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Eight things we learned from the pope's climate change encyclical

Posted on 18 June 2015 by Guest Author

Pope Francis has released an unprecedented encyclical on climate change and the environment. The 180-page document calls on rich nations to pay their “grave social debt” to poorer countries and lambasts the UN climate talks for a lack of progress. Here are eight things we learned:

1) He thinks we should phase out coal

While renewable power from wind and solar gets up to speed as a solution to our energy needs, it’s worth considering gas over coal, he said:

We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be progressively replaced without delay. Until greater progress is made in developing widely accessible sources of renewable energy, it is legitimate to choose the lesser of two evils or to find short-term solutions.

He says more than 20 years of summits have produced “regrettably few” advances on efforts to cut carbon emissions and rein in global warming. The encyclical says:

It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been. The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected.

3) He doesn’t like carbon trading

In this passage he seems to be referring to the only current global carbon trading scheme, the CDM:

The strategy of buying and selling “carbon credits” can lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide. This system seems to provide a quick and easy solution under the guise of a certain commitment to the environment, but in no way does it allow for the radical change which present circumstances require. Rather, it may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors.

4) But he does like community energy

From Francis’s point of view, small and local is beautiful:

In some places, cooperatives are being developed to exploit renewable sources of energy which ensure local self-sufficiency and even the sale of surplus energy. This simple example shows that, while the existing world order proves powerless to assume its responsibilities, local individuals and groups can make a real difference.

5) He is neither pro nor anti genetically modified food

It is difficult to make a general judgement about genetic modification (GM) ... The risks involved are not always due to the techniques used, but rather to their improper or excessive application ... This is a complex environmental issue

6) He thinks consumption is a bigger problem than population

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the church’s stance on birth control, and in common with many environmentalists, he thinks consumption rather than overpopulation is the bigger environmental problem:

To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues.

Click here to read the rest

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Comments 1 to 50 out of 83:

  1. He's basically telling the world to stay away from Bjorn Lomborg and anyone else who argues fossil fuels should be allowed to warm our kids earth by 3 degrees instead of 2...

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  2. Without accepting the use of contraception to address the increasingly rapid expansion in global population, the Pope’s encyclical is significantly flawed. It is an undeniable fact that humans all over the world want the best life possible and cheap, reliable energy is an essential element in attaining this. No matter how it is spun or denied or rationalized, the basic problem with the effect of humans on global warming and the environment is, too many humans. No matter how much the scientists warn humans and no matter how many, usually broken, promises to reduce emissions are made by politicians, human self interest will always triumph. That basic fact is amply evidenced by the complete failure of climate change conferences since Kyoto to achieve a meaningful reduction in global emissions. Although emissions stalled but crucially did not fall in 2104. it is thought by some that this could well be due to reduced global economic activity as happened in the 1980s, 1992 and 2009. Whether the stalling in 2014 heralds a fall in CO2 emissions remains to be seen but judging from the past this is certainly not a given. A fall or at least a stalling in human population is, self evidently, an essential element in combating AGW and indeed in the increased consumerism that so dismays the Pope. By deflecting this issue of population increase by focusing on increased consumerism, the Pope has been somewhat specious.

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  3. Apologies "did not fall in 2104"  should read "did not fall in 2014"

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  4. The various 'summaries' are ok to a point. 

    For the Complete 180 Page Text Goto: 


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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] Fixed link. Use the "chain-link" button in the editor to create links.

  5. @2  The basic problem is too many humans consuming too much and producting too much waste.  In another thread, KR said "Might suggest Part 1 and Part 2 of the Economic Growth and Climate-Change threads, with explicit discussion of the impacts of population growth, as a more appropriate locale for this discussion?" That is apparently the appropriate place for population discussions, but it's pretty sparse with regard to population discussion, and perhaps SKS could consider another location/way for this discussion to happen - just my personal thoughts.

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  6. Sorry, I should have noted, those are my personal thoughts, as this issue seems to arise relatively frequently in discussions about climate change, emissions, and solutions.

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  7. @ 2, Yes- given that point 6 does address this in large part- you rightly point out that the problem still exists. 

    Therefore I wouldn't say this religious teaching is completely incorrect, as you do, but I do acknowledge population as a necessary talking point.

    Basically, I think the joining of issues is also a reality that has to be dealth with aswell, however.

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  8. @2. The RC Church has long nailed its flag to the mast so adamantly on issues related to sex (including procreation of course) that an abrupt reversal would serve only to damage the effectiveness of the encyclical by kicking the Church's dinosaurs in the groin.

          More to the point, Laudato Si' is otherwise a most helpful document.

         My impression is that the global ecological crises are more urgent, at this time, than the Population Bomb. (Not that I do not find urgency in the latter.)

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  9. If I may..  

    The Encyclical is not a detailed scientific analysis of Climate

    With that in mind, as we know, the pope has heard the voices of many of the world's experts - and has access to Science via the non-sectarian, non-religious of dozens of our top science academians who are also members of the Pontifical Academy of Science.

    With that said, and on a note which most people accept at least in principle, is the pope’s reflection of humanity’s God-given responsibility as custodians of the Earth.

    In other words, IMO, this pope is, "GREEN"

    Again, I would suggest again for any interested - to read/skim the entire text, for, different "summaries" aside from the OP are making different 'points'

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  10. Not being Catholic, the encyclical is almost completely irrelevant to me except that I welcome any clear acknowledgement of the problem by a world leader, be that religious or secular.  I doubt, however, that the encyclical will inform the approaches of catholics to tackling AGW.  Australia's Prime Minister, Tony Abbot is nominally Catholic, but is happy for his policies to clearly violate not just Catholic but Christian teaching as a matter of course.  I doubt this encyclical will change that.

