About four years ago, my wife and I, who are both in our thirties, briefly thought we were having a baby. For the next few nights my dreams were of nuclear flashes lighting up the sky, of the earth cracking open and of waves lapping at the front door.
Humans are swiftly making the planet uninhabitable. Why would we want to bring another human being into the world? I’ll admit that my climate anxiety is as melodramatic as it is severe. But polls show that I’m not alone and the figures of declining birth rates speak for themselves. For a population to sustain itself, the average woman has to have 2.1 children in her lifetime. In 2017 that figure was just 1.74 in the UK, and — thanks in part to fears about the future of the planet — it’s now around 1.6.
This is quite something, given that procreation is hardwired into the human psyche. Passing on our genes is the biological reason we were born. It’s why we want sex, arguably why we ‘want’ at all. To choose not to have children is to prune oneself from the genetic tree — to defy human nature. It’s not much to help the planet by recycling or driving an electric car. But to not have children? That sounds extreme. Yet to me and many others, so too is the threat we all face.
Everything inside me says ‘have children’, but it’s everything outside that makes so many of my generation say ‘no’. The scientific consensus is clear: unless we all take drastic steps to limit our carbon emissions, the planet will become uninhabitable, and I don’t believe humanity will coordinate those steps in time. The choice for parenthood is based on hope for the future, so of course it’s affected when that future looks hopeless.
For me, there are two levels here. Let’s get the semi-altruistic one out of the way first because, to be honest, it’s the lesser half: the pitter-patter of each new pair of carbon footprints is disastrous for the world.
If you’re serious about reducing your climate footprint, there is nothing more powerful you can do than decide not to have kids. The facts are clear and brutal. One academic study set it out a few years ago: if you live car-free, you save 2.4 tonnes of CO2 equivalent (tCO2e) per year. If you avoid aeroplane travel, it’s 1.6 tCO2e saved per round transatlantic flight. Eating a plant-based diet saves 0.8 tCO2e a year. But not having a child, in the developed world at least, saves 59 tonnes (tCO2e) emission reductions per year. So having a child inflicts far more harm on the planet than all the jet-setting and steak-eating you might do: it wipes out any climate good we can as individuals hope to achieve during our lifetimes.
I’ve been sorting recyclables and using low-energy bulbs for too many years to shrug those numbers off. If you accept that flying around the world and burning fossil fuels is an act of climate destruction, then it stands to reason that — to dip back into melodrama for a minute — having a child is the grandest act of climate destruction I can easily commit.
Even without my adding a little bundle of CO2 usage, the world’s population is already at breaking point. In my lifetime alone, we’ve gone from 5.2 billion people on Earth to 7.8 billion; that’s an extra half. I remember my secondary school textbooks being a billion people out-of-date, which demonstrates the speed of the global population boom (not to mention a lack of state-school funding). There are just too many of us. It’s estimated that the world population could be too big to feed itself by 2050. More people, in summary, is not what we need.
That’s the semi-altruism done with. Here’s the more visceral level to my climate-induced reluctance to become a parent. If I have children, I can’t protect them. It’s that simple. I can’t protect them, not just from the amorphous dangers that have always kept parents awake, not even just from the severe and multifaceted effects of climate collapse, but also from the all-pervading dread that comes with the looming prospect of climate disaster, which drains every part of life and worsens by the year.
Parenthood is already daunting. It becomes far more so when your worst fears about the future of your family are supported by near-universally agreed scientific projections of planetary doom.
Last year the IPCC, the UN’s climate change panel, modelled a future for our children in which climate devastation intensifies. In this scenario, food grows scarce as warming seas destroy marine life, and ice sheets collapse. Flooding consumes land across the globe, while newly released microbes and emboldened mosquitos flourish, adding fever to violent heatwaves and extreme weather, worsening beyond many people’s ability to cope — at which point, the human reactions are only too predictable.
The IPCC set out five potential futures. The above-described scenario is the most optimistic.
If I have children, all the evidence I see tells me that climate change will terrify them, restrict them, and take years from their lives. I can’t do what a parent is meant to do — I can’t give them a future, safety and reassurance and the promise that everything will be all right, not while that same everything collapses around them. In my most positive moments, the best I could hope for would be that my children would die peacefully before the worst set in — something I also hope for myself.
Ah, you might think: I’m being melodramatic again. Humanity has carried on through hardship and pain. We’ve had children with bombs falling down the road, nuclear war looming, plague rampant and starvation imminent. Faced with grave threats, the evolutionary instinct is to have more progeny, not less.
But the climate collapse is all-encompassing in a way that other threats have not been. There’s no place outside its scope, no realistic time ‘after’ it’s done with us. It won’t simply end or burn itself out, there’s no ceasefire to call, no miracle cure. It dooms us all, with no winner, no end. There’s nowhere to flee to. If climate collapse is going to imperil everyone and there’s no way for me to prevent that, how can I in good conscience bring children into the world?
Again, I’m not alone. A large American study found that some 60 per cent of 27- to 45-year-olds reported concerns about children contributing to climate change. But almost all — 97 per cent — were concerned about what would await those children in a world devastated by climate change. The same study found that 6 per cent of parents confessed to feeling remorse about having had children. One 40-year-old mother said she regretted having her kids ‘because I am terrified that they will be facing the end of the world due to climate change’.
Despite all the facts and figures that support my case, I hope I’m wrong. Perhaps if we’d had a baby four years ago, I’d still dream of waves lapping at the door, but I’d also be waking up to a four-year-old who was loud and difficult and whom we loved more than anything on this rocky, troubled Earth. And though the burden of all this climate misery would still be weighing on the world, and on us, I don’t think I’d regret them being in that world with me.