How is climate change influencing people’s decisions to have children?
With environmental issues on the rise – heatwaves, wildfires, drought, crop failures, water and air pollution illnesses, and more – a growing number of people are asking themselves, “Should I be having children?” Parenting choices often revolve around women’s reproductive decisions, but they also impact men, couples, and other members of a family network, and can affect people in different ways. This entry explores concerns about climate change, but there are many other factors that influence decisions about having children, such as:
- Income or financial resources
- Access to child support or family planning
- Level of education
- Cultural or family attitudes, gender roles, values, beliefs, and religion
- Labour market participation
- Personality traits
- National and state laws or policies
- Reproductive capabilities
The climate crisis is causing people to question whether they should have kids. This stems from two major concerns:
- The idea that remaining childless will help reduce one’s carbon footprint.
- The fear of bringing a human into a world where climate change poses detrimental risks to future generations and is already decreasing quality of life.
A 2020 study in the United States found that 60% of survey respondents were “very” or “extremely concerned” about the carbon footprint of procreation, and 96% were “very” or “extremely concerned” about climate impacts that future children will experience. Another poll suggests that 12.5 million people of childbearing age in the United States don’t want to have children in the future because of climate change concerns.
1. Concern about contributing to the carbon footprint
A 2008 study estimated that each child in the United States adds an additional 9,441 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the carbon footprint of their mother. While many may not know this specific statistic, general awareness about unsustainably high consumption drives carbon footprint concerns, sense of responsibility, and guilt.
However, this statistic may overestimate the carbon impact of having a child, since United States per-capita emissions fell by 21% between 2005–2019, and continue to decrease. It is also important to consider that the term “carbon footprint” was initially popularized by the oil and gas company British Petroleum (BP) to shift the responsibility and divert attention from the damage caused by their products (millions of barrels of oil a day) onto individuals.
2. Fear of climate impacts on future generations
In 2021, researchers quantified that “children born in 2020 will experience a two- to seven fold increase in extreme events, particularly heat waves, compared with people born in 1960, under current climate policy pledges“. Many people of childbearing age involved with climate issues are familiar with similar predictions and may be grappling with the implications.
What are the mental health impacts of climate reproductive concerns?
The question of having children is incredibly personal, with a wide diversity of views and felt impacts. For those struggling to make childbearing decisions, or who have decided to be childfree, or to become a parent, some of the mental health impacts include:
- Loss and grieving
- Shame, which could come from disappointing family, a partner, or peers
- Guilt (for example, for bringing children into this world)
- Anxiety (for instance, about limited ability to protect children from climate impacts)
- Feelings of isolation, which can stem from different perspectives than peers, family, or society
As social psychologist Leslie Ashburn-Nardo puts it, having children has historically been instinctive and reinforced by social customs and norms. Yet discussion of parenthood and personal responsibility for our planet’s future is increasingly in the public eye. On the other hand, many people do not consider climate change in their decision to have children.
Listed below are only a few quotes from people around the world showing the diversity of perspectives and psychological and emotional impacts.
|“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.”||A child-free 32-year-old consultant in Ohio|
|“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 large-scale, systemic problems.”||A pregnant 36-year-old doctoral candidate in New York|
|“I’m not going to not have a family because economic and political leaders have fucked this up for everyone.”||A 37-year-old civil engineer and father in Massachusetts|
|“Over the last few years, the climate has definitely been a major contributor to us not wanting children… we thought about it quite a lot and quickly realized that adding another human being to the world would have a huge environmental impact.”||Daniel, a 35-year-old Brit that once considered having children with his partner of 12 years, but is now taking caution|
|“I had a major depressive episode last year based on existential angst over the world my children would be growing up in… worrying about their future is a frequent trigger for me… I’m constantly thinking about when it’s going to be appropriate to dissuade them from having children of their own, as I think we’re really past the point of no return.”||Thom, a 39-year-old father from the United Kingdom|
|“I really want nothing more than to give future generations the opportunity to live in this beautiful world that we get to live in… children are hope; why we’re fighting for this. I think that that is definitely something I’ve lost sight of. I could be bringing that future generation into existence.”||Interview with Olivia Vesovich, a 20-year-old plaintiff in the first U.S. youth-led climate trial against Montana state officials|
The emotional and psychological toll of grappling with decisions to have children can be especially high for people engaged in the climate crisis. This can include climate activists, scientists, young people thinking about their futures, and many others who are in tune with the current impacts of a warming planet – and the potential suffering and ecological destruction it could bring.
