This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Putting People Into Climate Models

There is no question that global climate change is occurring--just ask anyone hanging around the melting glaciers at the poles. We humans are stereotypically charged with being the perpetrators (indeed, if we didn't use all that fossil fuel to increase our standard of living, where would we be?), and at the same time the victims (global warming will eventually kill us). While these stereotypes are based in reality, they are not sufficiently nuanced to tell us, in particular, how humans who are the worst victims (those who have not contributed much to the carbon dioxide poisoning of the atmosphere) are actually apt to respond to climate change. This is the sensible argument of Paul Palmer and Matthew Smith, writing in this week's Nature.
Current models of Earth's climate capture physical and biophysical processes. But the planet has entered a new state: humans are adapting to, as well as causing, environmental changes. This major feedback must be modelled. Projections of the future climate based on simple economic narratives1— from cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions to unmitigated growth — are unrealistic.
Faced with droughts and rising sea levels, people alter their behaviour. Even if global climate policy is effective, and nations deliver on ambitious green-energy-production and sustainability targets, societies will be different in a warmer world. People will move to places that are richer in resources, or stay where they are and be pushed further into poverty. Population growth, urbanization, migration2 and conflict3 will compound reactions to global temperature rises.
To understand the underlying patterns, we need to collect behavioural statistics on grand scales. How do people of different backgrounds respond to extreme weather, for example? Under severe drought, do people in sub-Saharan Africa behave differently from those in southern Australia? How do the decisions made by lower- and middle-income families differ?
Ultimately, we must establish an international data-collection effort involving the public, private and voluntary sectors. Much as we take global stock of forests or biodiversity, we should regularly assess how people are being changed by the climate that they are changing.
This is a call to action, not a definitive road map, but it's a start. I'm chairing a session on the "Spatial Demography of Population and Envirnment" at the Population Association of America meetings that will be held here in San Diego next Spring. The deadline for submission is 1 October and here's the link if you want to submit a paper. Let's get to work.

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