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Abstract

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, human population growth is one of the two primary causes of increased greenhouse gas emissions and accelerating global climate change. Slowing or ending population growth could be a cost effective, environmentally advantageous means to mitigate climate change, providing important benefits to both human and natural communities. Yet population policy has attracted relatively little attention from ethicists, policy analysts, or policy makers dealing with this issue. In part, this is because addressing population matters means wading into a host of contentious ethical issues, including family planning, abortion, and immigration. This article reviews the scientific literature regarding voluntary population control's potential contribution to climate change mitigation. It considers possible reasons for the failure of climate ethicists, analysts, and policy makers to adequately assess that contribution or implement policies that take advantage of it, with particular reference to the resistance to accepting limits to growth. It explores some of the ethical issues at stake, considering arguments for and against noncoercive population control and asking whether coercive population policies are ever morally justified. It also argues that three consensus positions in the climate ethics literature regarding acceptable levels of risk, unacceptable harms, and a putative right to economic development, necessarily imply support for voluntary population control. WIREs Clim Change 2012, 3:45–61. doi: 10.1002/wcc.153

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