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Climate Change and Childbirth

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On at least a couple of occasions here, I’ve noted that students of mine have expressed that they don’t want to have children because they don’t think that a world this impacted by climate change is worth bringing life into. This led to a lot of derision among commenters, somewhat to my surprise. I don’t know if people aren’t talking to college-aged kids or what. But there is more research being done on this issue and I wanted to link to this recent Post article on people making this choice.

But the other side of the equation — the worry about what kind of future today’s children will experience — is more difficult to untangle. The irony is that even as the footprint of a child born in the developed world is decreasing, the impacts of climate change that child will experience are increasing – and in some cases much faster than scientists had expected. All across the world are already facing days filled with choking wildfire smoke, catastrophic floods, and dangerous heat waves. A child born today will likely still be alive in 2100, at which point warming could have doubled.

Camila Thorndike, a 35-year-old who lives in Washington, D.C. and is the director of policy programs at the nonprofit climate group Rewiring America, first started thinking about climate change and having children when she was in eighth grade. She says that much of her hesitation now to have a child is rooted in fear over what their future will look like. “It’s coming partly from a place of love for my hypothetical child,” she said. “I want to protect them from suffering. Not that life is ever free from suffering, but … what of the joys and peace and goodness that make me happiest to be alive will be accessible in 20, 30, 40 years?”

Other women have ended relationships over this question. Laurel, a 33-year-old from Wisconsin who asked to be identified only by her first name, divorced her first husband partly because he wanted to have children and she, worried abouta climate-changed future, didn’t want to. “With the uncertainty of the world right now – it doesn’t feel safe,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to subject my children to that.” She is now remarried to a man who also wants to stay child-free.

Such concerns have no easy answer. Many people, perhaps, would choose not to have children if they knew with certainty that extinction-level warming were right around the corner. On the flip side, more people might choose to have children if they knew with certainty that countries would rally to end greenhouse gas emissions and create a more sustainable society. The in-between is where it gets difficult. Should you still have kids if they will grow up with smoke-filled summers and steadily rising sea-levels? Should you have kids if the developed, Western world will suffer minimal losses but developing countries will suffer hugely?

Hausfather, the climate scientist, argues that climate is more of a threat multiplier — something that will make political and economic upheaval much more likely. “It’s up to us to decide if it’s going to be an apocalyptic hellscape,” he said. “And it depends on a lot of factors beyond just climate change.”Thorndike, who has gone back and forth for many years about whether or not to have children, says that she now has a lot of humility about the decision. “My perspective has changed so many times over the last 20 years,” she said. “It’s a decision that no one can make for another person. And I allow myself the space for that uncertainty.”

Obviously others disagree. But this is very much a thing. Me, I can’t justify bringing children into this world. On the other hand, I don’t want to do that anyway because I don’t want to be a parent. But even if I did, I don’t want to enact on descendants the coming suffering.

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