Over the past few years, I’ve been asked one question more than any other. It comes up at speeches, at dinners, in conversation. It’s the most popular query when I open my podcast to suggestions, time and again. It comes in two forms. The first: Should I have kids, given the climate crisis they will face? The second: Should I have kids, knowing they will contribute to the climate crisis the world faces?
And it’s not just me. A 2020 Morning Consult poll found that a quarter of adults without children say climate change is part of the reason they didn’t have children. A Morgan Stanley analysis found that the decision “to not have children owing to fears over climate change is growing and impacting fertility rates quicker than any preceding trend in the field of fertility decline.”
But one thing I’ve noticed, after years of reporting on climate change: The people who have devoted their lives to combating climate change keep having children. I hear them playing in the background of our calls. I see them when we Zoom. And so I began asking them why.
“I unequivocally reject, scientifically and personally, the notion that children are somehow doomed to an unhappy life,” Kate Marvel, a climate scientist at Columbia, told me.
To bring a child into this world has always been an act of hope. The past was its own parade of horrors. The best estimates we have suggest that across most of human history, 27 percent of infants didn’t survive their first year and 47 percent of people died before puberty. And life was hard, even if you were lucky enough to live it.
As Dylan Matthews writes at Vox:
No mainstream climate models suggest a return to a world as bad as the one we had in 1950, to say nothing of 1150. Was the world so bad, for virtually the entirety of human history, that our ancestors shouldn’t have made our lives possible? If not, then nothing in our near future looks so horrible that it turns reproduction into an immoral act.
I worry, writing this, that it will be taken as a dismissal of the suffering climate change will unleash. It’s not. An appreciation of how bad our past was should deepen our fury at how recklessly our future is being treated. We have done so much to build a sea wall between us and the pitiless world. We have done so much to make the future better than the past. To give back any portion of those gains or even to prevent the progress we could otherwise see is worse than a tragedy. It is a crime.
But that, and not apocalypse, is the most likely path we’re on. This, strange as it is to say, is progress. As Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist, notes, many credible estimates from a decade ago put us on track for the average global temperature to increase 4 or even 5 degrees Celsius from preindustrial levels by 2100. That would be cataclysmic. But the falling cost of clean energy and the rising ambition of climate policy has changed that. The Climate Action tracker puts our current policy path at about 2.7 degrees of warming by 2100. If the commitments world governments have made since the Paris climate accord hold, we’re on track for a rise of 2 degrees or even less.
And there is still more reason for optimism. One of the truly thrilling papers I’ve read in recent years carried the plodding title “Empirically Grounded Technology Forecasts and the Energy Transition.” The authors looked at more than 2,900 forecasts for how fast the cost of installing solar power would fall from 2010 to 2020. The average prediction was 2.6 percent annually. No prediction was above 6 percent. But solar power costs actually fell by 15 percent per year. Other technologies have seen similar drops in costs. If these curves hold in the future — and they could well steepen if backed by better policy — then we are, even now, underestimating the possible path of progress.
But hope is not a plan. And no one should mistake 2.5 degrees of warming — or even 2 degrees — for success. We will have caused incalculable damage to ecosystems. We will have worsened droughts, floods, famines, heat waves. We will have bleached coral reefs, acidified the ocean, driven countless animal species to extinction. Millions, maybe tens of millions, of people will die from increased heat, and more will be killed by the indirect consequences of climate change. Far more yet will be forced to flee their homes or live lives of deep poverty or suffering. We will have stolen the full possibility of their flourishing from them.
All of that, though, also describes the world we inhabit, not just the world we’re creating. Climate models force us to confront vast expanses of future suffering that, if they were ongoing around us, we might fail to see. As my colleague David Wallace-Wells — a father of two and the author of “The Uninhabitable Earth,” as well as a must-read newsletter — wrote to me, “What looks like apocalypse in prospect often feels more like grim normality when it arrives in the present.” Oof.
This is no mere abstraction or prediction. The evidence that we ignore mass suffering is all around us. We are ignoring it right now, just as we did yesterday, and just as we will tomorrow. “An estimated 20 million people died of Covid, and now we’re over it. What do we make of that?” Wallace-Wells wrote to me. “Ten million people a year are dying of air pollution. What do we make of that? And what does it tell us about climate change, which is quite unlikely (as I wrote in my big piece on pollution) to ever kill as many as now die from particulates?”
