Is fear of climate change making some Americans decide against having children? Study says it may be possible
96.5% of survey respondents are 'extremely concerned' about the well-being of their existing or hypothetical children in a climate-changing world
Are Americans factoring climate change into their reproductive plans and choices? This may be the case, according to researchers, who found that fears regarding the “apocalyptic conditions” as a result of climate change are leading some people in the US to decide against having children.
In the survey of 607 Americans between the ages of 27 and 45, 96.5% of respondents were ‘very’ or “extremely concerned” about the well-being of their existing, expected, or hypothetical children in a climate-changed world. This was largely due to an overwhelmingly negative expectation of the future with climate change. Younger respondents were more concerned about the climate impacts their children would experience than older respondents. The authors found no statistically significant differences between the responses of women and men, reveals the study published in the journal Climatic Change.
The comments demonstrated a deep concern, anxiety, and even anguish about the climate impacts that participants expected children to experience in the course of their lifetimes. “I feel like I can’t in good conscience bring a child into this world and force them to try and survive what may be apocalyptic conditions,” an undecided 27-year-old project manager in Michigan told the team, which was led by an expert from Yale-NUS College, Singapore.
A 31-year-old writer in Washington emphasized that “climate change is the sole factor for me in deciding not to have biological children.” “I don’t want to birth children into a dying world. I dearly want to be a mother, but climate change is accelerating so quickly, and creating such horror already, that bringing a child into this mess is something I can’t do,” she added.
Parental anxiety about how their children will fare in a climate-changed future was so strong that 6.3% of parents confessed to feeling some regret about having children due to a sense of hopelessness and despair about climate change. For example, a 40-year-old teacher and mother in Minnesota wrote, “I regret having my kids because I am terrified that they will be facing the end of the world due to climate change.”
A 38-year-old editor and mother in Florida described a similar emotion: “I was first committed not to bring any children into this doomed world, but then I met my husband and fell in love and I wanted them. They have brought me so much joy, but I feel so guilty about it. I don’t want them to have to suffer through the future humans have created for them. I worry about them being caught up in natural disasters (we live in Florida, so hurricanes have been a concern). I worry about them dealing with the massive unrest that will result from loss of natural resources and climate migration,” she explained.
The quantitative and qualitative survey contained 16 open-ended questions and between 24 and 31 multiple-choice questions, depending on the responses. The open-ended questions focused on respondents’ emotions about climate change; their personal and political actions in response to climate change; their anxieties, fears, and hopes about having children in the age of climate change; the conversations they have with others about this subject; and their vision of and concerns about the future. The multiple-choice questions were standard demographic questions and questions about how respondents feel about climate change, which actions they prioritize, and which actions they take.
“This research confirms that some climate-concerned young people are now factoring climate change into what many people consider to be the most intimate and consequential decision an adult makes in their life course — the decision about whether to conceive and raise children and how many. In this sample, concerns about the climate impacts that children will experience were stronger and more charged than concerns about the carbon footprint of procreation,” write authors.
The survey questions were designed in consultation with the organization Conceivable Future, which has been organizing dialogs with Americans who are concerned about their reproductive choices in relation to climate change for the last half-decade.
What else did the researchers find?
About 59.8% of respondents reported being ‘very’ or “extremely concerned” about the carbon footprint of procreation. A 32-year old consultant in Ohio stressed, “I cannot produce another person that will continue to destroy the planet, as they will inherit my first-world lifestyle. I also cannot live with the feeling of responsibility that I made a decision to have a child for my own pleasure while destroying exactly what I’m fighting to save.”
Many parents and respondents who were planning to have children noted that their concerns about the carbon footprint of procreation had led them to have, or plan to have, a smaller family. For example, a 38-year old teacher and mother in Minnesota said, “I really didn’t think a lot about the carbon footprint of having another child, until I read something saying that the best thing you can do to reduce your carbon footprint is not reproduce. Thinking about that has influenced my decision not to have a third child.”
On the other hand, some respondents also argued that viewing climate change through the lens of individual choice was a problematic, ‘neoliberal,’ and ineffective framing of a collective problem. As a pregnant 36-year old doctoral candidate in New York put it, “I feel frustrated with the idea that I should not have children because of their lifetime carbon footprint. That puts an emphasis on individual sacrifice and responsibility that is not reflective of the actual causes (and possible solutions) for the problems we face with the climate — these are largescale, systemic problems.”
Many respondents voiced both perspectives and described struggling as they decided which one to prioritize. But unlike carbon footprint concerns, concerns about the climate impacts that children will or would experience were based on expectations, hopes, and fears about the future. According to the team, 61.5% of respondents were more concerned about climate impacts their existing, expected, or hypothetical children will or would experience than the carbon footprint of procreation; 37.7% of respondents were equally concerned, and only 0.8% were more concerned about the carbon footprint of procreation.
“Although respondents’ concerns about the carbon footprint of reproduction were less intense and emotional than their concerns about the climate impacts their children will or would experience, it is striking that 87.1% of respondents who were parents, planning, or undecided were ‘extremely,’ ‘very,’ or ‘somewhat’ concerned about the carbon footprint of reproduction,” the findings state.
Respondents’ concerns about the climate impacts that their existing or hypothetical children will or would experience in the future depended upon their visions of and expectations about the future. Of the 400 responses that offered a likely vision of the future, 92.3% were negative, 5.6% were mixed/neutral, and 0.6% were positive. The negative visions of the future tended to be intensely negative, with no positive aspects. For example, a 42-year-old researcher in Vermont wrote that the world in 2050 will be “a hothouse hell, with wars over limited resources, collapsing civilization, failing agriculture, rising seas, melting glaciers, starvation, droughts, floods, mudslides, and widespread devastation.” Similarly, an undecided 27-year old model in Pennsylvania stated, “Unrecognizable. Extreme weather. Food shortages. Political and economic dissolution. Large scale conflicts. Migration. Drought.”
According to experts, the research has implications for multiple areas of study, including environmental ethics, environmental sociology, the sociology of reproduction, and demography, say experts. Further investigation is also needed to ascertain to what extent these eco-reproductive concerns are shared around the world. “This research may have implications for climate modelers. The phenomenon of climate concern contributing to a reluctance to have children raises the possibility that so many young people in wealthy, high-emissions nations will choose to have smaller families or forego procreation entirely that they may succeed in one of their goals: influencing the overall fertility rate, population, and production of greenhouse gases, and thus contributing, to some extent, to climate mitigation,” the authors conclude.