Would stabilizing the U.S. population save human lives across the planet?

"Every three Americans create enough carbon emissions to kill one person.”

Americans are Super Consumers. We consume every type of resource at voracious levels, including extraordinary amounts of energy. Because much of our energy consumption — in the electricity, heat, food, construction, and consumer-goods sectors — uses fossil fuels and comes from other types of greenhouse gas (GHG) emitting sources, we Americans are Super GHG Emitters as well, and we are responsible for significant portions of global climate change.

New research, in the journal Nature Communications, thickens the plot about Americans’ role in climate change. Titled “The Mortality Cost of Carbon”, the research study tries to derive a “social cost of carbon” on human health and mortality so that decision-makers can start to grapple with the real costs — in human lives lost — caused by climate change.

By estimating a “climate damage mortality function”, the study suggests that climate change will not only kill people due to “sea level rise, extreme weather, the direct effects of heat on productivity, agricultural impacts, etc.”, but the number of lives lost can be both estimated and attributed to the GHG emission rates of each individual country and its citizens.

For example, the study suggest that “every three Americans create enough carbon emissions to kill one person” across the planet. Further, the study suggests, “While it takes just 3.5 Americans to create enough emissions in a lifetime to kill one person, it would take 25 Brazilians or 146 Nigerians to do the same”.

Importantly, the study doesn’t just estimate the human mortality caused by climate change, it also takes the humanitarian-activist stance of calling for dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions — to “full decarbonization by 2050” — to save human lives.

The study does not suggest — as I do in my title above — that stabilizing the U.S. population will also save lives across the planet. I make this extrapolation in order to introduce an additional variable — population — into the equation. I believe it certainly makes sense to add this variable, and I strongly believe that we Americans need to talk about, and grapple with, our population growth as a key variable in environmental degradation as well as climate change.

For example, the U.S. population is growing at a rate of around two million people per year over the last fifty years. A 2019 report by U.S. Census Bureau, catalogs this growth and states that much of the past growth in the U.S. population, and almost all of future growth, is due to the federal government’s policies which import around two million new people per year into the U.S. from other countries.

Further — and importantly in the context of the Nature Communications study — almost all of the people imported into the U.S. are from poorer countries that have far lower GHG emission rates. A 2020 report by Pew Research indicates that the vast majority of people imported into the U.S. are from Mexico, China, India, Phillipines, and El Salvador. A 2019 World Bank report indicates that all of those countries have far lower per capita GHG emission rates than the U.S. As just one example, the U.S. GHG per capita emission rate is fourteen times larger than that of El Salvador.

Thus, the federal government’s policies, which import around two million more people per year from far poorer countries, create more and more Super Consumer and Super GHG Emitter Americans.

It’s true that the U.S.’ per capita GHG emissions levels have decreased over the last thirty years — mostly due to the demise of coal-fired powerplants — but our emission rates are still quite high compared to poorer countries. Also, over the last thirty years, total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions continue to stay at a high level even though governments in the U.S. at all levels — local, state, and federal — have initiated many GHG reduction strategies that have driven per capita GHG emissions downward.

Stated differently: The increase in the number of Americans undermines local, state, and federal government GHG reduction policies. Reductions in total GHG emissions will continue to be difficult to attain and will be undermined year after year as long as the U.S. population keeps growing.

The Nature Communications study strongly argues that the U.S. is killing people across the planet due to our massive GHG emissions. Further, a vast number of studies — including this report from the United Nations — argue that the impacts of climate change disproportionately fall on poorer, less-developed countries as well as poorer and more vulnerable people. It’s likely true then that we Americans’ GHG emissions are and will be killing people in many of the same poorer and undeveloped countries that the U.S. federal government targets as sources to import people into the U.S.

Again, fortunately, the Nature Communications study takes a strong activist, humanitarian stance by arguing that it’s morally necessary for the U.S. to dramatically drive down GHG emissions so as to stop killing people across the planet with climate change. In the same humanitarian vein, we could also ask if it’s morally necessary to stop importing very poor people into the U.S. therefore to stop turning those people into Super Consumers and Super GHG Emitters?

Instead of importing people into the U.S., a better humanitarian response — as well as a potential better climate solution — could be to dramatically increase foreign aid to poor undeveloped countries. By investing heavily in cleaner energy solutions and economic development in poorer countries, those countries could prosper and develop in ways that don’t turn their citizens into Super Consumer and Super Emitters that kill other people across the planet.