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We need to talk about the ethics of having children in a warming world

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, nonprofits, and ethicists are now publicly addressing questions about procreation in the age of climate change.

Some young families are seriously wondering whether it is ethical to have children under climate change.
Some young families are seriously wondering whether it is ethical to have children in a world impacted by climate change.
Ekaterina Simonova/Shutterstock
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

In a recent Instagram live stream from her kitchen, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) raised a taboo dimension of climate change few politicians would dare to touch.

“Basically, there’s a scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult. And it does lead, I think, young people to have a legitimate question: Is it okay to still have children?” she said.

The criticism from conservatives that followed was predictably swift and hollow. Fox News’s Steve Hilton called it “fascistic” and a “no-child policy.”

But Ocasio-Cortez was voicing a genuine concern of many young prospective parents today who can plainly see that climate change is already here and its worst effects are still to come. These anxieties are beginning to appear in pop culture — they were a major theme in the 2018 film First Reformed.

Business Insider conducted an online poll this month that found that 38 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 agreed that climate change should be a consideration in the decision to have children. For Americans between the ages of 30 and 44, 34 percent said climate change should be a factor in having children.

As we’ve learned from climate scientists in several recent bracing reports, a child born today will be living on a planet that’s likely to be dramatically warmer by the end of the century. We’ve already experienced 1 degree Celsius of average warming since preindustrial times, and we’re currently on track to reach as much as 4 degrees by 2100.

One degree of warming has already delivered rising sea levels, deadly heat waves, wetter hurricanes, droughts, costlier disasters, bigger wildfires, and more illnesses, to name a few impacts, and these effects are only going to compound. So clearly, young people have good reason to be worried, not just for themselves but for their future families.

Many also feel angry that decades of political intransigence on climate change has forced them to make such a calculation at all. “The fact that our generation has to ask these questions is politically forceful and massively fucked up,” said Meghan Kallman, a co-founder of Conceivable Future, a group that frames climate change as an issue of reproductive justice.

The discussion of whether to have children on environmental grounds quickly leads to some important fundamental questions, like what parents owe their children: Are the resources of this planet something we rightfully inherited from our ancestors, or are clean air, safe water, and a stable climate things we are borrowing from our grandchildren?

However, the conversation can also raise controversial ideas like anti-natalism, the philosophy that each birth has a negative value to society. And the idea of limiting births has historically been informed by pseudoscience and leadened with racism and classism, often brought up by the powerful as a way to limit less desirable peoples.

So for families navigating their impact on the world, it’s all the more critical to make a decision about birth that weighs philosophical, ethical, religious, and environmental concerns properly to avoid these pitfalls.

Fortunately, there’s a growing discussion about the ethics of having children, with some groups trying to help parents grapple with their concerns without pushing them in one direction or another. Instead, their goal is to encourage political action. We’re in a make-or-break era of climate change, where our current actions or lack thereof will lock us into a certain outcome. A clear vision of the stakes for our own progeny is a powerful motivator to act aggressively to limit emissions, regardless of our own verdicts on having children.

Among people who have already given this much thought, here are some of their key concerns.

The decision to have children is deeply personal, but some are now addressing it publicly

Kallman and her Conceivable Future co-founder Josephine Ferorelli have collected testimonies from people concerned about balancing their desires to build a family with their concerns for the planet. It’s a way to have a public conversation about the rational and irrational worries of having children. “The nice thing about a testimony is that it’s your own truth,” Kallman said. “It’s a very, very public way to be vulnerable.”

From the more than 70 testimonies collected so far, it’s clear that everyone has unique circumstances. But there are some common elements. Ferorelli said that most of the anxieties fell along a spectrum between two poles: the worry that a child will inherit a world that is much worse than the one at present, and the worry that the child will make the problem of climate change worse.

