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The Paris Agreement is failing; we need a new approach

Updated: Jun 28, 2022

iStock, The Hill illustration

New analysis of countries’ pledges to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions finds they fall well short of Paris Agreement climate goals. And that’s just in terms of what countries say they intend to do in the future, not even what they’re working in some concrete way to implement. A hundred countries say they are aiming for net-zero or carbon neutrality by 2050, yet just 14 have enacted such targets into law. Climate progress may slow further with energy markets roiled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, making it harder for example to close coal-fired power plants.

These are just the latest of many data points suggesting that the Paris Agreement, which itself allowed for widespread ecological destruction, is failing. Meanwhile in real time, global warming is already killing and sickening people and damaging fetal and infant health worldwide.

Maybe it’s time for a rethink, and a deeper approach.

Our climate goals are generally framed in anthropocentric terms, focusing primarily on adaptation and survival of humans. Our climate tactics are primarily anthropogenic, involving reducing human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and other climate impacts. We’ve even renamed the current geologic era after ourselves: the Anthropocene.

That may be part of the problem. A more eco-centric, less anthropocentric approach is possible. Perhaps we could learn something from framing our climate goals in nonhuman terms — restoring the climate, biodiversity, and ecosystems for their own sake. All life on the planet has a right to nature freed from the impacts of humans — even humans themselves. I and other plaintiffs attempted to prove in the courts that there was a kind of constitutional right to wilderness — which needs stronger, swifter climate action as climate change increasingly degrades pristine areas.

But it’s a right we share with the wider, nonhuman world. Humans are part of it, but we’re not the center of it. Stubbornly behaving as if rights themselves belong only to humans — and that human ecology is the only ecology worth preserving — threatens the planet, and so threatens the human enterprise.

According to the anthropocentric view of our environmental responsibilities, we owe a livable planet to other people, especially to our children. We imagine a “leave no trace” ethic can preserve the category we hold in our minds of a pristine natural habitat to bequeath to posterity. Yet our posterity is part of the problem. The more our population grows, the more we’re imposing destructive human impacts on the natural world, and the more disrupted the climate and environment will get.

There is staunch resistance to accepting this self-evident fact. But it’s beyond dispute that choosing to have fewer children, and/or to delay starting a family, is key to lowering human climate impacts. It’s also key to rewilding and making room for nature. Family planning policies, for good or ill, will condition the ecological and climate future. Yet we behave as if having as many children as we can is a right and law unto itself.

Population growth and the impacts of reproductive decisions are ignored in many policy circles, even taboo. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report identifies dozens of threats, from COVID to “outer space as an emerging realm of risk,” but nowhere mentions population growth spiking global consumption and outstripping the planet’s resources.

On the contrary, some of the more climate-culpable governments are urging women to have more children. Prominent celebrities model large families. Governments and industry treat unsustainable growth as an entitlement because economic models of prosperity depend on perpetual population growth so younger workers outnumber retirees. Those who perceive a threat to growth economics in a “baby bust” are pushing for higher fertility rates.

Public discussions of population policy faded decades ago, largely because they served their purpose. Fertility rates dropped sharply in much of the world, and larger crop yields allayed fears that food production wouldn’t keep pace with population growth. Today it’s more common to talk about population in terms of predictions, as if the matter were now out of our hands, than policies.

But global population is still arced too high, especially in high consuming and polluting nations, as the climate crisis demonstrates. As it worsens, choices we make about population growth are at least starting to get discussed again. For example, when Pope Francis remarked choosing not to have children was selfish, there was a barrage of pushback, reminding him that it improves climate prospects for all children.

Human reproductive choices and policies will determine not only how much carbon we emit and what climate impacts we’ll have, but how most people will experience those impacts — the resources they will or won’t have access to, how resilient in the face of climate change their communities will or won’t be, whether or not their societies will be democratic and respect rights and the rule of law.

Family planning practices and policies pegged to restoration of the climate and ecosystems, centering the nonhuman world and invoking the right to nature, are admittedly somewhat beyond our current outlook as a society. But they compass essential truths we’ll need to respect if we are to preserve democracy and a livable planet: There is no freedom without an intact natural world, and no justice without equally ensuring all children a fair start in life. Freedom and justice both require less population growth, and fewer humans on the planet.

We can’t be free if we can’t get away from the constraints of others, or if everywhere we go, we’re subjected to climate change and other human-caused degradations. By the same token, we can’t have justice if we don’t protect the right of future generations to have and raise their families in freedom, with sufficient room and resources to thrive. As a matter of choice and policy, that obligates the current generation to accept some voluntary limits on the right to have children.

Carter Dillard is the policy director of the Fair Start Movement and author of “Justice as a Fair Start in Life: Understanding the Right to Have Children.”

This article first appeared in The Hill, 04/23/22

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