This reflects a facet of our climate future that conversations about the life prospects of well-off children in the United States obscure. It is true that climate change will affect both the rich and the poor. It is not true that it will affect them equally. Wealthy Californians breathing in wildfire smoke are not facing the suffering of poor Bangladeshis whose homes lie in the path of cyclones.
Even a world with 2 degrees of warming is a world in which we will have looted the future of billions of people to power a present we preferred. And not “we” as in all human beings. “We” as in the rich countries that are responsible for the vast majority of the greenhouse gases trapped in our atmosphere. (It is true that China has recently become the largest emitter, but we dwarf the Chinese cumulatively and continue to emit far more per person.)
“The people who are least responsible for climate change are the most affected by it,” Marvel told me. “I’m struggling to find appropriate academic language to describe this, but I just keep ending up at ‘That’s wrong.’ It’s simply morally wrong.”
Climate change is and will be an engine of global inequality. Richer people and countries will buy their way out of the worst consequences, often using wealth accumulated by burning fossil fuels. The fear about the future our children will face, when voiced by well-off residents of wealthy countries, sometimes strikes me as a transference of guilt into terror. To face what we’ve done to others is unimaginable. It is easier, somehow, to imagine we have done it to ourselves.
That gets to the second version of this question: Is it immoral to have children, knowing how much carbon emissions residents of rich countries are responsible for? This argument recasts not having children as a form of climate reparations. People in rich countries use more resources than people in poor countries. Fewer people means less resource use.
Fredric Jameson, the Marxist literary critic, is often credited with the observation that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. A similar limit to our political imaginations lurks in this conversation: It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of carbon pollution. “Almost all pollution is fixed by the structure of society,” Leah Stokes, a political scientist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, told me. “The goal is to undo that structure so children can be born into a society that is not putting out carbon pollution. That’s the project.”
And it is a doable one. Per capita carbon emissions in the United States fell from more than 22.2 tons in 1973 to 14.2 tons in 2020. And it can fall much farther. Germans emitted 7.7 tons of carbon per person in 2020. Swedes emitted 3.8 tons. “In a net-zero world, nobody has a carbon footprint, and we could stop tabulating guilt by counting babies,” Wallace-Wells told me.
To decarbonize society is to embrace a better world, for reasons far beyond climate change. “The immediate benefits of climate mitigation actions are spectacular: better air quality, better health outcomes, reduced inequality,” Marvel wrote to me. “I want these things. I also want reforestation and peat bogs and coastal restoration and rewilding. I’m excited about (but not counting on) awesome new tech like cheap carbon removal and nuclear fusion. I’m more excited about boring but effective tech like heat pumps and transmission lines.”
This is a vision of more, not less. Electric cars are quicker to accelerate. A well-insulated home is warmer. Induction stoves don’t fill your home with particulates that are linked to asthma in children and reduced cognitive performance in adults. The wind doesn’t stop blowing because an autocrat has a tantrum; harnessing the solar radiation that bathes our world doesn’t leave us in hock to the House of Saud.
I don’t just prefer a world of net-zero emissions to a world of net-zero children. I think those worlds are in conflict. We face a political problem of politics, not a physics problem. The green future has to be a welcoming one, even a thrilling one. If people cannot see themselves in it, they will fight to stop it. If the cost of caring about climate is to forgo having a family, that cost will be too high. A climate movement that embraces sacrifice as its answer or even as its temperament might do more harm than good. It may accidentally sacrifice the political appeal needed to make the net-zero emissions world real.
Worse, it sees young people as passive consumers rather than agents of change. But over the past decade, rising generations have transformed climate politics. Much of the progress we’ve seen comes from their relentless advocacy and energy. The world they will inhabit is changing because they are changing the world.
“Imagine Greta Thunberg,” Stokes said. “Her mother was an opera singer. Then she decided to have children. And it turned out one of the children she had became this amazing climate advocate who, hopefully, will have this huge effect on pollution. Should she not have had her child because some model said kids are bad for the planet? At some point we’re asking whether we believe in the continuation of society and the possibility of young people to be an engine for change.”
My children will live a story that I cannot write and cannot control. It will be their story. To become a parent is to feel, every day, the weight and hope and terror of that fact. I can’t tell you whether it’s the right choice for you, but no climate model can, either.
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