In the late 1700s, Thomas Malthus expressed concern that future population growth would outstrip food supplies and cause famine and death. That dire prediction has not held true. Starvation is a problem in some parts of the world, but it is largely a problem with the distribution of food rather than its overall volume.
Is the alarm about climate change a similar story? No. Two things to remember:
- In the case of food supplies, we dodged the Malthusian population trap thanks to monumental changes in food production. The widespread use of new pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, along with the development of new farm machinery, have made farms far more productive than in the past. Similarly dramatic improvements in greenhouse gas emissions could limit climate change, but in the climate story the changes have been for the worse—the volume of emissions is increasing.
- Malthus was making predictions about the future, which is always tricky. Climate change is already here. On the basis of dozens of indicators ranging from the rapid melting of Arctic sea ice to increases in heat-related deaths, the Environmental Protection Agency and climate scientists around the world observe that climate change is occurring. It is not a prediction.
All of this makes the problem of climate change more like the problem of cancer. Given its presence, we should address the problem. The good news is that we are not awaiting a remedy. There are myriad ways to limit climate change once we make it a focus. There are promising policy approaches, international agreements the United States could join, and simple dietary changes that would make a world of difference.