The climate crisis is not a reproductive crisis

If you read or listened to NPR’s All Things Considered last week, then you probably came across this interesting article and podcast by Jennifer Ludden, provocatively titled, “Should We Be Having Kids In The Age of Climate Change?” This post is mostly in response to that, and I suggest checking out the NPR piece before reading this.

Ludden and Travis Rieder, a philosopher and ethicist at Johns Hopkins University whom she highlights, help to provoke discussion, and I appreciate that. They make a pretty compelling argument, while raising questions people rarely consider or talk about. But as you’ve probably guessed, I’m not convinced by the argument. Nonetheless, after suffering through July, the warmest month ever recorded, this is a good time to discuss these issues.

Map of temperature rises that have *already* occurred. (Credit: US National Climate Assessment / NASA)

Map of temperature rises that have *already* occurred. (Credit: US National Climate Assessment / NASA)

Rieder argues that the simplest solution to address climate change and reduce carbon dioxide emissions is to have fewer children. The emissions savings one can make during a lifetime don’t add up to the projected emissions of a whole other person, he says. I agree with many points he makes, but it’s not so simple.

Climate scientists project average global temperatures to rise by more than 2 degrees Celsius, a pivotal level that could take us past some “tipping points,” and the Paris climate agreement falls far short of preventing that.

We need to take dramatic action. Just making a few adjustments here and there isn’t going to cut it. Not even close. Prius-driving people with Al Gore-approved light bulbs at home aren’t saving the world—far from it.

Some people have made arguments before that focus on overpopulation issues, but they miss the point. We need to focus on consumption, primarily in rich countries; emphasizing overpopulation puts the burden on poorer countries, which don’t deserve the blame for the climate changes we’re experiencing. But Rieder’s argument is more nuanced than that. In principle, smaller populations in high-emissions countries could actually make an impact. And having fewer kids seems better than geoengineering proposals, like trying to capture carbon from the air or oceans and “sequestering” it, or trying to reflect sunlight Mr. Burns-style, which in my opinion are far too risky to stake the fate of humanity on.

Many countries (as well as international aviation and shipping) produce large quantities of greenhouse gas emissions. But it’s the rich countries like the US that create far more than their counterparts. If you look at per capita emissions, the US is at or near the top, along with Canada, Australia, Western and Central European countries, Japan, and South Korea, based on the European Union’s Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research. (China’s rate is slightly lower, if you’re wondering.)

On the other hand, poorer countries (and poorer parts of rich countries, I should add) will suffer the most consequences from climate change, with fewer resources to recover from rising sea levels, heat waves, severe droughts, and intense storms and floods.

“Here’s what’s happening when I have a kid,” Rieder says. “I’m creating a being who’s doing a much greater contribution to the harm, and she’s not going to suffer for it; the other kid [in a poorer country] is.”

No shit. That’s how our economic system works. Time and time again, people in poorer regions have suffered the consequences of environmental problems created by others, and climate change is no different. (As I’ve written before, climate change is an environmental justice problem.) In fact, some people—Ludden cites Naomi Klein—say that to avoid the worst climate change scenarios, we need to shift to a fossil-free economy and “overhaul the global system of free-market capitalism.”

A few details

If you’re interested in the details, the key to Rieder’s argument comes from a 2009 study by Oregon State University researchers. The scientists try to calculate exactly how many metric tons of CO2 emissions a person could save from conservation measures like driving a hybrid, driving less, recycling, using energy-efficient appliances, windows and light bulbs.

According to their calculations, you could save about 488 metric tons during your life. But if you had one fewer child, you’d “save” 9,441.

But there are some important caveats that the NPR piece didn’t mention (probably because of limited space). First, that last number comes from a “constant-emissions scenario” based on 2005 emissions levels, which the Obama administration use as a baseline. But the international goal has been and should be to get back down to 1990 levels, which are much lower. The Obama administration cleverly shifted the goal posts, making its climate initiatives seem more substantial than they actually are. No other country sets the goal at 2005. US climate journalists seem to have forgotten this.

