What does family planning look like in a warming world?

The answer will depend as much on climate anxiety as carbon emissions.

April 26, 2024

In recent years, climate change has thrown a wrench into the intensely personal decision of whether or when to have children.

A 2020 survey found that 78% of Gen Zers in the US weren’t planning to have children because of climate change. Some fear bringing kids into a world that will see increasingly severe effects from global warming, others fret at the carbon footprint of a new human—by one estimate the equivalent of over five thousand trans-Atlantic flights.

“Basically, there’s a scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult,” said Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2019. “And it does lead young people to have a legitimate question: Is it okay to still have children?”

For others, fertility seems to be one of the least of humanity’s problems, as decades-long efforts to improve access to contraceptives and abortion, and tackle child mortality, deliver positive socioeconomic and demographic outcomes. For much of the world, there has never been a better time to have a child.

On a warming planet, our personal and collective futures come together in some unexpected ways. Here we explore some of the latest thinking, emotions, and data.


• • •

The Anxiety Is Real


1. As temperatures rise, enthusiasm for families fall. Jade Sasser, an associate professor at the University of California Riverside, conducted a survey of 2,500 Millennials and Gen Zers for her book Climate Anxiety and the Kid Question, published this month. “Having and raising children symbolizes futures where we can feel good about parenting children, giving them a good life, and leaving some sort of legacy,” she writes. “For many people of reproductive age, that hope is being threatened by climate change.” A large meta-study of 13 studies with over 11,000 people (mostly from the global north) found that 12 of them had solid evidence linking greater climate concern with intentions to have fewer children or none at all.

2. More empty daycares. When the economy slows, fertility often dips as people postpone having children for a short time. But in the years following the 2008 Great Recession, births in the US never rebounded, found the Pew Charitable Trust. Western states have been most affected, with dropping school enrollment and looming tax shortfalls in decades to come. Many other developed nations like Canada, the UK, France, Germany, Australia, and even China are also seeing historically low birth rates.

Trends in US birth rates

Source:Kearney, MS et al. 2022, Journal of Economic Perspectives

3. No climate baby boom. A 2022 study by economists at the University of Maryland and Wellesley College concluded that even with a strong economy, there was no sign of the US fertility slump reversing. The researchers could only attribute it to “broad societal changes that are hard to measure or quantify.” In 2021, the New York Times carried a report about the growing “anti-natalism” movement arising from people’s fears and anxieties about climate change.


• • •

But Not Having Children Won’t Solve the Climate Crisis


1. The next generation (and its carbon footprint) is already shrinking. This excellent summary page at Our World in Data shows a continual decline in birthrates due to the growing empowerment of women, and declining rates of child mortality and child labor in developing nations. These are the same advances that slowly lowered fertility rates in countries like the US and UK in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but on a much faster timescale. In comparison, family planning and climate anxiety are barely a blip.

2. The carbon clock. The climate impact of individual fertility choices will play out over hundreds of years, but tackling climate change requires immediate action. The nonprofit Founders Pledge calculates that donating $1000 today to specific climate charities that are sequestering carbon is far more effective in terms of the climate than any lifestyle choice—including having one fewer child. This is because, the nonprofit says, many developed nations are legally obliged to reach net zero by 2050, so any child’s carbon footprint will end there. Even if that goal is missed by 30 years, donations today will have more of an effect than not procreating, they calculate. But that still assumes that the climate charities they pick out will actually deliver on their carbon removal promises—which is far from certain in the tricky business of climate tech.

 donating $1000 today to specific climate charities that are sequestering carbon is far more effective in terms of the climate than any lifestyle choice

3. Climate isn’t the first existential threat we’ve faced.Britt Wray’s thoughtful documentary for CBC points out that “marginalized communities, especially Indigenous and Black communities, have had to organize for centuries to change the systems in which they live for the protection of their children.” People have continued to raise families under the specter of nuclear war and genocide. “Rather than turn away from bringing babies into the world, many work to change the world so that their babies can more easily live within it,” she writes.

change the world so that babies can more easily live within it

• • •

What To Keep An Eye On


1. When the personal meets the political. Activism on such an emotional topic doesn’t always play out as intended. This social history of the BirthStrike for Climate group, which launched in 2019 and disbanded in 2021, makes forfascinating, and at times quite moving, reading. Despite never advocating for population control, the group found its message misunderstood and misinterpreted. “Raising the alarm can be galvanizing for some, but paralyzing for others,” wrote two British sociologists who chronicled the movement’s rise and fall.

2. The world is growing up, and that’s not bad. In his book Decline and Prosper, Norwegian economist Vegard Skirbekk suggests we embrace a low birthrate world. “Low fertility and shrinking population size can reduce overcrowding and resource use, and make it more feasible to meet climate targets and reduce pollution,” he wrote in this insightful piece for Wired in 2022. Although many countries will have aging populations, seniors are healthier than ever, and there are plenty of youngsters from nations still growing rapidly to keep the engines of society ticking over.

3. Worrying returns to old ideas. Previous attempts to interfere with families’ fertility choices have been disastrous. Eugenicists and racists attempted to use birth control in the US for social engineering, while forced sterilizations plagued many countries. China’s one-child policy probably set back its progress by decades. Nor have attempts to stimulate fertility been any more impressive. When the French government thought its neighbor Germany was out-breeding it in the early 20th century, it restricted abortion and contraception and gave medals to mothers of large families, Matt Reynolds wrote for Wired. Nothing shifted the birth rate until France’s post-war economic boom.

Top image ©Anthropocene Magazine
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