    I note that Ryland (@2) and others have criticized the encyclical for not reversing the Catholic Church's longtime stance on birth controll and population growth.  Such a criticism reflects an unrealistic expectation.  More importantly, it completely fails to reflect the relevant magnitudes of the problems.  Specifically, the world's total population is projected to peak at around 9.22 billion in 2075.  That assumes no heroic efforts to constrain population, but only the well known trend to smaller familly size with increased affluence.  On that basis, population growth absent all other factors can only make ecological problems worse by 26% (current population estimated from World Population Clock).  For comparison, a projected 1.5% economic growth per annum compounded over 60.5 years (ie, to 2075) would result in a 246% increase in income, and hence on environmental impact, all else being equal.  The 1.5% growth was chose as being at the low end of long term growth trends and economic targets.  So, even on the most basic analysis Pope Francis is correct in concentrating on the race to affluence rather than population growth as the major problem.  Indeed, on that basic analysis, the burning issue for Ryland has just 11% of the impact of the factors on which Pope Francis concentrates.

    Even more imortantly, the affluence, and hence environmental impact is not equally distributed among the World's population.  Specifically, in 2010 31% of the world's population consumed 69% of the world's energy (and hence were responsible for approximately 69% of total emissions).  The rate of consumption is far in excess of that required for healthy, happy lives which can be achieved with much lower rates of consumption.  If follows that equalizing affluence at sustainable levels is a far more viable strategy for dealing with ecological problems then merely limiting population.

    It is my personal opinion that neither is necessary per se.  It is possible to switch energy supply to a purely sustainable model allowing both an increase in affluence along with projected population growth.  That does not mean there will be no cost in doing so, but the cost is not so large as to prevent continued economic growth and equalization of economic resources between first and third world nations.  Regardless of my opinion, however, there is no doubt that Pope Francis' approach is far more logical than that of Ryland, in addition to being far more consistent with prior (and core) aspects of Catholic doctrine.

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  11. I do agree that the most urgent problem is human-caused global warming, but we do as well have other problems that need to be addressed, including (in no particular order) growthism, extractivism, the pressures of human population on the rest of the planet, accepting the idea that the evidence is clear that in general we are not qualified to be stewards of this planet but rather are a part of a complex ecosystem where we are the first species with the capabality to totally destroy it (whew!), and on and on.  But to say that "population growth...can only make ecological problems worse by 26%" is an incredible oversimplification. Every species extinction makes that part worse by 100%, as an example.  For all the talk about environmental "tipping points," there seems to be precious little talk about population-induced tipping points. For example, at some threshold level in cities, demands for more services such as swimming pools and other infrastructure become sufficiently large that they are built, with a significant short and long term energy and resource commitment. That's just one small example off the top of my head, but I'm sure that thinking people can find more.  And yes, this discussion likely belongs in another thread, but again I wonder if the SKS staff can create a more appropriate place for the discussion. 

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  12. @8 Apologies. I meant to write "I do not find NO urgency…" in the last sentence.

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  13. Suggested supplementary reading and directly related to the ongoing discussion...

    Ideology Subsumes Empiricism in Pope's Climate Encyclical by Lawrence M. Krauss, Scientific American, June 18, 2015

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  14. Population growth is not the big problem, because as people improve their quality of life, natality drops spontaneosly.

    The highest population growth hapen among the poorest people. This seems strange, but poverty introduces a perverse mix of ignorance, lack of access to healthcare and need to manpower. In the 1800s a term describing this last aspect was used: proletariat (people that have as their only wealth their own children, or prole).

    As living standards, education and healtcare improved, natality dropped. (just see how Europe population has not only stopped growing but is actually shrinking in some countries). The key to prevent overpopulation is fighting poverty.

    Not so with overconsumption. As one consumes more, one wants more, even if that does not necessarily improves your living standard. A better approach to improve your quality of life would be not to just consume more, but consume better.

    Today there is an obscene amount of wasted resources and wealth due to inefficiency and inequality. Just use better (more efficiently and with less inequality) the wealth we already have and the improvement in people's lives will replicate the European example all over the planet, solving the population problem.

    However, if you fight poverty just by increasing the quantity of consumption, without caring for the quality, you will overshoot the planet carrying capacity long before you reach the "1st world, stable population" condition, and then we would be in big trouble.

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  15. FromPeru @14, very well said!

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  16. @14  But, if as many claim, we are already far beyond the ecological capacity of this planet, if as some claim (Daly, Salonius) our sustainable population level is only a few billion or a few hundred million, the "population will level off" idea is hardly comforting - just as comforting as the "the planet is about to cool" nonsense from Curry et al.   The key to preventing overpopulation is likely actively working, ethically of course, to reduce the population. Regarding efficiency, I tend to believe that there is some substance to the Khazzoom-Brookes postulate, and to Liebig's Law of the Minimum.  I can only base that on my personal observations, however.

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  17. Population growth needs to be addressed but it is not the problem some people want to claim it is. The overconsumption, excessive pursuit of benefit from harmful activity and waste of the 'most fortunate' is the real problem.

    Reduction of the excessive damaging impacts of the way most of the most fortunate live would make room for many more people within the same global carrying capacity. But that would require the most fortunate to limit the amount of personal benefit they can get to levels that are lower than they are pretty confident they could get away with personally enjoying.

    Leaders of the global population, everyone who has become wealthier than others, needs to be required to lead by example which would require peer pressure and penalty, those who want to be free from such an obligation would be forced to forfeit their excess wealth.

