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It was a 2018 New York Times article that would change Allie Seroussi’s life forever. The piece, titled Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change, was a historical narrative about the decade — 1979 to 1989 — when scientists first came to understand the climate emergency. What she read scared her; scarred her, even. So much so that she decided she’d never try to have a child of her own.
The NYT piece wasn’t about parenthood, per se, but it painted a grim picture of what lays ahead if we continue on our current path: famine, war, environmental disasters.
"I completely shut down. I really did not realise this was so severe,” the 28-year-old tells Refinery29 over the phone. She’d always "kind of wanted to be a mother," she says, and imagined teaching her kids how to leave the world a better place. "But after educating myself, I began to think more about, wow, if I have kids they are not going to grow up with a sense of environmental stability."
Seroussi isn’t alone. More than one in three Americans aged 18 to 29 believe climate change could be a top factor in deciding whether to have kids, according to a 2019 poll conducted by Business Insider. Seroussi weighed the odds and decided she didn’t feel right bringing a child into a work teetering on the edge of environmental disaster — though she’s open to fostering in the future.
Keya Chatterjee faced the same decision, but ultimately chose to try to have a child. She describes leafing through a science magazine in 2010, when she was pregnant with her now-fifth-grader: "I was reading about all these projections for 2050 about a lack of food supply, about the scale of fires being much larger than anything anyone could have imagined, about heavy downpours and floods," she says. "I was reading all this stuff about 2050, and I'm sitting there pregnant in 2010. So my kid is going to be 40 when this stuff is all going to be playing out."
Chatterjee says that she had known all of this before she became pregnant. She was, in fact, deeply involved in climate activism: In an attempt to reduce her carbon footprint, she lived without a refrigerator or a car, and she was a vocal advocate for environmental causes. But in that moment, her dedication reached a new level. "It just hit me differently in terms of my own processing. Something changed in me," she explains. "It’s my job as a human being — my purpose for being on Earth — to turn this around. And it is within our capability to do that."
Ultimately, Chatterjee channelled her fear over the future of the world her child was set to inherit into action. She’s now the executive director of the U.S. Climate Action Network and author of The Zero Footprint Baby: How to Save the Planet While Raising a Healthy Baby.
In addition to wondering about the safety of a future child in a world already being severely affected by climate change, there’s another dilemma regarding procreating and the climate crisis: The question of whether having children is unethical because of the child’s impact on the planet’s health.
In 2017, a study was published in Environmental Research Letters stating that the most impactful thing a human could do for our planet was to have one fewer child. Having one child instead of two, for example, would save 58 tons of CO2 for each year of the parent’s life. That figure was calculated by combining the emissions of the child and all their descendants, then dividing this total by the parent’s lifespan, The Guardian reported: “Each parent was ascribed 50% of the child’s emissions, 25% of their grandchildren’s emissions and so on.” Another study, from Oregon State University, found that each child adds an even 9,441 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the carbon legacy of each parent.
These studies, and others like them, have spawned dozens of think-pieces, all centered on the idea of how big an impact one person really has on the planet’s wellbeing.
Though they received some backlash, the study authors stand by their findings. "Creating a new person is a huge life decision. You don't need a scientist to tell you that," Kimberly Nicholas, PhD, an associate professor of sustainability science at the Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies, and a member of the study’s research team, tells Refinery29. "What our study showed was it makes a big difference in terms of climate pollution as well. If you create a new person who leads the same lifestyle and has the same consumption patterns that we do today, then yes, you're leaving a big carbon legacy and creating a lot of climate pollution."
Of course, some might say that you can choose to have a child and reduce your family’s consumption patterns, which in theory would reduce your carbon legacy. Chatterjee falls into that camp. "For me, if I was going to have a child — and of course I did — it was incredibly important to me that I find a way to not be adding to the climate crisis," she tells Refinery29. "You can’t make that many great choices because society is set up to force you to have only bad choices," she acknowledges. "But you can really affect the outcome of the impact of having a child by being engaged in organising, by being engaged in advocacy."
