Predictably, the growing debate about the connections of population growth to climate change is growing ugly. The ever-provocative U.S. radio commentator Rush Limbaugh has publicly suggested that New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin take his own life to help out the environment.

Revkin had floated the idea of carbon credits for one-child families as “purely a thought experiment, not a proposal.” (Elena Marszalek of Worldwatch helped spread the idea by immediately blogging about it, an assist Revkin duly credited.) It could hardly be anything but a thought experiment, given that no country on earth has come close to instituting carbon credits of any kind for families or individuals. And for reasons that Limbaugh’s tasteless suggestion helps clarify, no government negotiator headed for the Copenhagen climate conference will touch population with a pole the length of a wind turbine rotor blade. The whole idea that human numbers have anything to do with the world’s climate change dilemma remains too prone to Limbaugh’s level of discourse for most of the over-stressed climate-change negotiating community even to contemplate.

Which is exactly why Revkin performed a public service in putting out the idea of carbon credits for small families—non-starter though it is. The public interest in the population connection to climate change is growing fast, and for understandable reasons. Obviously human beings, and no natural or non-human phenomenon, are responsible for the dramatic rise in the concentration of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere since the industrial revolution began. And just as obviously, the fact human population has grown well into the billions since then has a lot to do with the magnitude of the subsequent buildup of these gases. This is worth discussing, and was touched upon in State of the World 2009, but the conversation still has a long way to go before most climate negotiators and policymakers take it seriously. If Revkin can stand a call for his suicide, the rest of us can welcome more people thinking about the obviousness of the human and population connections to environmental degradation.

Revkin’s non-proposal is likely to be irrelevant anyway, once the world grapples seriously with climate change. The cost of living will probably rise as we phase out carbon-based energy, and even more so if we don’t—and we’ll suffer the climatic consequences as well. Modern parents respond to tough times by seeking to postpone childbearing. They’ll get plenty of economic incentives from life to want just one or maybe two children. What they’ll need—as Revkin recognizes—is good family planning services to make sure pregnancy happens only when a child is wanted. If Limbaugh weren’t so hungry for attention of any kind, he’d concede that none of this has anything to do with suicide.

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Climate Change, Copenhagen, equity, inequality, population, SOW09