    The required development would happen in the free-market if everyone, particularly the richest, were competing to live the lowest impact and least consumptive most sustainable way. The richest would still live much better than all the others and their competition would motivate the development of ways of living decently that everyone else can develop to enjoy and continue forevermore if a better way does not get developed. The only losers would be those who gambled on benefiting from less acceptable ways of living. The global economic change required would simply make those current unacceptable gamblers the losers they deserve to be.

    The fighting to be the ones that get the most of a limited opportunity to benefit has produced horrific consequences, especially being the motivation for the majority of the killings through wars. Religion has been used as the excuse for many military actions. But the real motivation is almost always the desire by a group to dominate and benefit more than others, with whatever slogan or marketing program appears to be the best way to disguise or excuse what is really being pursued. 

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  18. I would be most interested in any sources which quantify what you are claiming. How much reduction would occur? How many more would that make room for? How would that impact our resource and energy use? 

    As well, if you have any sources which analyse the actual mechanisms whereby we can negate that "desire by a group to dominate and benefit more than others," I would certainly look at and consider them. 

    Links, please.

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  19. SkepticalinCanada @11, IMO:

    1)  Humans are unique on planet Earth as the only beings capable of moral choice.  That means we are not just one more species among many, even from an ecological point of view.  The loss of any species is a loss to us all, but the loss of the human species devoid of moral value - a tragedy of the highest magnitude.  Therefore we must be stewards of our planet, for that is what it is.  Further as we are capable of destroying life on this planet in several ways, and human life in many more - we must take responsibility for that stewardship.

    2)  Again, the loss of any species is a loss to us all; but it is not necessarilly a significant loss.  In terms of genetic diversity, 26% of human genes can be found in yeast.  92% can be found in mice, and 98% in chimpanzees.  Humans are by no means unique in the degree to genetic similarity to other species.  Consequently the loss of any given species is likely to result in the loss of very few, and in some cases no, genes from the total global genetic diversity.

    In terms of ecology, many species occupy niches occupied by other species elsewhere, or occupy microniches that less specialized species would occupy almost as well in the absense of the specialist.  As one example of this, the common form of gecko found in Australian suburbs 45 years ago has become very scarce in that setting, largely due to the proliferation of insecticides.  Recently a Spanish cousin of that species has invaded Australia.  It is better able to cope with insecticides and has started proliferating in urban areas, a trend that increases the likelihood of the Australian species going extinct.  Despite that, it improves the ecological health of the system because the two species are almost identical in habittat and behaviour; and the Australian species was being diminished.  In this example, extinction of the Australian species would constitute almost no ecological loss.

    Given this, it is not true that every "... species extinction makes that part worse by 100%", except in the purely tautological sense that every species extinction involves the loss of 100% of the species.  In fact, most species losses have minimal impact on total ecosystem viability and/or genetic diversity.  That is not comfort for anti-environmentalists because the rate of species loss driven by over-fishing, deforestation, AGW, human transported invasive species and other anthropogenic factors is so large that continued for a century there is a real risk of loss of total ecosystem viability.  It should also be no comfort in that ecology is more complex even than climate so that it is often unpredictable as to the actual impact on total ecosystem viability from the loss of any given species.  Therefore we should take all reasonable measures to minimize all species loss.  But we should also not raise species loss to an absolute loss.

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  20. Sorry, I don't subscribe to such an anthropocentric point of view. Can you please provide the source for the comment that humans are the only species capable of moral choice?  A quick search for "Are humans the only species capable of moral choice?" comes up with an interesting variety of articles.

    And humans have abundantly demonstrated that they are not qualified to be the stewards of this planet.

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  21. And, if we "should not raise species loss to an absolute loss," then I suppose the loss of the human species will be no loss for the planet.  That statement is of course subject to all kinds of misinterpretation.

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  22. SkepticalinCanada,

    Which of the following do you accept?:

    • "Reduction of the excessively consumptive damaging wasteful ways that many of the most fortunate 'choose to live' is not only possible, it would make room for many more people to live decently within the same global carrying capacity. Therefore, any claimed population limit for a carrying capacity can be changed by altering the way the most consuming, damaging and wasteful are able to get away with choosing to live."
    • "The global GDP has been rising faster than the global population. Even Africa's GDP has been rising faster than its population"
    • "This planet is expected to be habitable for humanity for hundreds of millions of years"
    • "Any ways of living that involve the consumption of a resource faster than the resource will replenish is not a lasting way of living on this planet. Regardless of its popularity or profitability there is no future for that type of activity. Which means that popularity and profitability are not suitable measures of acceptability, if humanity is to have a future."
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  23. I'm waiting for your links, as requested.  Thanks

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  24. Tom Curtis @10.  The article in Scientific American by Lawrence Krauss referred by John Hartz @13 states "A population of 10 billion by 2050 will likely be unsustainable at a level in which all humans have adequate food, water, medicine and security. Moreover, as this pope should particularly appreciate, the environmental problems that overpopulation creates also disproportionately afflict those in poor countries, where access to birth control and abortion is often limited. Ultimately, the surest road out of poverty is to empower women to control their own fertility. Doing so allows them to better provide for themselves and their children"

    This is in agreement with my comments @2 which you consider unrealistic.  It seems they may be less unrealistic than you believe

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  25. Reading through the comments I'm rather surprised that there is no comment on point 3 which is headlined "He doesn't like carbon trading".  As this seems to be the deus ex machina to combat climate change for many politicians, will the Pope's negative stance  make carbon trading less attractive for politicians in some countries?

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  26. "humans are the only species capable of moral choice?"

    Maybe humans are the only being capable of making an immoral choice?

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  27. Wonder what the actual amount of consumption is, that is actually sustainable?

    Whatever sustainable means?

