“Never make predictions, especially about the future.” So saith Hall of Famer Casey Stengel, whose 54-year career included stints managing both the best and worst teams in baseball.
The UN Population Division eschews predictions. Instead, its demographers deploy the best available data to tell us what may lie ahead.
The 2015 UN global population projections are radically and alarmingly higher than just over a decade ago in 2004. Since then, the UN’s medium-fertility projection for 2100 has shot up by an additional 2.15 billion. The biggest shock is Africa, where the latest projection for 2100 is 2.13 billion higher than it was in 2004. Improvements in other parts of the world have been nearly wiped out by soaring projected increases in Africa.
The poorest continent is likely to see vastly more population growth than had been anticipated. Africa’s population recently topped 1 billion for the first time. Now it’s projected to spiral to nearly 4.4 billion by the end of the century. By 2100, Africa may have as many people as the entire world had back when Reagan was elected president in 1980. Many thought that Africa’s population problems would evaporate. They were wrong.
It gets worse: Researchers led by respected former NASA climate scientist James Hansen just forecast a possible 10-foot rise in sea levels before the end of the century. One-third of Florida’s population lives below this level, as do more than 700,000 residents of New York City. So do millions of other Americans. Globally, most major cities are in low-lying coastal areas.
Hurricane Katrina forced the evacuation of 1.2 million people in greater New Orleans. A 10-foot rise in sea levels could force permanent evacuations far larger than that. Imagine hundreds of millions of climate and population refugees desperate to find safe, dry homes.
Global population stabilization represents the single best way to help avert this catastrophe. There are 225 million women in the developing world with an unmet need for contraception. Helping them today is the right thing to do. If we don’t, we may see unimaginable levels of suffering and chaos.
And what about us—that is, the U.S.? Seemingly modest changes can yield enormous differences. The medium UN projection for the United States in 2100 is 450 million people. But, if every woman had half a child fewer (on average, of course) the U.S. could see population drop back below the current level before 2100, followed by a gradual decline. Of course, immigration matters as well. Reducing population pressures in “sending” nations is the best way to meet long-term migration challenges.
If such a drop in family size seems far-fetched, keep in mind that American family size already declined by nearly four times that much in the two decades between 1960 and 1980. Half of all U.S. pregnancies and a third of all births are unplanned. Modest changes can yield vastly different outcomes. Plus, when women postpone childbirth, the population curve can bend sharply downward. The more education women have, the later they begin to have children.
As for migration, if sea levels rise significantly, all bets are off everywhere around the world. We’ve seen horror stories involving hundreds of desperate refugees. Now imagine hundreds of millions in full flight.
“The Old Perfessor,” as Stengel was called, opined that, “If we’re going to win the pennant, we’ve got to start thinking we’re not as smart as we think we are.” Even modest rainfall can disrupt a baseball game. Global havoc looms if we foolishly stand by while the tides rise and cities disappear.