmental Change and Security Program
  • Geoffrey D. Dabelko // Senior Advisor, Environmental Change and Security Program
  • Ruth Greenspan Bell // Public Policy Scholar
  • William Krist // Senior Policy Scholar
  • Louise Lief // Public Policy Scholar
  • John W. Sewell // Senior Scholar