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  28. ryland @25, the full critique of carbon trading by Pope Francis is:

    "171. The strategy of buying and selling “carbon credits” can lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide. This system seems to provide a quick and easy solution under the guise of a certain commitment to the environment, but in no way does it allow for the radical change which present circumstances require. Rather, it may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors."

    Clearly his concern is that carbon trading will allow the wealthy nation to maintain a high emissions life style by purchasing carbon credits from poor nations, and in particular from rich elites in control of poor nations thereby reducing emissions by restricting the development opportunities of the poor.  On that basis, presumably he would object to carbon taxation systems which allow the purchase of overseas offsets but otherwise would not object to carbon taxation.  

    From anecdotal evidence I believe most commentors at SkS prefer carbon taxs to carbon markets and consequently it is no surprise if they feel no need to comment on Pope Francis expressing a similar preference.  Others, like myself, prefer carbon markets to carbon taxation but will accept carbon taxation as an adequate substitute, provided something is done.  That is, we refuse to make the good the enemy of the perfect.  Again, while disagreeing with Pope Francis, that gives me (and other like thinkers) no reason to argue against his stated opinion.

    Having said that, and as you bring it up, I think Pope Francis points out a genuine hazard of carbon credits without recognizing that there are genuine solutions to that problem.  In particular, it would be possible to establish treaty provisions for the international trade of carbon credits that ensure the trade is between nations rather than individual; restrict the use money recieved for carbon credits development, poverty relief, and provision of renewable energy; and contain suitable auditing to limit corruption.  Given such provisions Pope Francis' objections would likely be obviated, and without them I would also be dubious of the international trade in carbon credits.

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  29. ranyl @26, the one implies the other.

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  30. ryland @24, Lawrence Krauss is undoubtedly a distinguished scientist but his publication record is in cosmological physics.  It follows that on this matter he speaks with no more authority than does Pope Francis, or I.  Given that, it is incumbent on him to argue his case, something he singularly fails to do in the passage from which you quote.  Instead, he merely asserts the premise which enables his conclusion.  Further, unlike in climate science, there is no scientific consensus of relevant experts to which he can appeal on this issue.

    Now, consider the fact that 31% of the world's population uses 69% of the energy.  That means that if the top 31% of the world's population reduced their per capita energy use to 45% of current values, the other 69% of the population could lift their per capita energy use by 2.23% of current values thereby equalizing energy use per capita with no increase in global energy use.  Such a change is consistent with maintaining high standards of living and high life expectancies.  It is, however, certainly unnecessary for energy (where we can tackle emissions problems at lower economic cost to the wealthy by switching to renewables).  Similar equations apply to food consumption.  In the case of food consumption, unlike emissions, there is no suggestion we can reduce it to zero.  However, the reduced food consumption implied for the west in such an alteration would be positively beneficial in terms of health.  Further, given that 1/3rd of food currently goes to waste (as mentioned in the encyclical), that means we can feed the World's entire current population to an appropriate standard for good health while reducing food production by a significant percentage (though probably not the full third).  Given this, Krauss's statement is tenuous at best.

    Now, granted population growth would use up that excess so that given the equalization of food consumption, we may require the totality of current food production to feed the 10 billion - but we are currently producing that amount of food.  Ergo we can produce that amount of food and Krauss's claim that "A population of 10 billion by 2050 will likely be unsustainable at a level in which all humans have adequate food" is shown to depend on defining "adequate food" as "something at least approaching current western per capita food consumption" which is so far beyond "adequate" as to be a (very sick) joke.  (And I am no saint in that department.) 

    Worse for Krauss, total human water use is just a drop in the ocean compared to total global water.  As the restrictions on water are a restriction on fresh water only, given abundant cheap energy (ie, given that we can in fact tackle AGW) we would have in effect an unlimitted supply of water through desalination.  That in turn probably would solve any further food problems through the potential of greening deserts and hydroponic farming using artificial light.

    The last paragraph wanders a little from the point.  You said that:

    "By deflecting this issue of population increase by focusing on increased consumerism, the Pope has been somewhat specious".

    My claim was that "there is no doubt that Pope Francis' approach is far more logical than that of Ryland".  That is, if I am wrong about the possibility of tackling the world's ecological issues without sacrificing either affluence or requiring more than current efforts at reducing population; then Pope Francis' view point was far superior to the alternative that insists our focus should be on population reduction.  Population reduction is a blunt and limited tool only likely to be effective if the vast majority of the population reduction comes from Western nations.  I suspect it is popular in Western nations as a strategy, however, because it is assumed the population reduction will come primarilly from the third world (without attributing that tawdry motive to any particular person).

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  31. SkepticalinCanada @21, given that I had previously said that "The loss of any species is a loss to us all, but the loss of the human species [would render the planet] devoid of moral - a tragedy of the highest magnitude", your comment @21 is a blatant out of context quotation.  I will grant that my poor editing (for which I apologise) left out a crucial clause in my statement, but the final phrase is clear enough that there was no misunderstanding my overall conclusion.

    @20,  it is irrelevant that " humans have abundantly demonstrated that they are not qualified to be the stewards of this planet" (whatever that means).  The simple fact is that they have the capability of acting in a way that devestates the planetary ecosystem, or they can act in a way that maintains a healthy planatery ecosystem.  We have that level of technical ability, and sufficient population with it so that our choices matter to the ecology.  Therefore we are stewards whether we will or no.  Further we are stewards whether we are responsible stewards, or instead choose to be bad stewards and fritter away the health of the global ecosystem in our never ending pursuit of more Big Macs.

    Certainly there is no other species that can step forward and take over that role so that we can simply pursue our self interest under the governance of that wiser species.

