President Obama recently shared his vision for how America can address climate change and lead on meeting the challenge globally. He talked about imposing limits on how much carbon pollution can be dumped into our air, asked for the Environmental Protection Agency to develop new standards for power plants, and trumpeted wind and solar power.

Science has concluded overwhelmingly that Earth is warming, the president said, and human activity is contributing to that warming. Unfortunately, the president failed to take a true leadership role on this issue when he didn’t talk about one very human activity: reproduction that has resulted in rapid, unprecedented population growth in the last hundred years.

The most impactful way to reduce our carbon footprint is to produce fewer children, an Oregon State University study concluded. “The carbon legacy and greenhouse gas impact of an extra child is almost 20 times more important than some of the other environmentally sensitive practices people might employ their entire lives — things like driving a high mileage car, recycling, or using energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs,” according to the OSU report.

Not to denigrate the importance of technology, but technological advances to address climate change will continue to be canceled out if we don’t look at the population side of the equation — gains will be eaten away by more people consuming more resources. Or as Paul Ehrlich, Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford University, explained it: “If you manage, somehow, to half each person’s consumption, on average, but you allow population size to double, you haven’t gained at all, because, if you have half as much consumption per person, but twice as many persons, you’re right where you started.”

With a current U.S. population at almost 317 million (U.S. Census Bureau) — or possibly closer to 320 million, depending on the data source — under the assumptions of continuing high international migration, we may grow to 458 million by 2050. (Ehrlich also has said of the U.S., “No sensible reason has ever been given for having more than 135 million people.”)

Folks, this is significant. By 2100 it’s expected that just six countries likely will contribute half of the world’s population increase. They are India, four countries in Africa and the U.S.!

Of course it’s not surprising that the president doesn’t discuss the population component in talking about the country’s challenges; he’s pushing extraordinary changes that would grow the U.S. population dramatically. Analysis from the Center for Immigration Studies of Congressional Budget Office numbers indicates that under the Senate’s immigration bill, the foreign-born population will have grown from 31.1 million in 2000 to 65.2 million by 2033, while it’s estimated that total U.S. population will reach 381.5 million by 2033 — a mind-boggling increase of 72.8 million people from the 2010 U.S. Census.

To bring on this kind of growth to a society that already has one of the largest carbon footprints in the world truly is leadership-lite.

True leadership from our president would mean developing a population policy, which would include limiting immigration — not increasing it. In seeking ways to address climate change, the president also should be advocating for greater conservation efforts. Again, in his speech, he looked to technological fixes, such as greater fuel efficiency standards for vehicles and more efficient appliances — all good things, but insufficient without a call to reduce, reuse and recycle.

So the president missed the perfect opportunity to talk about unchecked population growth, particularly as it relates to immigration, as well as the need for a population policy and conservation efforts.

Once more, Paul Ehrlich gets this issue completely. “The United States today presents the bizarre picture of a country that debates immigration policy without having a population policy,” said Ehrlich. “That is roughly like trying to design an airplane that can load a certain number of people per minute without deciding what its passenger capacity should be.”



Maria writes about the population-sustainability connection as a senior writing fellow for Californians for Population Stabilization ( Contact her at

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