Overconsumption, overpopulation, and an uncertain future are the top concerns of those who argue that the climate crisis is affecting their reproductive future. Researchers from Arizona University found growing environmental concerns among young adults, which could have major repercussions in the future.
Almost 38% of US citizens aged 18 to 29 believe that couples should consider climate change when deciding to have children, while 33% aged 20 to 45 cited climate as a reason to have fewer children. If this becomes a widespread belief, we’ll need to start figuring out what this means on an environmental, societal, and psychological level.
Understanding the motivation
There have been previous studies analyzing people’s tendency of going childfree, but the concerns and motivations of individuals of people doing so in response to climate change haven’t been properly investigated. Though a multi-method study, a group of researchers wanted to address this and understand its possible repercussions.
“For many people, the question of whether to have children or not is one of the biggest they will face in their lives,” Sabrina Helm, the study lead author, said in a statement. “If you are worried about what the future will look like because of climate change, obviously it will impact how you view this very important decision in your life.”
Each new child that is born into this world means consumption of resources such as water, food, and energy, while simultaneously causing further pollution to land, water, and air. In fact, a study calculated that having one fewer child would lead to 58.6 tons of CO2 emission reductions — and it’s pretty much the most eco-friendly thing you can do. But these ideas aren’t really regarded as mainstream in society.
Alongside a team of researchers, Helm first used content analysis to examine reader comments on online press articles, hoping to familiarize with the broad range of opinions surrounding pro-childfree climate change debates. They selected articles after a Google search using terms such as “no kids/children” and “birth strike.”
Much of the discussion in the comments was of readers debating what they perceived to be drivers of climate change. Of these, overpopulation (or the belief that there are too many people on the planet) was the most prevailing concern. Others noted overconsumption in developed countries and high birth rates in developing ones.
The researchers then carried out a set 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 on the online comments. Data was collected between October and December 2019, with 12 interviews carried out in each country.
All participants mentioned that they believe not having kids was the biggest positive choice one can make for the environment. While some were less certain and said they could change their mind in the future and end up having kids, others were more adamant about their decision. An uncertain future, overconsumption, and overpopulation were the most cited reasons.
Almost all participants were worried about how having children contributes to resource overuse with regard to current and future consumption levels in society. They felt responsible and uneasy about the emissions that would be emitted by their potential kids, expressing concerns about future shortages of natural resources.
On a personal level, many participants felt misunderstood by their relatives and friends. They indicated their family members expressed a strong desire for them to have children, believing that they would change their minds as they aged. A few participants were also worried whether their partners would agree with their decision.
For the researchers, the findings point at immediate implications for society. Further decreases in the birth rate in high-income countries would affect the social system and economy, for example with a labor market shortage. There could also be impact on health public policy, as young people are feeling an emotional strain in response to the climate crisis.
“Many people now are severely affected in terms of mental health with regard to climate change concerns,” Helm said. “Then you add this very important decision about having kids, which very few take lightly, and this is an important topic from a public health perspective. It all ties into this bigger topic of how climate change affects people.”
The article was published in the journal Population and Environment.