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  32. Tom Curtis,  It is plain to most and certainly to me that a woman should be able to control her own fertility, a concept that still not acceptable to the Pope and thus to the Church of Rome.  Is this a concept with which you disagree?   That human reproduction should continue untrammelled, as you appear to be advocating by referring to the Pope's views as logical and dismissing Lawrence Krauss as an irrelevance is, of course, your right. I do hope your comment  "because it is assumed the population reduction will come primarilly from the third world (without attributing that tawdry motive to any particular person)"  is not directed at me. Your  comment sublimely ignores the fact that in the developed world most women, unless influenced  by religious factors, are and have been for many years, able to control their own fertility.   This is evidenced by the falling birthrate in the developed world, a fall, incidentally,  which is of concern to economists.  Ergo, population reduction in the developed world  has already occurred and is continuing.  Given that indisputable fact, it is clear that reductions can only come  "primarily from the third world"  (personally I don't use that term as I think developing world is a lot less derogatory and more accurate).  To argue that  reducing population growth is not a desirable outcome seems extremely unusual. Surely anything  that will lead to in a reduction in the destructive  influence of humans on  the  world is to be welcomed?  Isn't it?

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  33. @20.. 

    I don't accept any "Anthropological View" unless we're speaking of:

    Q) Which species has affected Earth the most in terms of:
    Pollution, Science, Engineering & activities too numerous to mention? 

    Humans _are_ qualified to steward this planet!  Is not that actuality the general impetus behing the thrust of all who express concern with our BioSphere? 

    One of The main problems is connected with our BioSphere is: 

    It is. Because, which concerns the majority of Humans, i.e. the Health of our BioSphere,  there are and have been Humans - many in positions of great influence, as well as many others, who are not Abiding by the inner call to keep Earth's Atmosphere, Lands and Seas, Animals and Plants - Healthy.   Yeah, it sounds corny.. 

    Keeping this simple:  

    Look at Everything inside your homes.   Your monitor.   My words right here.  And what do you see?  ... The "fingerprints" of Humans.. !Everything..  almost..  

    "Only God, Omnipotent Indeed,
    Knew they were Mammals of a Different Breed."
    - Mayakovsky as quoted by Kosinski -

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  34. SkepticalinCanada @20:

    "Sorry, I don't subscribe to such an anthropocentric point of view. Can you please provide the source for the comment that humans are the only species capable of moral choice? A quick search for "Are humans the only species capable of moral choice?" comes up with an interesting variety of articles."

    First, Johnathan Haidt writes:

    "The most influential definition of morality in psychology comes from Turiel (1983), who defined the moral domain as ‘‘prescriptive judgments of justice, rights, and welfare pertaining to how people ought to relate to each other’’ (p. 3). Turiel (2006) explicitly links this definition of morality to the long radition of liberal political theory from Kant, through John Stuart Mill, to John Rawls. Common to this tradition is a conception of persons as reasoning beings who have equal worth and who must always be treated as ends in themselves—never solely as means to other goals."

    When I say that humans are the only beings on this planet capable of moral choice, that is the definition I use.  I will return to this point later after discussing some other important issues.

    Haidt himself does not accept that definition.  Rather he defines morality, saying:

    "Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, practices, institutions, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible."

    This definition is suspect from the start in that Haidt defines "moral" in those terms specifically to allow that certain moral like behaviours in animals should be considered "moral" in the proper sense.  In doing so he makes the definition so broad as to be useless.  By his definition, social behaviour in bees is "moral" because they are "evolved psychological mechanisms" that "suppress or regulate selfishness", or at least selfish behaviour even though they are purely instinctive, ie, require no consciousness and involve no more choice than that found in a cpu.  

    More importantly, the moral like behaviours in animals which he seeks to include under the definition of "moral" all relate to individual preference and cannot be generalized.  They represent, in effect, tastes rather than actions based on reasons.  As such they encapsulate no principles, and therefore cannot be extended to cover novel situations.  Nor can analysis of the principles be used to show inconsistency of action (such as the inconsistency between the Declaration of Independence and slave owning).  In short, such moral like behaviour permits no moral reasoning by itself, without which moral choice is impossible.  Specifically, the moral like behaviour consists of sympathetic concern; and for each animal it is simply a fact of the matter whether or not they have sympathetic concern for some other animal, and whether or not that sympathetic concern is stronger or weaker than the desire for a given good which conflicts with.  For humans that is typically not the case.  Instead we can reason abstractly to find principles underlying sympathetic concern (or more abstract moral principles) and reason to ensure that those principles we find are maximally coherent.  The resulting reasoning can then inform and change our sympathetic concern and enable us to act as though we had sympathetic concern even when it is weak or absent.  It enables us, in fact, to act morally (even if imperfectly so).

    To understand what a difference this makes, it is helpfull to have some idea of the stages of human moral development.  The crucial point to realise is that the sympathetic concern of animals does not even reach stage one of human moral development.  In human development, it is the level of moral development reached even in todlers whose linguistic development has not developed to include grammar (being limited to two word utterances).  The later stages are all post grammatical, in terms of development.  That is no surprise as they all involve some aspect of rule based behaviour, and the stating of rules is impossible without complex grammar.  Crucially, also, animal examples of language use have similarly been restricted to either one or two word utterances with a restricted vocabulary (ie, not grammar and no possibility of explicit rule based behaviour) with the exceptions of those animal "languages" like the language of bees which is more akin to visual art than to human languages.

