Family planning meets environmentalism

Let’s stop torturing ourselves and demand real change

Asking “should we stop having kids because of climate change?” has proved effective for generating sensationalist headlines and finger-pointing orgies. Recent public discussion about climate and reproduction has focused on what people “should” do.

But for us, that’s an impossible question. When you presume a correct answer, the conversation is already over: individuals and our children bear the blame, rather than our carbon-bloated economy and complicit government. We are backed into a corner. If we consent to give a “right” answer to this question, then we’ve consented to stay in the corner, not challenge the forces that put us there.

Watching climate consequences roll in while our leaders conduct business as usual has created a painfully disjointed experience for those of childbearing age. We worry both about how many greenhouse gases our potential children will emit (how much they’ll harm the world), and what type of world those children would encounter (how much a hotter, more violent world would harm them). These concerns challenge the very foundations of family planning.

To us, it’s the fact of the question that matters. That people are fearful for their children tells us that something is broken, and needs fixing. That people are afraid to have children at all tells us to sound the alarm.

Whether or not to have kids matters deeply for people making that decision. But as a political matter, the focus on the outcomes of those individual struggles (as exemplified in news stories that profile a couple’s decision not to have children because of climate worries, or another’s decision to have several) seem designed to fit with the same logic that causes climate change in the first place.

Implying that there is a “correct” answer puts the burden on individual people (let’s be real, mostly women) to find a way to cope, and avoids naming system-level problems. Then we also avoid responsibility for making systemic change. This approach makes climate solutions an individual responsibility to be enacted in individual families, and tells us the best response is resignation, not mobilization.

There is no correct answer to a question that people should never have to ask. The only way forward is to demand the biggest systemic changes we can imagine from the institutions that would pose us these impossible questions. And privately our generation must live with imperfect answers and terrifying uncertainty as we nurture our desire for a future.

Meghan Kallman and Josephine Ferorelli are founders of Conceivable Future, a women-led network bringing awareness to the threat climate change poses to reproductive justice, and demanding an end to US fossil fuel subsidies.

Green as you may be, each kid is a carbon hog

Climate change should be a factor in any reasonable person’s decision about whether to have kids by creating them (rather than adopting them). Regrettably, if you live in the United States of America, the impending climate crisis weighs heavily against creating multiple children, and it weighs significantly against creating even one child.

First, creating a child is likely the most carbon-intensive thing you can do in your lifetime. As Paul Murtaugh and Michael Schlax showed in their famous study, creating a child adds roughly 9,441 metric tons of carbon dioxide to your lifetime carbon footprint, multiplying your lifetime emissions nearly sixfold. A green lifestyle might reduce these climate-related emissions somewhat, but it remains a fact that climate change is a direct function of total greenhouse gas emissions, which in turn is a direct function of the number of greenhouse gas emitters (i.e., people). Unless your child goes on to invent some silver-bullet technology for solving the climate crisis, his or her existence is going to make that crisis worse.

Second, refraining from creating children will help to mitigate the harmful effects of climate change. Even if humanity stopped emitting greenhouse gases today, there would still be major disruption of global weather patterns. These disruptions will destabilize the ecologies and economies of developing nations, resulting in hundreds of millions of climate refugees. Developed nations with lower fertility rates will have strong incentive to accept more of these refugees, as lower domestic fertility leads to greater demand for immigrant labor. In essence, the fewer children there are in places like the U.S. over the next few decades, the more room there will be for people seeking refuge from the ravages of climate change.

For decades our leaders have failed to make the hard choices needed to prevent the impending climate crisis, and now those hard choices fall on all of us. Hard as it may be, the choice not to create children (and especially not to create multiple children) is one of the most powerful choices you can make to mitigate the suffering climate change will cause.

Jake Earl earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Georgetown University in 2017