Analysis | Should you not have kids because of climate change? It’s complicated. – The Washington Post

by | Dec 2, 2022 | Climate Change

Some researchers have claimed the best thing to do for the environment is to have fewer children. The truth is more complicated. Climate zeitgeist reporter December 2, 2022 at 6:00 a.m. ESTChristine Rösch for The Washington Post Comment on this storyCommentGift ArticleWhen Meera Sanghani-Jorgensen was in her 30s, she and her husband began to discuss having children. They both wanted to have kids, but Sanghani-Jorgensen couldn’t shake the feeling that, by giving birth, she might be doing something bad for the earth.“I wanted to have a child, but I was also looking at the planet and thinking: ‘Well, what kind of future will we have if there’s more of the same?’ ” she said. She thought about the diapers, the party favors, the toys, and the billions of tons of carbon emissions warming the planet every year. She felt weighed down by the consumption of her children before they were even born.AdvertisementAfter much research, Sanghani-Jorgensen and her husband decided that having a child — a single child — could fulfill their desires without putting undue burden on an overheating world. “I was very particular about only having one,” she said.Her husband died in 2012; in the years since her daughter was born, Sanghani-Jorgensen, 48, considered having a second child many times, but always held back. “My reservation has been exactly environmental concerns,” she said. Her daughter is now 13 years old.Sanghani-Jorgensen is not alone. She joins a generation of people living in the U.S. and other rich countries preoccupied with how having children may worsen the world’s rapid warming.The movement isn’t huge, but it has gained widespread attention. According to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey of childless adults, 5 percent of those who cited a specific reason for not having children said it was because of “climate change/the environment.” Thoughtful essays have been written on the topic; activist groups and support networks have been formed and then dissolved. In a letter to investors last year, Morgan Stanley analysts noted that the “movement 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of fertility decline.”Yet research on the question has a surprising history, and some of the findings may already be out of date.The same year that Sanghani-Jorgensen’s daughter was born, two scientists at Oregon State University published a paper estimating that each child born in the United States adds thousands of tons of carbon dioxide to their parents’ lifetime “carbon legacy.” Those findings were later repackaged in a 2017 literature review by two sustainability scientists, who calculated that opting out of having a child would reduce emissions by approximately 60 metric tons per year, an amount that positively dwarfed the other possible actions (living car free: 2.4 tons of emissions avoided; skipping one transatlantic flight: 1.6 tons). Their paper fueled intense media attention — to date, it has been downloaded more than 850,000 times.Advertisement“Want to save the planet? Have fewer children,” read one headline in the Guardian. “Science proves kids are bad for the Earth,” declared another in NBC News.In recent years, however, some climate experts have questioned the science underpinning such calculations. Others reject the idea that parents should feel responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions of their children.There are, no doubt, environmental consequences to having children. But the question of whether to have kids in a warming world has started to shift from fears over what children will do to the climate to fears over what the climate will do to them.Since before the Industrial Revolution, the planet has warmed nearly 1.2 degrees Celsius (or 2.1 degrees Fahrenheit), thanks to the fossil fuels that humanity has unearthed and burned, sending a heavy layer of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. At the same time, the world’s population has continued to grow. In 1960, there were 3 billion people alive, a fact that caused hand-wringing and fear of worldwide famines. Last month, the world’s population reached 8 billion. According to one demographic estimate, 7 percent of all the people who have ever lived – starting from the origins of humanity about 200,000 years ago – are still alive today.Population concerns have an unsavory history: Writers and thinkers have warned about unrestrained population growth for hundreds of years — often engaging in fringe ideas about forced sterilization and eugenics of people living in developing countries. But in the past decade or so, the worries have been more individual, personal, and rooted in Western consumption and responsibility. As of 2020, the average American had a carbon footprint — calculated by dividing the emissions of the country by its number of inhabitants — of around 14 metric tons of CO2 per year, one of the highest in the world. (The average Indian citizen has a footprint closer to 1.77 tons per year.) Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, a professor of English at Colby College who is writing a book about reproduction and climate change, interviewed many Americans concerned about having children in an age of climate change. He found that a majority of his participants were “very” or “extremely” concerned about the carbon footprint aspect of having another child. “Adding another American to the mix is not a morally neutral act,” one respondent said.“Any children we have in the developed parts of the world will be incredibly environmentally expensive,” said Travis Rieder, a bioethicist at Johns Hopkins University who has argued for a shift toward smaller families. “And they might go on to have kids who also consume more than their fair share.”AdvertisementBut the scientific data around the carbon impact of having children is relatively slim. To date, the 2009 paper by two Oregon State University scientists is the only original piece of academic research on the question. And that paper took an unusual approach. In an attempt to quantify all potential future carbon emissions of a child, the researchers assumed that a mother and father were each responsible for one- …

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