    It should be noted that the stages of moral development are not universal across cultures (with some variation in the later stages in particular), and nor are ages of attainment universal within cultures or across cultures.  Up to stage 4, however, there is a remarkable consistency in stages and age of attainment across a very wide range of cultures and social conditions.  From my perspective, the these stages are only possible because of the factors that allow the attainment of a full and explicit moral reasoning (such as found in Kant).  Like the relationship between informal reasoning and logic, informal moral reasoning is only possible because of the factors that allow in humans the attainment of fully explicit moral reasoning and behaviour.  Thus it is no more a problem of my definition of "moral" that most stages of human morality are informal, and often inconsistent than it is a criticism of the definition of "logic" that most human reasoning is equally informal and often inconsistent.  But clearly (however we define terms) human moral reasoning is different in kind from that attainable by animals (whether we call the later "moral like" or stretch the definition of "moral" to include it in its scope).

    Finally, like the development of an aesthetic sense, the development of a true morality opens up whole new fields in which we can be helped or harmed.  Animals are like us in their ability to be harmed by simple physical cruelty, close confinement, bland or unappatising food and in countless other ways in which harms relate to purely sensory appreciation.  Some animals are also like us in being subject to emotional harms (and goods).  A strong case can be made for some animals that they are also subject to aesthetic harms and goods.  But no animal is subject to moral harms and goods.  They simply cannot appreciate slavery us unjust (as opposed to simply confining), and so it is no injustice to them to serve as beasts of burden (although depending on cases it may be cruel).  There are no animal bravehearts.  And for this reason out access to true morality makes us different.

    It is not more anthropocentrism to recognize this fact than it is to recognize that humans are the only technological species on Earth.

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  35. ryland @32, I am strongly in favour of contraception, including abortion (no later than the end of the first trimester except in the case of medical emergency and with due councelling).  I also think women should be in charge of their own fertility, sexuality (both at to type and activity) and body image.  I think reducing the Earth's population is a good thing*.  And, as previously noted I am not a Catholic.

    I also do not believe in using another persons agreement on one topic as a means to leverage their agreement on a different topic and think it is fairly much an open and shut case that unrestrained affluence has a more harmfull impact on the global ecosystem than third world population growth; and that therefore if we must make a choice between the two, restraint of the affluence is a more sensible strategy to preserve that ecosystem than preventing the third world playing catch up on population growth at the same time as they are playing catch up in affluence.

    I am not necessarilly arguing that the Pope's position is logical, but that it is more logical than the alternative presented by you and Krauss.  You should not mistake that for agreement with the Pope on all points.


    (* but not a necessary thing, and something that can be approached slowly for the most part by reducing birth rates by increasing affluence.)

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  36. Tom Curtis.  I am astounded at your comment "than preventing the third world playing catch up on population growth at the same time as they are playing catch up in affluence.'"  Surely you do not believe that enabling women to control their own fertility is "preventing the third world playing catch up on population growth" What an extraordinary suggestion More importantly you seem unaware that the "third world" population is not only greater than that of the developed world but is also growing very much more rapidly.  The one thing the developing world does not need to consider is a "catch up on population growth".  And as for the developing world "playing catch up on affluence" the most significant impact on that "catch up" will be the decline in the use of fossil fuels as mandated by the developed world.  As is well known, it is these fuels that have provided the cheap and reliable energy that has enabled the existence of the developed world.  It is little wonder that the developing world is not altogether enamoured of the proposal by developed countries that the use of these fuels should be terminated.

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  37. Tom Curtis I have been mulling over your comment  that women controlling their  own fertility will "prevent developing countries playing catch up on population growth".  My answer on that suggestion above is both incorrect and inadequate and on reflection I think you are right and that it will prevent catch up on population.    But what you seem to be suggesting is that women have no right to control their own fertility because it will, in your words, " prevent the third world playing catch up on population growth".  You seem to regard this as a deplorable situation foisted on the developing world by the developed world.  Surely you can see that your comment  implies women should not have this control and therefore must be subservient to the wishes of men in the number of chidlren they are allowed to have. If that is not what you mean would you explain what I have misunderstood 

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  38. Ryland, re-read Tom Curtis' post. What he says is quite clear and does not seem to correspond to what you object; your post seems to consist mostly on grasping at specific words in his, and ascribing to them a meaning that their original context does not support.

    As for the devloping world's opinion, it would be good to provide references for your assertions. In my perception, the developing world's grievance is about making the same amount of effort as the developed world, whose unabated use of FF has caused the problem in the first place, and having to make that effort when they are in a much less favorable place to do so. It is entirely reasonable for the developed world to allow the countries that need it to continue use FF until they can transition.

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  39. Ryland at 37, this is what Tom wrote:

    " I also think women should be in charge of their own fertility, sexuality (both at to type and activity) and body image."

    How do you interpret this as: ". Surely you can see that your comment implies women should not have this control and therefore must be subservient to the wishes of men in the number of chidlren they are allowed to have."

    I can't see how one can lead to the other. Can you explain how you interpret the first quote here into the second one? It's rather baffling.

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  40. ryland @36, from Wikipedia:

    "During the European Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions, the life expectancy of children increased dramatically. The percentage of the children born in London who died before the age of five decreased from 74.5% in 1730–1749 to 31.8% in 1810–1829. Between 1700 and 1900, Europe’s population increased from about 100 million to over 400 million.  Altogether, the areas populated by people of European descent comprised 36% of the world's population in 1900.

    Population growth in the West became more rapid after the introduction of vaccination and other improvements in medicine and sanitation. Improved material conditions led to the population of Britain increasing from 10 million to 40 million in the 19th century. The population of the United Kingdom reached 60 million in 2006. The United States saw its population grow from around 5.3 million in 1800 to 106 million in 1920, exceeding 307 million in 2010.

    The first half of the 20th century in Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union was marked by a succession of major wars, famines and other disasters which caused large-scale population losses.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia's population declined significantly – from 150 million in 1991 to 143 million in 2012 – but by 2013 this decline appeared to have halted.

