Saving the planet by reducing birth rates

Climate change will impact the well-being of future
generations, directly by, for
example, increased intensity and frequency of extreme weather events such as
heavy storms. It will have also indirect
on human heath – via cardiovascular diseases or by a rise in epidemics as emerging disease leave
the tropic and go North.

The beginning of this year, the British Medical Journal
declared that since climate change impacts public health, doctors have to deal
with it. And in tackling the problem, John Guillebaud, emeritus professor of
family planning and reproductive health at University College London , and GP
Pip Hayes from Exeter suggest that doctors should talk to their patients about
climate change and encourage them to think about the environmental impacts of
having a big family: see for example the Editorial
or an article
in the Daily Telegraph, or the Guardian.
After all, “each UK birth
will be responsible for 160 times more greenhouse ags emissions […] than a new
birth in Ethiopia.”

Fair enough, the world is
interconnected: environmental changes involve impacts on the population, and
changes in the population impact the environment. But is it sensible to treat
environmental problems not primarily as such, but making them problems of
family planning?

As pointed out by Anders
, if the argument of the British Medical Journal is correct, i.e. doctors
have to deal with climate change because it affects public health, doctors also
have a duty to promote the “right kind of economy, warfare, transport systems
and whatnot”. But it seems unlikely that the next issue of the British Medical Journal will provide guidlines for a healthier economic system.

Problems of inconsistency aside,
medical doctors giving advice on family planning by referring to environmental
issues, is not yet another amusing example of experts making claims outside their
domain of competence.  Firstly, reasoning
about such complex issues about if and how much we have to cut back our
greenhouse gas emissions has to rely on the expertise of various experts – economists, climatologists, and ethicists of all
shades. Here, of course, medical doctors are needed to estimate (and possibly
quantify) the indirect impacts of climate change on human health. Doctors may
also help in estimating the additional monetary costs climate change will cause
in the public heath sector. But it is clearly not up to medical doctors to
declare the debate on how deal with climate change as settled and proceed with
their own solutions. This leads to the second, and more worrying, problem with
this proposal. The medical experts suggesting family planning as a solution to
an environmental problem clearly were no experts in ethics. Apart from the fact
that the results of mitigation measures of climate change may be less uncertain
if they are more directly linked to the environment, this proposal interferes
with basic rights of citizens in most societies – the right to freely choose
your offspring (within limits). Some problems may indeed make this inevitable,
but it requires some more justification – which in a democratic state clearly
cannot come from experts of any sort, including ethicists of all shades. Experts in medical issues have no more weight
in this debate as any other member of the public.

Finally, taking the anthropogenic
greenhouse effect seriously – its very name already suggests its solution: Ending
human life on Earth will solve it. Like all other solutions, this will take some time to take effect as many of
the greenhouse gases we have emitted in the past have a rather high lifetime in
the atmosphere. Surplus, this seemingly rigorous solution will not yield to the climate equilibrium which
many people evoke so often in the current climate debate as the  climate system is not a closed system – just
think of the impacts form the Sun. However, there is less uncertainty in this
approach than in other mitigation measures. One can hope that populist
solutions to climate change, of which family planning is only one of several
, are not taken more serious than the suggested final solution to
all anthropogenic problems.

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