Conceivable Future is a non-profit aimed at creating a national conversation on how climate change is affecting our reproductive lives. In an interview with NPR, founders Meghan Kallman and Josephine Ferorelli describe their own worries about having children, considering the risks of severe climate impacts: “If I had told my boyfriend at the time, I’m not ready to have children because I don’t know what the climate’s going to be like in 50 years, he wouldn’t have understood. There’s no way.” (Megan). Similarly, Josephine said “I am not ready to, like, get rid of the fantasy. I’m curious about the fantasy. In certain versions of the future, I would love to have a kid.”
In 2019, activist and musician Blythe Pepino began BirthStrike, a group of people who were resisting reproduction due to the climate crisis. “I realized that even though I wanted to have a family at that point, I couldn’t really bring myself to do it, […] if there isn’t a political will to fix this, we really don’t stand much of a chance”, said Blythe about her decision not to have children. BirthStrike was a way to channel her grief “into something more active and regenerative and hopeful”.
Despite their fears, some climate activists do choose to have children. Speaking about his decision to have a child, journalist and author David Wallace-Wells has said, “I don’t think this is an impulse we need to disavow before we have finished the final act of this story. I think it is a reason to fight.”
Consequences if carbon emissions continue to climb
If we continue on our current global warming projection, here are some predictions to future generations, provided by Working Group II (Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability) of the 2022 Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and by a 2021 peer-reviewed article in Science:
- By 2100, a six year-old in 2020 could endure a four-fold increase in extreme events under 1.5°C (2.7°F) of warming, and a five-fold increase under 3°C (5.4°F) of warming, compare to a person aged 55 in 2020.
- Children in South and Southeast Asia will experience more flooding from sea levels rising, causing loss of coastal settlements and infrastructure, and necessitating them to relocate.
- Children in cities and rural areas in South America who depend on water from glaciers will face more water scarcity and restricted water access.
- Under 2.1°C (3.8°F) of warming, 1.4 million children in Africa are estimated to experience severe stunted growth – often leading to physical and cognitive impairment – due to malnutrition. Malnutrition is linked to hot climates, less rainfall, and crop failure, leading to lack of food.
- Children’s educational attainment can be undermined by climate change, decreasing their chance of attaining well-paid jobs or higher incomes later in life.
The impacts will affect all future generations, but will be regionally dependent. For example, in some regions, children will experience an average of 3.7 to 5.3 times more extreme events compared to someone living in a pre-industrial climate, but children born in Sub-Saharan will undergo 5.9 times more extreme events.
These estimates are not set in stone. Yet, the potential for such a future is contributing to significant anxiety for many people considering having children. These can be heart-wrenching struggles with lifelong impacts affecting family constellations, relationships, support systems, security, and more.
A study published in 2021 surveyed 10,000 young people aged 16-25 across ten different countries about their feelings on climate change and perception of government response.
- In response to the survey question, “I am hesitant to have children”, 39.1% of total respondents said “yes”, with the highest percentages being from Brazil (47.6%) and the Philippines (47.3%) – places that already experience tremendous climate impacts.
A 2020 poll surveying 4,400 adults in the United States showed that 26% of respondents considered climate change a reason for not having children. The poll also found:
- Men and women are equally likely to consider climate change in their reproductive decision.
- Hispanic respondents were more likely (41%) to voice concerns about climate change impacting their reproductive decisions compared to Black (30%) and White (23%) respondents.
- Regionally, the Western United States showed the highest percentage (33%) in voicing this concern.
A 2006 study interviewing 1059 people in the agricultural-based setting of Chitwan Valley, Nepal found that:
- People who perceived their agricultural productivity as having worsened were more likely to use contraceptives (30% of them did) compared to people who perceived their crop production as improving (14% used contraceptives), and to people who thought their land production had stayed the same (20% used contraceptives).
- Respondents believed that decreased agricultural productivity was due to environmental degradation, suggesting a link between contraceptive use (a reproductive decision) and concerns about one’s local environment.
Research shows that climate chance impacts not only reproductive choices, but fertility itself: In the United States, fertility rates dropped nine months after an extreme heat event, and in China, a type of air pollution is linked with a 20% greater risk of infertility. Climate change also poses risks during pregnancy.
Next directions for research
As of 2023, there is little published research on climate concerns and reproductive decisions. Further research could explore the following questions:
- How do climate reproductive concerns change (or stay the same) over time for people who are parents, planning to have children, undecided, or childfree?
- How do these concerns vary for different population groups, sexual orientations, or varying relationship statuses?
- How are climate reproductive concerns felt globally? How do concerns differ in different countries or regions?
In her writing, researcher and author Britt Wray, Ph.D., weaves her research on the mental health impacts of the climate crisis and ways to live meaningfully with her own experience deciding to become a parent. She suggests that working through your emotions can help gain clarity. Some strategies include:
- Ask yourself the following questions:
- “Would having a child […] be meaningful enough to you that it would make sense to go through with it, regardless of how the climate crisis develops?”
