Climate Change and Kids: Are We Making the Right Decision?

Last September, I was driving down the freeway, listening to NPR’s Here and Now and they were interviewing a woman in her late 20s about why she is likely not going to have kids because of climate change. At the time, I was about 17 weeks pregnant with my second child and was caught a little off-guard. I consider myself an environmentalist but I had never questioned my decision to have kids. I felt a mixture of guilt, confusion, and, to be honest, a little bit of push-back against this fellow millennial’s opinion.

Were we making the wrong decision to bring children into a world that might be dangerous or uninhabitable in the coming decades? Are we bad parents for not thinking more about our children’s futures? Why do I feel like I’m being preached at to make the “right” decision?

A clear, beautiful day in LA but the port looms in the distant background

There is an active group of young people who are choosing not to have kids because of climate change. BirthStrikers, a British-based group of women refusing to have kids because of the environmental crises brought on by climate change, has been in the headlines recently for activist activities around their choices. Congresswoman Alexandria Octasio-Cortez shared the questions posed by this group on her Instagram account. Conceivable Futures provides resources and discussion groups for young men and women who have pondered this very question: is it alright for us to have kids?

Child-bearing-age millennials are very concerned about global warming. Well, not all millennials, but those that are concerned seem to be very concerned. And, when you read some of the proclamations about what a 2-, 4-, or 5-degree increase in global average temperature would have on our planet, it’s really hard not to be concerned. David Wallace-Wells does not call himself an environmentalist but his book The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming presents doomsday scenarios about what could happen to the Earth based on various climate models. 

Wallace-Wells points out that what we may perceive as a small change in temperature — say anywhere between 2 to 8 degrees — could mean the flooding of cities, loss of productive farmland, increased political instability, and the uninhabitability of large swaths of the Earth. And, to make things worse, he notes that we are basically doing nothing to stop this — more than half of the carbon emitted into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels has occurred in the last three decades (source: The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming). 

Should we take these proclamations with a grain of salt? It’s easy to say “Nah! This isn’t happening to Earth! Everything is fine and the planet’s weather will adjust to the higher temperatures.” Or, is this exactly the problem? Are we not seeing the forest for the trees? Trying to comprehend climate change is like trying to fathom the depths of the universe; while we can understand the general concept, we can’t fully grasp the devastating effects of climate change because we don’t see the direct cause and effect relationship. Sure, Syrian refugees have fled their homeland because of political instability partially resulting from food shortages, but is that really because of climate change? Wildfires have devastated parts of California and Australia but isn’t that just due to normal weather patterns?

By what year will humans really see the effects of climate change for what they are? 2025? 2050? 2100? Will Earth be so uninhabitable by 2100 that we will have no chance to reverse the damage we have done? This is what young parents and BirthStrikers are concerned about — what are we doing to our future generations? Would we want to be the generation that has to inherit a broken, unstable, and inhospitable world? Are our children going to be safe? What about their grandchildren’s children? These question have made me go back and really think more about what we have already decided and done: to have kids.

There are two main concerns about having children in the face of climate change: 1) they will grow up in a world that might be dealing with the dramatic effects of a warming climate and 2) each child (at least those born in the US) will contribute about 16 tons of carbon emissions per year. There is also the unfair relation between these two concerns: children born in developed countries will contribute more carbon emissions throughout their life but those in undeveloped countries, who produce far fewer emissions, will face more of the consequences of those emissions.

Even if we live as eco-consciously as we can — avoid air travel, drive an electric car, live off the grid, don’t eat meat — there are still more carbon emissions being generated per child than if we had no children. Also, for us, we can strive to meet some of those lifestyle choices but actually reaching them is likely not going to happen. We like to travel and believe it’s important for kids to see the world. (Plus, grandma lives halfway across the country!) We could cut down on meat consumption but it’s unlikely we would convert to a vegan or vegetarian diet. 

It’s hard to come up with a sound argument for having kids in the face of climate change without sounding selfish. We just want to have kids because that’s how we envisioned our family. We want to experience the world with them — go to museums and watch them learn, dive into another world when we read Harry Potter or watch Star Wars with them for the first time, go to a baseball game to cheer on the Angels, see them grow into young adults with their own interests and personalities. Life, with kids, just seemed right to us. (Although, there are those days when I’m exhausted at 3:30 PM, have to make dinner, and have a needy toddler climbing up my legs and demanding M&M’s when I think what the hell have I gotten myself into?) 

So, my primary argument for choosing to have kids is this: we need to have people in the future that know how important it is to respect the Earth and will be able to make decisions that promote change. We will bring our kids up to be as environmentally aware as we can, teach them how to tread lightly, and help them understand how their actions can affect the rest of the world.

Secondly, when you think about it, we should not have to make this choice when the real problem is a result of the way we create energy. If we didn’t burn fossil fuels, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. If we hadn’t become so comfortable with our lavish lifestyles, it wouldn’t be so hard to cut back on consumption in general. The fight is political as much as it is social and environmental. Some may argue that the political fight to put officials in office that support legislation to halt climate change is the most important fight. If we had more lawmakers implementing clean energy regulations — and the support from the energy sector — we could at least be headed in the right direction. 

In 20 years, I will likely be reflecting back on our choice to have kids but I don’t know if it will be with gratitude or regret. I can’t imagine regretting the little charming, funny, and, sometimes, very smelly, people we brought into this world but I can imagine regretting the world that we are giving them and wishing I had done more to prevent it from happening.

Doomsday scenarios have started running through my head at night and throughout the day. We will need the right people around to fight for a better planet and I can only hope that some of those babies are being born today.

Are you a millennial debating whether or not you want to have kids? Did you already make a decision to regret? Are you from an older generation that faced a similar “doomsday scenario” that prevented you from having kids (e.g., the Cold War)? Please share your opinions on this topic — I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Published by Leah Abbey

I write about nature, parenting, and fiction from my home in the San Diego area. I try to keep this blog updated at least weekly. If you haven't heard from me in a while, it's probably because I've been working on my novel. (Or, just trying to stay sane while my three-year-old runs over his baby sister with a toy school bus.)

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