Opinion: Curb overpopulation to fight climate change and save nature

Arizona’s CO2 emissions keep rising — despite environmentalists’ best efforts to shrink the state’s carbon footprint. Total emissions rose 4.5 percent in 2018, according to the most recent available data from the federal Energy Information Administration.

The problem isn’t a lack of individual resolve. Arizonans are eating less beef, using more clean energy, and choosing to have smaller families. Americans in general have slashed their per capita carbon footprints 15 percent since 1990, thanks to such environmentally conscious decisions.

Yet total U.S. carbon emissions have increased over that same period. That’s because the U.S. population has soared 24 percent in the past three decades, from 250 million in 1990 to about 330 million today. Arizona’s population grew from 3.7 million people to 7.3 million, basically doubling in size.

Simply put, there are more of us energy consumers and carbon emitters than ever before — and as a result, unsurprisingly, our collective emissions keep rising. If current trends continue, 447 million people will call the United States home by 2060 — 117 million more than today — with several million of them projected to live in Arizona. They’ll continue pumping more and more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, where they trap heat and accelerate climate change.

Unless we and other countries stabilize our populations, we’ll never halt climate change. And since international migration — not natural reproduction — drives most U.S. growth, the only realistic way to stabilize America’s population is to humanely reduce future immigration levels.

The United States admits more than 1 million immigrants each year — quadruple the number it brought in throughout much of the 20th century. In Arizona, immigration has been the single largest factor driving population growth. It accounted for 44 percent of the state’s population growth since 2000; the rest of the increase stemmed from native-born citizens moving from other states and from births outpacing deaths.

These foreigners often adopt the energy and carbon intensive American lifestyle. Indeed, that’s why many move here in the first place — to increase their standard of living. Think multiple gas-guzzling cars, single-family houses in the suburbs, and beef-heavy diets. When individuals from developing countries move here, their carbon footprints typically quadruple.

While on average, immigrants emit somewhat less carbon per capita than native-born Americans, they still account for at least 637 million metric tons of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions annually. If they had remained in their countries of origin, they’d generate only 155 million metric tons.

In other words, our immigration policies cause an extra 482 million metric tons of annual global carbon emissions. That’s like adding 104 million passenger vehicles to the roads each year.

Explosive population growth doesn’t just make it impossible to combat climate change — it lays waste to open spaces too. Since 1982 alone, developers have bulldozed more than 44 million acres of wetlands, woodlands, farmlands, and other natural habitats in the United States. That’s an area larger than Florida.

In Arizona alone, we’ve lost 1.1 million acres since 1982 — an area more than triple the size of Phoenix — to development. How will the state prevent endless sprawl, especially in the Phoenix metro area, when faced with perpetual population growth?

We don’t have to accept this environmental degradation.

For starters, Arizona’s local leaders could adjust permissive zoning codes. Some outdoor spaces should always remain off-limits to development.

But even well-planned development is still development. Ultimately, stabilizing the U.S. population is the only way to truly reduce our aggregate carbon emissions and habitat destruction.

Legislation such as the Raise Act would let immigrants sponsor their spouses and minor children — but not their extended, still-overseas family members — for green cards. The bill would humanely trim migration by 50 percent, without harming any of our immigrant friends and neighbors who are already here.

Unfortunately, President Biden has proposed an immigration plan that’d double today’s legal immigration numbers. It would also extend amnesty to 11 million undocumented immigrants and drastically increase the number of family-sponsored visas. In total, this proposal is expected to increase our population by 37 million permanent legal residents over the coming decade alone. It would put us on an unsustainable trajectory toward 500 to 600 million Americans by century’s end.

There is an inherent tradeoff between economic growth and environmental sustainability — and if we want to fight climate change, we must acknowledge this reality. We needn’t feel guilty about humanely limiting immigration to protect our environment and quality of life.

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9 thoughts on “Opinion: Curb overpopulation to fight climate change and save nature”

  1. Thank you for making these points on the connection between immigration driven population growth and environmental degradation. The eventual stabilization of the population of the United States was a core principle within the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 and confirmed by The Rockefeller Commission on Population Growth and the American Future in 1972 as well as President Clinton’s Council on Sustainable Development put it in 1996. It is therefore more than a bit distressing that our government continues to violate NEPA through its mass uncontrolled immigration policy and that most mainstream environmental groups ignore that it is doing so.

    A couple of the numbers quoted in this article are off a bit, however.

    Since 1990 the EPA ‘s Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks has reported it’s best estimate for total US emissions from all sources. Currently data is available for 1990-2019. The numbers for total greenhouse gas emissions in CO2 equivalents is provided each year. Combine the EPA’s emission data with US Census numbers and we see that from 1990 to 2019 per capita GHGEs decreased by 22.3% (not 15%), from 25.79 to 20.04 metric tons/capita. However, total emissions increased by 1.9%, from 6437 to 6558 million metric tons. This was because population increased by 31.5% (not 24%) – from 249.6 to 328.2 million people. Thus all gains through improved efficiency and technology, the switch from coal to natural gas and renewables, were obliterated by population growth.
    Birthrates for natives have been at or below replacement levels for 40 years. Without net immigration our population would have stabilized by now and be very slowly decreasing. The reason it keeps growing today is totally due to immigration and the higher birth rates of first generation immigrants. This prevents per capita reductions from achieving real GHGE reductions and the Biden administration policies on immigration are in complete conflict with their stated aims for lowering US emissions.