Another thing to consider, Nicholas says: At this point, this whole side of the debate is kind of moot. "The people already alive today, with our fossil fuel consumption and patterns, will use up our remaining carbon budget in less than 10 years," she says. "So it's not going to save the planet if you choose not to have a kid."
Already, in the past several years, we’ve seen some of the consequences Chatterjee described reading about play out in real time: unprecedented wildfires, devastating hurricanes.
"We have this really limited window," she adds. "From now until 2030 is the only chance humanity will ever have to stabilise the climate below 1.5 degrees of warming. And we know that that's a really critical marker for human civilisation and for the rest of life on Earth."
To do that, we have to cut climate pollution — carbon pollution specifically — about in half by 2030, she explains. Not having kids won’t get us to where we need to go in that time frame: Reducing consumption, stepping away from fossil fuels, and redefining our relationship with agriculture are the key things we should be focusing on right now.
"We need politicians who understand the severity of the urgency of the climate crisis and are prepared to act on it," Nicholas says. "But we also need citizens who are already demonstrating that we can make this work."
So, given the current climate emergency, is it ethical to have kids? Ultimately, the answer to that is personal — but the fact that we’re asking at all is a pretty huge deal.
"It's in a UN declaration that parents have the right to freely decide the number and spacing of their children. It's not a guaranteed right, it doesn't always work out that way. But that choice is really fundamental and important," says Nicholas.
That choice is often a privilege. Being able to decide whether or not to have kids can be dependent on factors such as economic stability and access to contraceptives, abortion, and adequate healthcare — rights that not everyone has equal access to the in U.S. What’s more, historically, movements to limit reproduction have been driven by classist and racist motives.
Certainly, individuals should be aware of the current climate crisis. If they’re thinking about having kids, it’s only natural that they may find themselves asking what kind of world they’re bringing their child into. As Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said in an Instagram livestream last year: "Basically, there’s a scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult. And it does lead, I think, young people to have a legitimate question: Is it okay to still have children?"
Some people, like Chatterjee, may decide that it is, and use their decision as motivation, dedicating themselves to changing our course. Others, like Seroussi, may choose to not have kids, or to prioritise fostering or adoption. Others may choose to have fewer children than they would have otherwise. The arguments for and against each strategy are multi-layered and complex.
But the fact that adults even feel compelled to consider the realities of climate change in their decision about procreating is a strong demonstration of how dire the problem really is, and how urgently action needs to be taken.
"It’s a red flag," says Rebecca Bromley-Trujillo, PhD, who teaches political science and environmental policy at Christopher Newport University. "There are age groups that are feeling like this is a doomsday situation and feeling like we have very little time. The feelings of despair are terrible, and the fact that we’re having this conversation about whether people should have children is definitely an indicator of how serious the climate crisis is and how worried people feel about it."
Bromley-Trujillo points out that this debate has come up on-and-off for the last 50 years. "In the end, having children has to come down to personal choice. Many young people, especially right now, are choosing not to have children or have fewer children because of the climate crisis and I can see that point of view," she says. "It’s a rational argument that they’re making because sure, having children leads to higher emissions levels, but I would say that there are bigger fish to fry." Which brings us to voting.
Right now, voting is one of the most critical and impactful things individuals can do to advocate for policies that target climate change. Vote for candidates who understand we’re in a climate emergency and who have a plan of action, in local elections as well as in national ones.
Taking a look at your personal carbon footprint, and living a lifestyle that’s good for the Earth, can make a difference too, Chatterjee and Nicholas say. But, warns Bromley-Trujillo, we shouldn’t get too bogged down in the discussion of individual responsibility.
"We talk about eating hamburgers and driving SUVs... These things are relevant, but in the grand scope of things, dealing with the electricity sector and the transportation sector at a larger scale will be much more effective in dealing with these problems," she explains. "If we’re trying to reduce emissions, the focus should be on clean electricity standards and big corporations. If we did this at a massive scale, or if we had federal laws that require clean energy, these are the sorts of things that are going to have a big impact."
As Nicholas says, "It's not going to save the planet if you choose not to have a kid. What we have to do is actually stop using fossil fuel." And that’s going to take the support of the government and major companies, not just individual action.