If I’ve understood their calculation correctly (and please correct me if I’m wrong), it’s this emissions scenario assumption, which projected over time, gives them the (very approximate) 9,441 number. This number is more than five times larger than what a person today produces. In other words, a new child in their lifetime will produce many more carbon emissions than either of her or his parents. But just to give you a taste of the range of uncertainty in the study: the optimistic and pessimistic scenarios give the scientists estimates of 562 and 12,730 metric tons, respectively.

Furthermore, we can save more (as that optimistic number suggests). Electricity/power plants, transportation, and industry make up the biggest sectors of our economy, when it comes to carbon emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (see also the DOE assessment). A steep ramping up of investment in wind and solar power while working to wind down our dependence on coal, oil, and natural gas would make a huge difference.

When it comes to transportation, we should only drive when we absolutely need to. Walking and biking are best, of course, and public transportation works very well for reducing emissions when those trains and buses are full and when the infrastructure is maintained well. That’s why Clinton’s infrastructure proposals—and better yet, the Green New Deal ones put forth by the Green Party—are important to hash out and implement.

In addition to cars, each long-distance flight results in tons of carbon dioxide emissions. Reducing such flights matters a lot to the climate. Finally, something you might not think about: consumption of meat, especially red meat, also results in tons of extra emissions per person per year, according to a 2014 study. (Many activists and health advocates promote “Meatless Mondays.”)

In any case, we have to change ourselves a lot if we don’t want climate change.

What it all means

Who decides who has a kid or not? These are deeply personal decisions, and our society already puts enough pressure on people, especially women, when it comes to having children. What if your hypothetical kid could become a leading climate activist, or a teacher, a labor leader, a poet, or a jazz musician? Don’t we need more of those, too? Rieder sidesteps that question. Instead, he says, “It’s not the childless who must justify their lifestyle. It’s the rest of us.”

But it’s not that simple. Each child is not produced and raised in isolation, but in a society. It takes a village, as they say. And it’s not like a society with 10% fewer people will necessarily have 10% less emissions. I think there would be a significant “rebound effect” with respect to energy consumption and carbon emissions.

Childless people (or “child-free,” which sounds less judgmental) have responsibilities, too. Some people without kids travel around the globe while writing about the climate, occasionally expressing guilt about their jet-setting lifestyle (a lifestyle which people with kids often have neither the time nor the money to afford), and then turning away from the mirror.

I like though that Rieder’s argument provokes some bigger questions, which we should continue to talk about. How much is a person worth? What shall our society’s priorities be, especially in the face of such persistent global challenges? What kind of world do we want to live in?

There’s one thing we can all agree on: one way or another, climate change will disrupt our way of life. My hope is that it will be a blessing in disguise, spurring us to take a more global, long-term point of view and encouraging us to work together to eventually make our life on this planet sustainable.

2 thoughts on “The climate crisis is not a reproductive crisis

  1. It’s such a well-written piece. I especially like how you again highlighted environmental justice part. By the way, to your question, “What if your hypothetical kid could become a leading climate activist, or a teacher, a labor leader, a poet, or a jazz musician? Don’t we need more of those, too?” I think Rieder mentioned that “valuing children as a means to an end — be it to cure climate change or, say, provide soldiers for the state — is ethically problematic.”

    Thank you for your piece.

  2. I appreciate the research, especially the positive ways you can reduce your carbon footprint and your impact overall. I think we all need to look at this in a slightly less divided fashion. You brought up the point about our carnivorous diet being a significant factor, and we see divisionism between meat eaters and vegans. We see it between Monster truck fans and proud Prius owners, between the Free Folk and the Breeders… The real point is to incorporate all of these things into your life in a mindful way. For a couple to have a child or two is totally normal, as is grilling a steak on Friday. Limit your children to two and your steak to Friday and you’re on your way! No climate scientist is foolish enough to tell the entire population to stop having children. When it comes to climate science, the message is the same no matter the finding: reduce.

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