But several other questions cropped up:

  • Is climate the most important factor to consider when having a child? “Everything is stacked against this generation’s ability to have a balanced, wholesome life with a child,” said Ferorelli. In many cities, the cost of living is rising, as well as the expenses associated with child care, health, and education. Many people also have tenuous job security. So even if someone were to resolve their climate anxieties, all these other issues would remain.
  • How much time do I have to make a decision? Scientists warned last year that if the goal is to limited warming to just 1.5 degrees Celsius this century, the world would have to cut its carbon emissions in half in as little as 12 years. However, prospective parents have a limited fertility window, so they can’t simply wait and see if the world gets its act together.
  • Am I doing this for myself or someone else? Figuring out who ultimately is supposed to benefit from your decision — yourself, your progeny, society writ large — is crucial to coming up with an answer. Kallman said she has even encountered people who have decided not to have children with the belief that they are freeing up resources for people who do have children. “It is generous to the extreme,” she said.
  • What could reassure me that I’ve made the right decision? There’s no formula or calculation that can point to a right answer. But there are prospective parents who do want a balancing test. Some are keeping an eye on climate policies to see what gets enacted.
  • What kinds of signals would I be sending? “We’ve encountered this assumption that if you don’t have a child, you’re a nihilist,” Ferorelli said. “You can’t assume just because someone is having a baby that they’re an optimist.”
  • How did others make up their minds? There are people who have already decided not to have children for the sake of the climate. There’s a BirthStrike Facebook group. Families who have decided not to have children because of climate change have come to that conclusion from different angles.

Ferorelli and Kallman note that while the anxieties around having children as the planet warms are intimate, the problem actually stems from political decisions that lead us to continue emitting heat-trapping gases. “We’re not going to fix climate change by pressuring people to have more or fewer children,” Kallman said. “We’re going to fix climate change by going off fossil fuels.”

And framing climate change simply as a problem of population is in itself unjust, they argue. In their FAQ section on their website, Ferorelli and Kallman explain:

Population corresponds to climate harm only to the degree that individuals consume resources and emit carbon. No one emits more per capita than the United States. If everyone on earth consumed the way middle-class and wealthy Americans consume, we would need an additional 4.5-6 earths worth of resources to sustain ourselves. Therefore we condemn the use of this topic to scapegoat the poor, or another country’s citizens.

So their goal isn’t to push people to make a decision one way or the other, but to address why they feel pressured by climate change in the first place. “Our current function is driving the conversation,” Kallman said.

The questions are more important than the answers

Travis Rieder, a research scholar at the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins University who studies the ethics of having children, points out that this is not the first time a generation has questioned childbearing in the face of a potential existential threat. During the Cold War, people were asking the same questions under fear of nuclear annihilation.

And writing at Medium, Mary Annaïse Heglar with the Natural Resources Defense Council observed that black people in the United States have long had to weigh the ethics of having children as racism has persisted for generations:

Imagine living under a calculated, meticulous system dedicated to and dependent on your oppression and being surrounded by that system’s hysterical, brainwashed guardians. Now imagine your children growing up under that system, watching your daughter and the “ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky,” as Martin Luther King Jr. described.

The threat of nuclear war and violence from racism still hasn’t gone away. Those concerns remain valid. But now climate change is on the table too.

While there isn’t a “right” answer, Rieder said it might be helpful for parents to ask themselves one particular question to clarify their thinking: Is it one of your central goals in life to procreate?

“If the answer is ‘no’, that can really tell you a lot about how justifiable it is to have lots of kids or even have a kid at all or adopt an older kid,” Rieder said. “There’s this whole group of people who actually aren’t that passionate about it, but they’re going to do it because isn’t that what you do when you get married and you get close to 30 and your parents start asking about grandbabies?”

On the other hand, having a child who could see the planet warm several more degrees during their lifetime could be an incentive to fight climate change aggressively right now.

As David Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth, wrote recently for New York magazine, “I now know there are climate horrors to come, some of which will inevitably be visited on my kids — that is what it means for warming to be an all-encompassing, all-touching threat. But I also know that those horrors are not yet scripted. We are staging them by inaction, and by action, can stop them.”

So it’s a topic worth thinking about with clear eyes, regardless of whether you decide to pass on half of your genes.

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