As a science journalist and editor, I spend most of my days thinking about climate change—our rapidly heating planet, a melting Arctic, species loss, political inaction, and public apathy. In the evenings I go home and take care of my daughter, who is two.
So when a new study came out today suggesting that having fewer kids is the most effective way to reduce our carbon emissions—sparking media headlines like "Want to fight climate change? Have fewer children" in The Guardian—I had to stop what I was doing and read it. It notes that a US family choosing to have one fewer child would be responsible for the same level of emissions reductions as 684 teens who "adopt comprehensive recycling" for the rest of their lives.
With the global population projected to reach 11.2 billion by the year 2100, up from 7.6 billion today, there are urgent questions about how we'll feed, clothe, house, and provide medical care for so many people in the face of climate change and its accompanying threats, including sea level rise, ocean acidification, and desertification.
And, while the new paper doesn't go so far, I've heard it suggested before that having kids is environmentally unconscionable—that parents are selfish to bring more people onto an already overcrowded planet, to gobble up more of our resources. This study predictably re-ignited a long-simmering debate.
Setting aside the question of what sort of a planet young children will actually inherit—a question that plagues me every day—I had to come back to all of this and worry over it again, like an old hangnail. Certainly, as Broadly has pointed out, some people are opting not to have children at all because the future is looking so grim. So if I'm legitimately concerned about climate change, and I am, is it irresponsible for me to have kids?
The empowerment of women, access to birth control, and female education are inextricably tied to climate change
To start with, it's important to look at what the new paper, published in Environmental Research Letters, actually finds—not that we should all stop procreating entirely, but that "having one fewer child" has the greatest potential to reduce an individual's annual carbon emissions (in developed countries, an average of 58.6 tonnes CO2-equivalent reduction per year), alongside living car-free, avoiding long flights, and being vegetarian, although these last three didn't produce nearly the same bang-for-your-buck as the first option.
How many resources a baby consumes has to do with where and how she (and her family) lives. In Western countries, where individuals tend to have a larger carbon footprint, the fertility rate is already falling quite a bit. We are having fewer children.
In the US in 2016, the birth rate was the lowest on record, with 62 births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44, down one percent from the year before. Canada's seen a similar trend, as have European countries, and Australia. (I mention these places here because the researchers' paper specifically cites them.)
Countries that do have rising birthrates are mostly in the developing world. There, women can often benefit from better access to healthcare and education, which is why admonishments to "have fewer children" can't exist alongside threats to take money away from women's healthcare or to restrict access to abortion. The empowerment of women, access to birth control (including abortion), and female education are inextricably tied to climate change, and will play a huge part in how we deal with it in the years to come.
Donald Trump caught a lot of flak for leaving the Paris Agreement, but his Executive Order banning international NGOs from even offering information on abortion services if they want to keep getting funding from the US—well, that's a climate issue, too.
To me, an important point in this new paper is the finding that "incremental behavioural changes"—stuff that's easy to do, like recycling—don't necessarily make a huge difference in reducing carbon emissions overall. Not to say you shouldn't recycle. You should. But climate change is a political problem, one that will require large-scale political solutions.
I don't think that "have fewer children" is bad advice, necessarily, even though I do object to how quickly oversimplified peoples' choices can become. Better access to healthcare, education, and birth control are about giving women a choice, and should be seen as part of the climate fight.
On a personal note, having a kid is what gives me hope for the future, even when environmental catastrophe is keeping me up at night—that it has to work out, because she's here.
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