Overconsumption, overpopulation and an uncertain future are the main concerns of those who argue that the climate crisis is affecting their reproductive future. Arizona University researchers found growing environmental concerns among young adults that could have major implications in the future.
Almost 38% of US citizens aged 18-29 think couples should consider climate change when deciding to have children, while 33% of 20-45 year olds cite climate as a reason to have fewer children. If this becomes a widely held belief, we need to start figuring out what this means on an ecological, societal, and psychological level.
There have been previous studies that analyzed people’s tendency to remain childless, but the concerns and motivations of people doing so in response to climate change have not been properly examined. Despite being a multi-method study, a group of researchers wanted to address it and understand its potential implications.
“For many people, the question of whether or not to have children is one of the biggest questions they will face in their lives,” Sabrina Helm, the study’s lead author, said in a statement. “Obviously, if you’re worried about what the future will hold because of climate change, it’s going to affect how you view this very important decision in your life.”
Every new child born into this world consumes resources such as water, food and energy while causing further pollution of land, water and air. In fact, one study calculated that one child less would result in 58.6 tons less CO2 emissions – and that’s about the greenest thing you can do. But these ideas are not really considered mainstream in society.
Helm and a team of researchers first used content analysis to examine reader comments on online press articles, hoping to familiarize themselves with the wide range of opinions surrounding childless climate change debates. They selected articles after a Google search using terms such as “no children/children” and “birth strike”.
Much of the discussion in the comments centered on readers debating what they saw as drivers of climate change. Of these, overpopulation (or the belief that there are too many people on the planet) was the dominant concern. Others noted overconsumption in developed countries and high birth rates in developing countries.
The researchers then conducted a series of 24 semi-structured interviews with young adults (18 to 35 years old) in New Zealand and the US, hoping to get a better understanding of what they read in the online comments. Data was collected between October and December 2019, with 12 interviews conducted in each country.
All participants mentioned that they believe not having children is the greatest positive choice one can make for the environment. While some were less certain and said they could change their minds in the future and end up having children, others were more adamant about their decision. An uncertain future, excessive consumption and overpopulation were the most frequently cited reasons.
Almost all participants expressed concern about how children contribute to resource overexploitation in relation to current and future levels of consumption in society. They felt responsible and worried about the emissions their potential children would emit and expressed concern about future natural resource shortages.
On a personal level, many participants felt misunderstood by their relatives and friends. They indicated that their family members expressed a strong desire to have children and believed that they would change their minds as they got older. Some participants were also concerned whether their partners would agree with their decision.
For the researchers, the results point to immediate effects on society. A further decline in the birth rate in high-income countries would hit the social system and the economy, for example with a shortage of workers. It could also have an impact on public health policies, as young people are emotionally drained in response to the climate crisis.
“Many people are deeply concerned now in terms of mental health concerns about climate change,” Helm said. “Then you add this very important decision about having children that very few take lightly and this is an important issue from a public health perspective. It all ties into this larger issue of how climate change is affecting people.”
The article was published in the journal Population and Environment.