Illustration: Kate Hazell

Is it OK to still have children? How climate change is challenging parents

It’s becoming impossible to sustain belief in that eternal hope: that our children’s lives will be better than our own
January 27, 2020

There are plenty of reasons not to have children, from economic uncertainty and competing priorities to plain and simple dislike of society’s littlest members. Nor is childlessness always voluntary. Yet among those for whom it is a decision, a new factor is weighing increasingly heavily: climate change. After decades of insufficient action, the warming Earth has come to seem like a timebomb whose ticking is drowning out even women’s biological clocks. As US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez bluntly asked last year: “Is it OK to still have children?”

Plenty of her contemporaries are deciding that the answer is no. In England and Wales in 2018, the birth rate hit its lowest level since records began in 1938, and it’s a similar story across Europe; in the US, it is at its lowest in more than three decades. Surveys show that along with perennial concerns about job prospects and housing, there's the spectre of an inhospitable planet.

Here in the gluttonous developed world, limiting family size has been found to massively outweigh other eco-conscious choices in terms of impact. A 2017 study reported that having one child fewer equated to a reduction of 58 tonnes of CO2 per year, as against 0.82 tonnes for switching to a plant-based diet or 2.4 tonnes for living car-free.

Will our children's lives be better than ours?

Yet anyone considering parenthood today must not only factor in the harm that adding another human being will do to the world, but also the ways in which the world might imperil them in turn. The time when we might have existed in easy harmony with nature is fast slinking into the past. Instead we are facing a future that is all but guaranteed to be radically destabilised by rising sea levels and extreme weather.

Human beings have continued to procreate through the very grimmest chapters in our species’ history, but for those of us who have become parents in the past decade or so, it’s becoming impossible to so much as skim through the scientific research and sustain belief in that eternal hope: that our children’s lives will be better than our own.

In other respects, climate change plays to perennial features of parenthood. Much of the experience of raising a child is about coming face-to-face with your own powerlessness and fallibility; climate change magnifies that to nightmarish dimensions. There’s also the intense poignancy that accompanies the passing of time when it’s measured in the growth of a head, say, once small enough to cup in your palm and now already reaching above your waist.

When the pencil lines on the wall are lapped by other scales—the feet that the sea level may rise, the years that we might have until it’s all too late—then the sweetly insistent refrain of children everywhere, “When I’m bigger…,” can become downright unravelling, because who knows what chaos the next generation will be contending with by the time they’re our age?

At four, my own daughter trusts in a future that is every bit as nurturing as her present and it’s my responsibility to do all that I can to protect this. And yet the spectre of climate change is ever-present background noise—in coded adult conversation, on radio news bulletins. And as adept as they are at screening out instructions from adults, children have an antenna for information that’s not meant for them.

So we do talk around it together, if not exactly about it. I try to emphasise action. We don’t leave taps running, we layer up when it gets colder, we leave the car at home whenever possible. She knows to avoid plastic and that air travel—at least until someone comes up with a more sustainable way of doing it—is not a good thing (I haven’t flown since she was born). Most importantly, she has a sense of why we’re doing all this—of just how interconnected the world is and how precious.

As a baby, I’d push her pram for miles each day, partly to coax those elusive naps, partly to point it all out to her—the winter sunsets, her first spring flowers, bees made lazy by their summer industry, the breeze rustling through crisping leaves, its altered pitch signalling autumn’s nearness. When she was two, my mum found us an allotment where she now learns about seeds and soil as she brews muddy potions, and where we helped our neighbours plant an orchard of rare local fruit trees.

But what about older children? What do you tell them about their future, and how do you look them in the eye and account for your own long, leisurely years of past inaction? What, still more importantly, do you teach them? While you don’t want to make them anxious, you equally do not want them to be unprepared. Optimism seems as important as self-sufficiency, a sense of community as helpful as basic survival skills. Imagination, resilience, faith, an ability to be makers rather than consumers, to savour rather than demand more, to live lightly and yet fully—these all seem like traits worth preserving as chaos looms.

As to whether it’s really still OK to have children, I think the answer has to be yes, simply because a world in which there are none would be one that has already given up. Delusional though we parents of the climate change generation may seem, children keep us accountable. We know that even if it’s getting too late to avert calamity, for us, it’s also too late to give in to fatalism.