The world’s leading climate scientists have made it abundantly clear that the only way to avert catastrophic climate breakdown is to quickly decarbonize the entire global economy. But so far, world leaders aren’t making anything close to the necessary changes. To avoid subjecting any more people to a hellish future, many people are choosing not to have children, a new study found.
Though endless think pieces have been published about the impact of the climate crisis is having on people’s the desire to start families, the study, published in the journal Climactic Change earlier this month, marks the first-ever academic research into the subject. Scientists surveyed Americans aged between 27 and 45 about their thoughts on the climate crisis and how it impacted their feelings about starting families. Participants were of varied gender identities and ethnic backgrounds, and lived all over the country. Some either had children or kids on the way.
Of the 607 respondents, a staggering 96% said they had concerns about “the well-being of their existing, expected, or hypothetical children in a climate-changed world.” Overall, younger respondents were more likely to report extreme concern about the climate impacts their children would face than older ones. But across genders, there was no statistically significant difference between levels of worry.
This anxiety, the study said, was “largely due to an overwhelmingly negative expectation of the future with climate change,” which seems reasonable, considering the reams of evidence that our climate future will be bleak without major changes. For some, these concerns are so severe that it’s led them to forego becoming parents at all.
“I feel like I can’t in good conscience bring a child into this world and force them to try and survive what may be apocalyptic conditions,” one 27-year-old woman surveyed told the research team.
A smaller majority were specifically anxious about the ecological impact of having children. Nearly 60% of those surveyed reported that they were “very concerned” or “extremely concerned” about the “carbon footprint of procreation.”
I understand where these folks are coming from, and I don’t begrudge anyone for not wanting to have kids for any reason, fear of impending climate doom included. But in a different world, having kids wouldn’t increase carbon emissions at all. In fact, a recent study found that the world could sustain everyone if the wealthiest countries vastly curbed their energy use. This suggests that having babies is itself not the problem; that it’s not our fault that having a kid increases our individual global warming impact, particularly in the U.S. where the new study focused. Rather, it’s the fault of polluting industries and their allies in government. More broadly, it’s the fault of our unsustainable and globally inequitable economic systems, which are the reason that fulfilling basic needs like staying warm, eating food, and traveling are polluting activities.
Heartbreakingly, 6% of parents said they felt some level of remorse about starting families. One 40-year-old mother told the researchers, “I regret having my kids because I am terrified that they will be facing the end of the world due to climate change.” I get this uneasiness since our leaders have by and large blown off increasingly loud warnings that we need to kick fossil fuels and draw down our carbon emissions. But to this mother, I’d offer that her child could end up being an important climate organizer who takes on polluters. Of course, no single person can overturn the entire fossil-based economy, but her kid could be part of the mass movement necessary to get us there.