    References: The U.S. Census Bureau for population and the EPA Greenhouse Gas Inventory Data Explorer: https://cfpub.epa.gov/ghgdata/inventoryexplorer/

  2. I’m a moderate democrat who worked closely with immigrants and migrants as a long-time adult ESL instructor near L.A. I also live in a very diverse community. Here’s my take after long-term observation of and conversations about this topic with students, colleagues, and neighbors.

    Much of this population crunch related to migrants stems from a failure of many migrants to acknowledge a need to limit the number of kids they have. We had discussions about this in class (student-initiated; would never ever bring this up). A few Chinese students were blunt in asking classmates why they have so many kids. One guy answered that having large families is part of Mexican culture. That says it all, I think- an unrealistic/outdated cultural practice that doesn’t align with environmental/economic realities of the modern world. By the way, having too many kids one can’t afford to support is common in the Middle East as well- watch child beggars in Egypt and the problem is in your face- a need for voluntary birth control. Why on earth one would keep having kids in dangerous situations and without a means to feed them is beyond me. Birth control is available- condoms, as a last resort. I just don’t get it.

  3. Kathleene Parker

    Of note, when the first Earth Day was held, the U.S. population was just over 200 million. It is now 330 million–oops, SO last year!–make that 333 million and headed on to the staggering numbers cited in this piece. But, of note, since the author focuses on Arizona and since I write on water issues, I can’t imagine how Arizona or ANY of the Colorado River Compact states will have the water for continued growth, when there is, arguably, NOT ENOUGH WATER for those of us in the Southwest now AND with flows in the Colorado (whether drought, climate change or the region returning to drier norms) likely to drop by 50 percent by 2050 or before–and that even as Lake Mead NOW still faces predictions it will run dry.
    And, since I spent my life as a journalist and now write on the necessity that we get Big Media BACK UNDER REGULATION, if population has disappeared from the national conscience and is NOT being addressed, we have media to blame. After all, media–wrongly–now-deregulated DEFINE, RATHER THAN REPORT, THE NATIONAL AGENDA. Note: On Earth Day this year (or any recent year), to my knowledge, not a single major news agency even vaguely alluded to population or that population WAS WHY SEN. GAYLORD NELSON FOUNDED EARTH DAY! He did NOT found it to be some woo-woo celebration of Mother Earth, but to educate that we CANNOT save the planet or the U.S. environment without stabilizing and possibly even reducing population. And, of note, his view was reiterated by 54 National Academies of Sciences in the 1980s!

    Yet, Big 6 media make darned sure to keep population under the MANY TOPICS THAT MEDIA CAN NOW–UNLIKE IN THE PAST–LEGALLY SUBJECT TO NEWS BLACKOUTS!

    In short, if we do not get the Fairness Doctrine back on the books, to REQUIRE that Big Media HONESTLY, FULLY AND WITHOUT BIAS cover all major topics, especially CRITICAL ONES LIKE POPULATION, we not only are going to lose our democracy, since democracies require information, but likely the global environment–that as media headline a “not to worry” theme on population and falsely lead people to believe that neither the U.S. or the planet are growing “due to falling birth rates” when the numbers show another STARK REALITY! Earth adds over 80 million people a year and the U.S. population–just check the U.S. Census Bureau population clock–increases by about 30 MILLION PEOPLE A DECADE, soon, if Biden gets his way, to be just under 40 MILLION A DECADE!

  4. I’m always amused when responsible Americans calling for reduced legal immigration and a crackdown on illegal immigrants are labeled “anti-immigrant.” Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson emphasized the need to limit legal immigration because of his concerns about unmanageable population growth. In fact, he said it was “phony” to say you were for the environment but against limiting immigration. While we’re on the subject of limitation, if a family decides to have fewer children than their parents or grandparents, does that make them “anti-child?”

  5. It was refreshing to finally see an honest editorial about the horrors and damage to America caused by uncontrolled immigration. Practically all that’s been promulgated up until now have been editorial and political speeches in favor of wild immigration and amnesty.

  6. It is good to finally see an honest article about the harm done to our country and environment by uncontrolled immigration. It is bad all around. We can not take in the whole world. It is not feasible or realistic. It hurts our country and its people in more ways than one.

  7. Decades ago the prevailing theory was “zero population growth” but, even then, I thought we needed NEGATIVE population growth which we need now more than ever!

  8. We need to reduce immigration by 90% and maintain sub-replacement fertility in order to stabilize our population. The current track we are on is ecologically untenable.

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