- “Being a climate-concerned parent today requires taking action with others. Is that a role you are ready to take on?”
- Imagine a scenario in which you don’t bring children into this world because of climate change, and one in which you do, despite your fears. Document your feelings, thoughts, and emotions in each.
- Find people that share your concern. Attend or host house parties like the ones put together by Conceivable Future to build a community and work through similar concerns and goals.
- Honor your reason(s) for being hesitant to have children. It might be helpful to think about exploring other family structures, like raising kids in a multi-parent household or adopting.
Exploring family planning advocacy groups might help in managing your concerns. Britt Wray also outlines these strategies to help navigate the judgments of others. Regardless of parenthood decisions, one can manage climate anxiety by taking action to change our systems and protect future generations. Here are some additional resources available to seek support:
- Subscribe to the Gen Dread newsletter to stay informed about the mental health impacts of the climate crisis and join a community of climate-concerned people, which can help strengthen your emotional intelligence and psychological resilience.
- Get in touch with climate-aware therapists, who specialize in helping individuals and communities navigate climate stress and distress.
A declaration of hope
Predictions of climate impacts on the quality of life of future generations can be a source of anxiety and anguish in thinking about having children. However, we already know many solutions to climate change, and there is still time to change our trajectory. For instance, the International Energy Agency reports that those born this decade will emit 10 times less carbon than their grandparents if the world becomes carbon neutral by 2050.
There is no right answer to the question of having children amidst the climate crisis. As Josephine Ferorelli, co-founder of Conceivable Future, has said: “It’s not an intellectual problem… It’s really a life problem… a heart problem.” For many – whether or not they decide to have kids – protecting future generations fuels their fight to sustain a hospitable world.
Generation Dread: Finding Purpose in an Age of Climate Anxiety by Britt Wray, published in 2022 by Knopf Canada.
The Conceivable Future: Planning Families and Taking Action in the Age of Climate Change by Meghan Kallman and Josephine Ferorelli, published in 2023 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Articles and Online Sources
BirthStrikers: meet the women who refuse to have children until climate change ends, published by The Guardian on March 12, 2019, by Elle Hunt.
Climate Change Indicators: U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions, published by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in July 2022.
Climate change is making people think twice about having children, published in CNBC on August 12, 2021, by Sam Shead.
David Wallace-Wells on climate: ‘People should be scared – I’m scared’, published in The Guardian on February 3, 2019, by Jonathan Watts.
Deciding to have a baby amid the climate crisis: whatever you’re feeling, you’re not alone, published in CBC Documentaries on November 24, 2022, by Britt Wray.
Don’t want to bring kids into this world? Here’s how to navigate the judgment, published in Gen Dread on January 31, 2023, by The Gen Dread Team.
FAQ 3: How will climate change affect the lives of today’s children tomorrow, if no immediate action is taken?, published by Working Group II (Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report.
National Tracking Poll #200926, published in September 2020 by Morning Consult.
Should I feel guilty about my carbon footprint?, published in DW on January 3, 2022, by Ajit Niranjan.
What would net zero by 2050 mean for the emissions footprints of younger people versus their parents?, published by the International Energy Agency on February 15, 2022, by Laura Cozzi, Olivia Chen, and Hyeji Kim.
Why parents shouldn’t be saddled with environmental guilt for having children, published in The Conversation on September 22, 2022, by Martin Sticker and Felix Pinkert.
Worried About A Bleak Future, Climate Change Activists Hesitant To Have Kids, published in NPR on August 28, 2016, by Jennifer Ludden.
The Climate Baby Dilemma | Season 1 | CBC Gem, a documentary on how the climate crisis is affecting a growing number of people’s decisions about whether or not to have kids.
“If I were to be pregnant in 2030, I don’t know what would happen to me.” | The Climate Baby Dilemma, interview with a young activist on her reasons for not having children.
The climate crisis will enlarge the cracks and chasms that chronic inequity creates, says climate advocate | The Climate Baby Dilemma | CBC.ca, interview with Imara Ajani Rolston, director of the Community Climate Resilience Lab in Toronto.
