As World Population Hits Six Billion, Yale Experts Provide Insight Into 21st Century Environmental Challenges

On Tuesday, Oct. 12, the Earth’s population is expected to reach six billion and Yale population expert Fred Meyerson says that unless action is taken, projected future population growth will lead to increased pressure on scarce resources such as land and water.

“The two most important environmental challenges in the next century are likely to be climate change and the loss of biodiversity,” said Meyerson, director of the Global Change Policy Project at the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy. “Population growth drives both of these ecological crises, and the day of six billion is a reminder that there is much work left to do to achieve population stabilization.”

Global population is still growing at 78 million per year and hundreds of millions of people still do not have access to safe and reliable reproductive health services and the means to choose the number and spacing of their children, according to Meyerson. He adds that many also lack safe drinking water, a reliable food supply and access to primary education.

“On a global scale, we have the means to change the trajectory of population growth while improving life for all of us, but we lack political will,” said Meyerson.

It is estimated that every 20 minutes the world gains almost 3,000 people but loses one more plant or animal species. “As we welcome the six billionth baby, we need to also assure that he or she – and the billions who come after – grow up in a world worth living in,” Meyerson said.

Meyerson was a contributor to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) annual report, “The State of World Population 1999,” which was released worldwide in late September in more than 20 languages. The U.N. report links population growth and climate change. “Global warming is a wild card inextricably linked to population-related issues, including fuel consumption, land use trade-offs and the potential limits on food and water supplies,” according to the report.

The title of the new U.N. report – “Six billion: A Time for Choices” – is appropriate, says Meyerson. In particular, he believes, the United States and other developed countries should make the choice to reassert a leadership role in both international family planning assistance and environmental protection without further delay.

“The increased awareness that environmental concerns are moving into the international arena will require that U.S. environmental policy be more in concert with other nations, thus giving birth to a new field of environmental diplomacy,” said James Gustave “Gus” Speth, dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and former head of the United Nations Development Programme.

Speth adds, “There is no greater cause than in building a new society where equity is the reigning principle, equity among nations, equity within societies, equity between the sexes, and equity to future generations. An environment restored in whole is one of the greatest gifts we can leave to future generations. It is also our obligation if we are serious about ethical principles of equity and justice.”

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Karen N. Peart: karen.peart@yale.edu, 203-432-1326