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Homeowners insurance for our planet

September 28, 2007
By John Seager

Most Americans are covered by some sort of insurance. While we don't expect to be in a car accident or to have a house fire or to be unable to work, we carry insurance nonetheless - just to be on the safe side.

But we don't have an insurance policy for the place we all call home, the Earth. Until recently, we didn't really need one. Even with wars and natural disasters, there wasn't a serious threat to the diversity of life on this planet. Until now, that is.

There is a growing sense that global warming poses a "planetary emergency," as Al Gore puts it. Wouldn't it be great if we could insure the planet against disaster, while we're working to fix the carbon problem?

A moderately priced climate insurance policy is available. It's called population stabilization. Zero population growth could buy us the time we'll need to reduce carbon consumption.

We should do whatever we can to achieve the massive required reductions by putting our minds and our money to work. Many experts believe we need to reduce our carbon emissions by anywhere from 50% to 90% by 2050 - just 43 years away.

What if we fall short, despite our best efforts? That's where climate insurance can help. It could stave off the worst effects of global warming while we implement cleaner energy and change our consumption habits.

Since 1990, two thirds of the increase in global carbon emissions has been due to population growth. Rising per capita carbon emissions only accounted for one third of the total increase.

A World Bank report concluded that, on average, every 1% increase in world population generates a 1.4% increase in carbon emissions. This relationship is especially potent in the developing world, where quality of life is improving and energy consumption is understandably increasing.

So how would climate insurance work? First, it would make sure that every women and every couple on this planet have access to the family planning they want and need. Right now, the annual cost of addressing this unmet need is estimated at $3.9 billion. A big number, but it's less than 8 cents per $1000 in global income. As insurance goes, that's a mighty low rate.

Next, we need to encourage people everywhere to make thoughtful, informed decisions about when, whether and how many children to have. This is the most personal of decisions, and no government ever has the right to coerce people.

When women continue their educations, they postpone having children. And when young people receive comprehensive age-appropriate sex education, it has a positive impact on their decisions. These efforts are relatively inexpensive. They may even yield a net gain, especially when a society sees an increase in its share of educated, and thus more productive, workers.

The UN estimates that world population will hit 9.2 billion by 2050, up from a current 6.7 billion. But the UN has another lower estimate as well. If we do the right things, world population could be 7.8 billion in 2050 and we'd achieve global zero population growth before that date.

Hopefully, we'll each do what we can as consumers and energy users to chart a better future. But a little climate insurance in the form of population stabilization could go a long way in protecting our planet. It's relatively cheap and doesn't require any technological breakthroughs. And it's 100% voluntary. Let's begin now to stave off potential disaster by supporting family planning services for everyone who wants them. John Seager is president of Population Connection, the national grassroots population organization. His email address is

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