Stanford's Paul Ehrlich wins environmental award in Spain

Four decades after publication of "The Population Bomb," professor of ecology Paul Ehrlich remains an influential player on the environmental scene. "Americans should go childless, or limit themselves to a single offspring, as an act of patriotism," he said before heading to Spain to receive the Margalef Prize.

Instead of pouring tax money into automobile industry bailouts, the government should invest in a new infrastructure to deal with changing climate patterns, said  Paul Ehrlich, professor of ecology.

But Ehrlich notes that real change cannot be brought about by governments alone. "The scientific community has known for a long time the direction of climate change," he said. "The problem is in human behavior."

Ehrlich spoke to the Stanford Report before leaving for Spain to receive the Ramon Margalef Prize for lifetime achievement in Ecology and Environmental Sciences.

Dodging environmental catastrophe and global population collapse is Ehrlich's topic for his speech on Nov. 5 in Barcelona, where the Climate Change Talks 2009 are under way. The goal of this conference is to make plans for negotiating an international treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions beyond 2012, when the Kyoto Protocol expires.

"The timing is exquisite," said Ehrlich, who is taking advantage of the opportunity to persuade people to take climate change seriously. In his address, he will point out specific measures that countries can take to cope with climate change. For instance, a new water-handling system – including dams, pipelines and canals for agriculture – should be designed for enhanced flexibility.

"If leading climatologists are correct, Earth's precipitation patterns will likely be changing continually for a millennium or so," Ehrlich said.

In 2005, Ehrlich and an interdisciplinary team of scientists created the Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior. "The goal is to start the global discussion about human behavior and the reasons we're not doing anything to avoid environmental collapse, and to refocus attention toward things society can do to become sustainable," Ehrlich said.

One major problem is the growing population. According to Ehrlich, the author of the 1968 book, The Population Bomb, there will be two and a half billion more people by the middle of the century, and each new person will have a disproportionately greater impact on the environment. The United States is the fastest growing industrialized nation.

"Americans should go childless, or limit themselves to a single offspring, as an act of patriotism," said Ehrlich, who warns that expanding consumption will damage our life-support systems – causing a decline of food security and depletion of water recourses – and a possibly severe decline in standards of living. "All of the additional mining, harvesting, building and manufacturing to provide for growing numbers of people increase greenhouse gas emissions and cause greater climate disruption," he said.

Ehrlich believes it will take drastic measures to stave off global catastrophe. Even if everyone implemented all the environmental solutions suggested by Al Gore in his movie “The Inconvenient Truth,” it "would delay the end of civilization by 17 hours," Ehrlich said.

Climate disruption has not been getting the attention it deserves in the new administration, according to Ehrlich. "Obama is a million times better than Bush, but we need someone a trillion times better," he said.

If he were to become president tomorrow, instead of implementing "brick-in-the-toilet-tank solutions," Ehrlich would redesign the United States around people, not automobiles.

"The automobile has one important future function: it's a good place for teenagers to make love," he said.

Janelle Weaver is a science-writing intern at the Stanford News Service.