    Many countries in the developing world have experienced extremely rapid population growth since the early 20th century, due to economic development and improvements in public health. China's population rose from approximately 430 million in 1850 to 580 million in 1953, and now stands at over 1.3 billion. The population of the Indian subcontinent, which was about 125 million in 1750, increased to 389 million in 1941; today, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are collectively home to about 1.5 billion people. Java had about 5 million inhabitants in 1815; its present-day successor, Indonesia, now has a population of over 140 million. Mexico's population grew from 13.6 million in 1900 to about 112 million in 2010. Between the 1920s and 2000s, Kenya's population grew from 2.9 million to 37 million."

    The key point is that European and US population growth started early because of the early development and deployment of key factors contributing to population growth.  In contrast, population growth in developing nations (particularly in Africa) started much later.  The result is that total population growth in Africa since 1500 (12 fold increase) is less than the global average (15 fold increase), less than that of Europe plus primarilly european descent colonies (13 fold increase) and much less than Asia (17 fold increase).  Of course these divisions do not divide between first world and third world with some primarilly european descent colonies (latin america) being third world, while some of the most rapid population growth in Asia has been in first world nations (Japan, South Korea, Singapore).  Arguing that excess population is a third world problem simply ignores history by only considering growth in the twentieth century when European growth rates were declining while African growth rates were accelerating.

    Looking at actual figures I have slightly overstated my point.  The third world is on the cusp of catching up with first world population growth historically considered.  But that still means that population reduction is not a strategy that should be primarilly aimed at the third world.  At worst it should be equally shared by first and third worlds and (considering relative resource use) should probably predominantly come from the first world if that is indeed your chosen strategy.  Thinking of it in terms of a third world problem looks to me like an attempt to shift the cost of tackling the ecological crisis onto the world's poorest and smallest contributors to that crisis.

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  41. Philippe Chantreau @38, I do not know to what extent third world representatives phrase it this way, but natural justice requires that limitations on fossil fuel use be based on per capita limits.  On an equal per capita basis, that means for most third world nations they would be able to increase their fossil fuel use per capita significantly before reaching the effective quota, while first world nations should reduce it much faster than they currently do.  China has recently reached the approximate per capita limit (and so should not further increased fossil fuel use on this basis).  The idea that limits should be based on 1990 national consumption, thereby freezing in the massive disparity in per capita fossil fuel use at that time amounts to a deliberate policy of enforced poverty for the third world over the next half century or so, just so that the first world can continue to enjoy the affluence based on its rapacious resource use which has created the problem in the first place.

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  42. " The later stages are all post grammatical, in terms of development."

    Not really.  post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.  Moral development is more a consequence of expanding the individual's circle of social relationships, not his/her ability to verbalize abstractions about morality.

    It is only the fifth stage, where contractual agreement on ethical conduct arises, that grammatical influence becomes dominant but not exclusive of 'sympathetic feeling'.  It is sentient creatures' universal experience of pain and pleasure and non-verbal empathy that is the engine of moral development, not one's capacity for abstract thought.  Rather, it is abstract thought that leads to much confusion about moral issues.  Observation of Down's Syndrome people should make this abundantly clear.

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  43. SkepticalinCanada @ 23,

    If your comment is directed to me to provide a specific link for any of the points I have asked in my comment @24:

    For my second point about GDP rising faster than population choose whatever source you want for GDP history and population history. For the third point about the how long the earth will be habitable you could Google, or Yahoo, or Bing it and review the many evaluations offered (many of them including recent ones indicate hundreds of millions of years). The first and last points are simple rational thought points, no sources reuired other than personal consideration of the fundamanetals of what is going on.

    The points I asked about were an attempt to understand your understanding of points I consider to be fundamental to understanding what is going on. There is more than ample information available to anyone interested in independently investigating to understand them, no need for someone to write a paper about them. All that is required is open-minded curiosity, some personal effort, and a willingness to rationally consider all the available information in an effort to participate in developing a lasting better future for all life on this amazing planet.

    A for the question I know you are aching to have me ansqwer about the poulation that can live sustainably the answer remains, That Depends, on the way that the people are considered to be living: how humans fit into the robust diversity of life and how they treat each other is the key consideration, not a population number.
    - The more that humans live collectively in ways that can be a lasting part of the robust diversity of life the larger the number of humans who can live decently on this planet can be virtually forever.
    - The more that humans compete to be the ones who are able to live in ways that are not a lasting part of the robust diversity of life, the fewer humans can be living decently. There may be short bursts of perceptions of increased prosperity, but ultimately there would be a constantly reducing number and ultimately no future until there is a shift to living in ways that can be a lasting part of the robust diversity of life on this amazing planet.

    So the population number you ask me tobe specific about is most likely between 500 million and 10 billion, however, it can easily be lower if the way of living is more excessive, and can probably be more than 10 billion if human ingenuity and activity is properly motivated.

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  44. not sure if there are any other catholic commenters, but wanted to point on some things about the church's view on family size. catholics are not fundamentalists like the duggars: we don't think people should breed like rabbits. the church advocates for access to education, food, water, health care and jobs for everyone, which would help reduce population growth as better health care and better education tends to limit family size. this is how the church wants to prevent overpopulation, though things it believes are good and fitting for creatures made in the "image of God".

    the church is not opposed to efforts to limit population growth, but doesn't accept abortion or contraceptives as legitimate means. i don't believe the church thinks the world is overpopulated yet but i could be wrong on that. the problem, it proposes, is with more affluent nations and corrupt governments preventing a just distribution of wealth across the globe.

    jrr tolkien was a devout catholic and his writings deeply reflect this. if you want to know what the church want's for humanity, envision the shire: the agrarian simple life, with good food and drink. mordor represents the evils of the industrialization of the world. 

