Reviews | Don’t let climate change stop you from having children

Climate change is and will be a driver of global inequality. Wealthier people and countries will buy their way out of the worst consequences, often using the wealth accumulated by burning fossil fuels. The fear of the future that our children will face, when expressed by well-to-do residents of wealthy countries, sometimes strikes me as a shift from guilt to terror. Facing what we have done to others is unimaginable. It’s easier, in a way, to imagine that we’ve done it to ourselves.

This brings us to the second version of this question: is it immoral to have children, knowing how much carbon emissions residents of rich countries are responsible for? This argument recasts childlessness as a form of climate reparation. People in rich countries use more resources than people in poor countries. Fewer people means less use of resources.

Fredric Jameson, the Marxist literary critic, is often credited with the observation that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. A similar limit to our political imagination lurks in this conversation: it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of carbon pollution. “Almost all pollution is fixed by the structure of society,” Leah Stokes, a political scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told me. “The goal is to undo this structure so that children can be born into a society that does not emit carbon pollution. That is the project.

And it is doable. Per capita carbon emissions in the United States have fallen from over 22.2 tons in 1973 to 14.2 tons in 2020. And that may drop much further. The Germans emitted 7.7 tonnes of carbon per person in 2020. The Swedes emitted 3.8 tonnes. “In a net zero world, no one has a carbon footprint, and we could stop counting guilt by counting babies,” Wallace-Wells told me.

To decarbonize society is to embrace a better world, for reasons far beyond climate change. “The immediate benefits of climate mitigation actions are dramatic: better air quality, better health outcomes, reduced inequality,” Marvel wrote to me. “I want these things. I also want reforestation and peatlands and coastal restoration and rewilding. I’m excited about (but not counting on) great new technologies like cheap carbon removal and nuclear fusion. I’m more excited about boring but efficient technologies like heat pumps and transmission lines.

It is a vision of more, not less. Electric cars are faster to accelerate. A well-insulated house is warmer. Induction cookers don’t fill your home with particles linked to asthma in children and reduced cognitive performance in adults. The wind does not stop blowing because an autocrat has a crisis; Harnessing the solar radiation that bathes our world does not leave us subjugated to the House of Saud.

I don’t just prefer a world of net zero emissions to a world of net zero children. I think these worlds are in conflict. We are facing a political problem of politics, not a problem of physics. The green future must be welcoming, even exciting. If people can’t see it, they will fight to stop it. If the cost of caring about the climate is giving up having a family, that cost will be too high. A climate movement that embraces sacrifice as its response or even as its temperament could do more harm than good. This can accidentally sacrifice the political appeal needed to make the net-zero emissions world real.

Teresa H. Sadler