Selected Research/Scientific Papers
Arnocky, S., Dupuis, D. & Stroink, M.L. Environmental concern and fertility intentions among Canadian university students. Popul Environ 34, 279–292 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11111-011-0164-y
Ashburn-Nardo, L. (2016). Parenthood as a moral imperative? moral outrage and the stigmatization of voluntarily childfree women and men. Sex Roles, 76(5–6), 393–401. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-016-0606-1
Barreca, A., Deschenes, O. & Guldi, M. Maybe Next Month? Temperature Shocks and Dynamic Adjustments in Birth Rates. Demography 55, 1269–1293 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-018-0690-7
Ghimire, D.J., Mohai, P. Environmentalism and Contraceptive Use: How people in less developed settings approach environmental issues. Popul Environ 27, 29–61 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11111-005-0012-z
Helm, S., Kemper, J. & White, S. No future, no kids–no kids, no future?. Popul Environ 43, 108–129 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11111-021-00379-5
Hickman, C., Marks, E., Pihkala, P., Clayton, S., Lewandowski, R. E., Mayall, E. E., Wray, B., Mellor, C., & van Susteren, L. (2021). Climate anxiety in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change: A global survey. The Lancet Planetary Health, 5(12). https://doi.org/10.1016/s2542-5196(21)00278-3
Karuga, F. F., Szmyd, B., Petroniec, K., Walter, A., Pawełczyk, A., Sochal, M., Białasiewicz, P., Strzelecki, D., Respondek-Liberska, M., Tadros-Zins, M., & Gabryelska, A. (2022). The causes and role of antinatalism in poland in the context of climate change, obstetric care, and mental health. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(20), 13575. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph192013575
Li, Q., Zheng, D., Wang, Y., Li, R., Wu, H., Xu, S., Kang, Y., Cao, Y., Chen, X., Zhu, Y., Xu, S., Chen, Z. J., Liu, P., & Qiao, J. (2021). Association between exposure to airborne particulate matter less than 2.5 μm and human fecundity in China. Environment international, 146, 106231. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2020.106231
Murtaugh P. A., & Schlax M. G. (2009). Reproduction and the carbon legacies of individuals. Global Environmental Change, 19(1), 14–20. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2008.10.007
Rothschild, J., & Haase, E. (2023). The mental health of women and climate change: Direct neuropsychiatric impacts and associated psychological concerns. International journal of gynaecology and obstetrics: the official organ of the International Federation of Gynaecology and Obstetrics, 160(2), 405–413. https://doi.org/10.1002/ijgo.14479
Schneider-Mayerson, M., & Leong, K. L. (2020). Eco-reproductive concerns in the age of climate change. Climatic Change, 163(2), 1007–1023. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-020-02923-y
Smith, D. M., Sales, J., Williams, A., & Munro, S. (2023). Pregnancy intentions of young women in Canada in the era of climate change: a qualitative auto-photography study. BMC public health, 23(1), 766. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-023-15674-z
Thiery, W., Lange, S., Rogelj, J., Schleussner, C.-F., Gudmundsson, L., Seneviratne, S. I., Andrijevic, M., Frieler, K., Emanuel, K., Geiger, T., Bresch, D. N., Zhao, F., Willner, S. N., Büchner, M., Volkholz, J., Bauer, N., Chang, J., Ciais, P., Dury, M., … Wada, Y. (2021). Intergenerational inequities in exposure to climate extremes. Science, 374(6564), 158–160. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.abi7339
Vollset, S. E., Goren, E., Yuan, C.-W., Cao, J., Smith, A. E., Hsiao, T., Bisignano, C., Azhar, G. S., Castro, E., Chalek, J., Dolgert, A. J., Frank, T., Fukutaki, K., Hay, S. I., Lozano, R., Mokdad, A. H., Nandakumar, V., Pierce, M., Pletcher, M., … Murray, C. J. (2020). Fertility, mortality, migration, and population scenarios for 195 countries and territories from 2017 to 2100: A forecasting analysis for the global burden of disease study. The Lancet, 396(10258), 1285–1306. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0140-6736(20)30677-2
October 17, 2023
Author: Zaida Rio Polanco
Editor: Colleen Rollins, Ph.D.
When Maida was 19 years old, she had just started exploring the studies of a Geology major at Hunter College. Before embarking on this academic journey, she had always pictured herself potentially starting a family in the future, but after learning about the impending ecological disasters that the future held, she realized that she wouldn’t want to risk bringing life into an “already dying world”. She promised herself that she wouldn’t have children because of that fear, that doom.
Flash forward 33 years, and I, her 19-year-old daughter, Zaida, is now writing an article about the fear of having children because of climate change. Just this past year, my mother revealed to me her initial apprehension towards having kids, before having me and my brother. As she described, it was when we were born that fear turned into hope; a hope for a new generation to continue the fight and protect those to come.
I am not writing this article to share dreary facts about how climate change is convincing people to give up on producing life. Rather, I am writing this as the daughter of someone who has dealt with this gripping fear, not only to bring it to light, but to do justice for my mother, and for everyone else who may be struggling with this wrenching decision.