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  45. At last - a discussion that mentions population growth!

    As the old Irish joke goes, " I wouldn't start from here." If acknowledgement of the effects of CO2 emissions had been general in the mid 1900s, not only would the population be a fraction of that of today, but much of the "stored sunlight", ie carbon would have still been locked in the ground. The game of sustainability catchup would have been a lot easier.

    But of course we are not starting from that position, and therefore are in a much more precarious position.

    Much of the Pope's encyclical is highly relevant but I agree that his continuing stance on population control renders it oxymoronic. If the planet is facing a future catastrophe on the climate change issue, surely reducing our numbers is the very first thing to address, even before carbon reduction?

    The only thing that all the politicians can talk about today on the economy front is "growth". Exponential growth, whether in population or consumption, is logically unsustainable: something needs to replace the assumption that capitalism must inevitably rely on growth.

    Abundant fossil fuels, capitalism and its necessary growth have built our present world and we have all benefitted from these, but it seems to me that a different paradigm needs to be globally accepted alongside curbs on population and emissions.

    But I'm not holding my breath.

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  46. Phillipe Chantreau  Thanks for your comment.  I obviously do not communicate well.  The statements by Tom Curtis to which I was responding were made in response to my comment about contraception.  Tom Curtis wrote "I think it is fairly much an open and shut case that unrestrained affluence has a more harmfull impact on the global ecosystem than third world population growth; and that therefore if we must make a choice between the two, restraint of the affluence is a more sensible strategy to preserve that ecosystem than preventing the third world playing catch up on population growth at the same time as they are playing catch up in affluence.

    My response was that why will contraception prevent the third world playing catch up on population growth?    Presumably because without  contraception women are not in control of their fertility so their childbearing is less under their control than it is with contraception.. By stating it is more sensible  to restrain affluence rather than preventing the third world playing catch up on population growth Tom Curtis is clearly saying that denying contraception for the developing world is the more sensible option.  That is the analogy to which I was referring.  I stand by what I said which was that restraining affluence rather than making contraception available to women in the developing demeans the status of these women.  Tom Curtis is essentially saying never mind how many children they have due to lack of contraceptive control that's better than allowing unrestrained affluence.  That is an attitude with which I cannot concur.

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  47. Tom Curtis, I agree with much of what you say above, but when you opine at #19 "the loss of any species is a loss to us all; but it is not necessarilly a significant loss."

    May I suggest that we do not have adequate knowledge to determine what may or may not be a 'significant' loss. Even determining the criteria for such 'significance' would be difficult.

    While not a Catholic myself, I do also feel that the concep of 'sacred' is relevant when we are talking about species. Anything that is essentially irreplaceable should not lightly be done away with.

    Your reductionism wrt equating life with DNA also seems...crude, at best.

    Ccrickett at #11, when you mentioned the RC Church, my first interpretation was that you were talking about the site RealClimate and that I was about to be treated to a denialist screed about how 'warmism' is a religion. LOL.

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  48. ryland @46. This book provides some evidence that after a certain level of affluence, benefits from further increases in well-being are minimal or detrimental. Obviously it somewhat difficult to measure "well being", the author uses a number of indicators including infant mortality, life expectancy, participation in education and "happiness" surveys.

    The indicators he picks follow a common pattern with a steep rise in the indicator with affluence, followed by a break where the relationship breaks down and becomes essentially flat. Countries at the inflexion point (i.e. those that get high measures of "well being" for relatively low GDP) are places like Costa Rica, Chile and Cuba. "Developed" nations such as the USA, UK, Western Europe and Austalia are all on the flat section.

    Obviously this work is somewhat "wooly" (it is economics after all :-) ), but if you are interested in these sorts of issues it might be worth trying to get hold of a copy.

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  49. Thanks Phil@48.  Unfotiunately I think that yet again my communication skills are lacking. My comments to Tom Curtis and Phillip Chantreau are directed toward the witholding of the availability of contraception for women in developing countries in favour of  constraining  the effects of affluence on ecosystems.  Whatever is or isn't the  problem with affluence I feel very strongly that the proposition advanced  by Tom Curtis that  restraining the effects of affluence on the ecosystem is a more sensible  strategy than preventing the third world from playing catch up on population growth.  That this should be considerd as a more sensible strategy than giving women the opportunity to control their own fertility is both a very sad and a very telling reflection of today's society.  .     

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  50. wili @47:

    1)  I do not, and have not "equated life with DNA".  On the contrary I have addressed as two independent issues reasons by which loss of species involves loss to us and to the global ecosystem.  That I recognize them as independent issues and address them distinctly in fact shows that I do not reduce one to the other.

    I am getting rather sick of the constant misrepresentation of my stated opinions on thise page, mostly by Ryland but now by you.

    2) I agree that we as a community as a whole, and I in particular, often do not have the knowledge to know in advance if a particular loss of species will be minimally or greatly harmful, a fact I drew attention to when I wrote:

    "It should also be no comfort in that ecology is more complex even than climate so that it is often unpredictable as to the actual impact on total ecosystem viability from the loss of any given species. Therefore we should take all reasonable measures to minimize all species loss."

    This does not mean we cannot determine the average loss of ecosystem viability with the loss of an arbitrary species (although not with great accuracy, I think).  Nor does it mean we cannot determine that in general the impact of species loss will be minimal when the species is replaced by an allied species of very similar habitat and behaviour; or maximal when not replaced or replaced by an invasive species unlike any previously existing in the ecosystem.

    Difficulty in predicting the impact of the loss of a given species does not justify treating all species losses as an absolute loss (as SkepticalinCanada does).

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