Sundin column: Will Malthus be proven right?
January 2, 2019
In 1798, when the world's population was approaching 1 billion and the population of the British Isles was 16 million, an Englishman named Thomas Robert Malthus made the dire prediction that, like other species, mankind would multiply until its numbers exceeded the food supply and mass starvation would reduce the population to a sustainable level.
For a number of reasons that didn't happen and Malthus has been ridiculed for nearly 200 years. First, he based his conclusion on the population and area of the British Isles and Europe, and he was not aware of the massive grain production potential of the rest of the world, particularly North America.
In addition, Malthus had no way of anticipating the "Green Revolution" created by agronomist Norman Borlaug. He developed high yield varieties of seeds and applied modern agricultural technology (irrigation, insecticides and heavier application of fertilizers), by which production was nearly doubled. This succeeded in overcoming food shortages in Mexico in the 1940s, and in the 1970s ended the starvation that had plagued India for years, saving tens of millions of lives.
Malthus may yet be proven right, but for reasons he could not have imagined in his wildest dreams. In no way could he have anticipated the effects of the nascent coal-based Industrial Revolution or even the existence of the massive deposits of coal, petroleum and natural gas — the fossil fuels that would both support unimaginable population growth and cause global warming.
The rapidly increasing burning of fossil fuels has raised the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere from a pre-Industrial-Revolution level of 280 parts per million (ppm) to a current 420 ppm. This has produced a 2.5-degree F (1.5-degree C) increase in the world's temperature to a level that is higher than at any time in the past 800,000 years.
These may seem like minute changes, but they are creating massive effects. Most of the solar energy absorbed by the earth shows up as rising ocean temperatures. Ominously that is a phenomenon that feeds on itself. Shrinking sea ice (particularly in the Arctic Ocean) reduces the portion of solar energy reflected back into space, increasing the amount feeding global warming.
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The earth's forests absorb nearly 40 percent of man-made CO2, but humanity is reducing that benefit by massive deforestation, cutting down millions of acres of forests every year for timber and to create more cropland (largely for palm oil) and grazing land.
An overwhelming majority of climate scientists have warned that the consequences of steadily increasing warming of the earth and its oceans will be catastrophic if we do not take immediate remedial action. In September, UN Secretary General Guterres warned, "Climate change has taken on new urgency. If we do not change course in the next two years, we run the risk of runaway climate change." It is creating more frequent and more intensive hurricanes, causing devastating wind and flood damage in coastal areas. It is also expanding and intensifying heat, drought and water shortages in inland areas. Both of these effects threaten to make many portions of our planet uninhabitable.
The real elephant in the room is the rising sea level, half caused by the melting of earth's ice caps, principally Antarctica and Greenland, and half from thermal expansion of the water in the oceans. The rise in ocean level from 1993 to 2017 was 3 inches (at a steadily increasing rate), and it could rise an additional 6 inches by 2050, and to 3-5 feet by the end of this century.
A rise of that magnitude could make many island nations in the Indian and Pacific Oceans and the Caribbean uninhabitable, along with large portions of Bangladesh and Florida. It would also inundate most of the world's seaports like New York, Los Angeles/Long Beach, London, Tokyo and Shanghai. It is estimated that this could displace as many as 15 million people in Bangladesh alone, and 200 million worldwide. Where will these millions go without occupying large areas that are needed to feed ever more people?
The only way we can curb global warming is to severely reduce the burning of fossil fuels and convert to renewable energy sources — wind and solar. But the cry goes up, "It will be expensive and destroy jobs." That is a small price to pay compared with the staggering cost of trying to protect the world's coastal cities from rising sea levels and the threat of an overheated overpopulated planet with Malthus' prediction of mass starvation.
"As I See It" appears on the first Thursday of the month. Hal Sundin lives in Glenwood Springs and is a retired environmental and structural engineer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.