Does Climate Change Mean I Can’t Have Kids?

Like a growing number of potential parents, I’m questioning the ethics of bringing children into a warming world.

by Jessie Szalay

This year, I’ve begun to question if I can have children, not in the biological sense, but ethically. (Photo: Rawpixel)

My mother looked around my kitchen, at the matzo ball soup simmering on the stove and the social justice Haggadahs at every place setting. Over them stood Bubbe’s silver candlesticks, the only things she brought from Poland when fleeing pogroms in the 1910s.

“Grandpa would be so proud that you’re carrying on the traditions,” Mom said. Though I was sweaty, tired, and nervous about the seder, her comment made it all worth it.

I’ve become the default host for Jewish holidays in my family. At some point in my 20s, I realized that if I didn’t do them, no one else would. I remember thinking — as I attempted to make my first round challah — that I needed to be able to host these gatherings for my future children.

Future children. The thought of them is why — when my mother made the comment about my grandfather — my satisfaction was tinged with sadness and worry.

This year, I’ve begun to question if I can have children.

I don’t mean “can” in the biological sense, but in the ethical sense. I don’t know if I can have children in a world rapidly approaching unlivable temperatures, rising seas, and mass extinctions.

In 2009, I, like many others, was shaken by a statistic from an Oregon State University study. It found that every American child adds 9,441 metric tons of carbon dioxide to their mother’s carbon footprint, multiplying her lifetime emissions 5.7 times. In response to the study came the now oft-repeated refrain: having a child is the worst thing you can do for the climate.

Suddenly, my recycling obsession and vegetarian diet seemed feeble. If an American drives less, drives a hybrid, recycles, and uses energy-efficient light bulbs, appliances, and windows, they save only a paltry 488 metric tons of carbon dioxide over 80 years. How could I so consciously make things worse in such a big way?

These questions are gaining traction with young people. Travis Rieder — a philosopher with the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins University, and author of Toward a Small Family Ethic — discusses these dilemmas in classrooms and forums throughout the US, and has found young audiences open to considering the issue.

No statistic, philosophical argument, or world event should make the decision about having children for you. But sometimes, I wish they would.

Rieder suggests that one way to protect the earth’s children may be to have fewer of them. Rieder tells me that after years of consideration, he developed the view that “most of us can justify having a biological child if it’s incredibly important to us to do so… but that doesn’t mean that we’re justified in having any number of children. In fact, I think for a lot of us, having more than a single biological child is difficult to justify.”

He and his partner grappled with the question for years before deciding to have one child. If they want more, they’ll adopt them. When it comes to having children, reasonable voices seem to agree that it is, at its core, a personal decision: that no statistic, philosophical argument, or world event should fully make it for you. But sometimes, I wish they would.

Activists Josephine Ferorelli and Meghan Kallman explicitly reject this framing, opting instead for one of reproductive justice. They advocate against climate guilt, and against treating procreation as a political act.

“We’ve been trained to bear the burden of climate responsibility on our shoulders by torturing our behavior, instead of pointing at the actual villains in the scenario,” Forerelli says. “Who are the major actors? It’s not you and your baby or future child. It’s the fossil fuel industry and other industries that are benefitting from selling our future.” Government policies supporting these industries also bear the guilt.

The scary statistics are problematic, they say, because they assume nothing will change. “The only reason having a kid is so climate intensive is because no one’s challenged the system that makes it so,” Ferorelli says. “There is a lot of work to be done that will allow a child in America to be less carbon-intensive, and that’s activism. Having or not having a child is not activism; challenging the system that makes that situation harmful is activism.”

In 2014, Ferorelli and Kallman founded Conceivable Future, an organization that offers concerned parents or potential parents a place to explore their worries and decisions without judgment, by helping them organize informal house parties. Kallman and Ferorelli, who can call in to parties if the organizers wish, provide loose party instructions, such as sharing relevant climate information and recording testimonies of climate justice concerns from attendants. If the speakers wish, their testimonies can be published on the group’s website. Parties feature free-flowing discussion, but participants are counselled not to judge or suggest there is one right answer.

Having or not having a child is not activism; challenging the system that makes that situation harmful is activism.

“We’re not in the business of making an ethical determination,” says Ferorelli. “We are in the business of surfacing the pain and the quandary about this, in a way that people find politically and personally productive.”

Since its founding, Conceivable Future’s understanding of reproductive justice has broadened. They now focus more on the intersection of climate and reproductive justice with other social movements, including Black Lives Matter, Indigenous rights, labor, and gender equality. “Early in our organizing we were approaching this with a very white perspective,” Kallman explains. “We were shocked and appalled in the way that state-sponsored violence has been endangering our children. But people of color have known this for years and years and years.”

Climate and reproductive justice concerns cannot be divorced from other societal concerns, says Kallman. “One thing that comes up at our house parties a lot is questions around women’s labor. And it sounds separate from climate change but it’s not.”

Problems like unequal household distribution of labor, the mommy tax, the gender pay gap, lack of universal paid parental leave, and society’s unrealistic expectations of both working and stay-at-home mothers all take a toll on a mother’s ability to participate fully in political and environmental spheres (not to mention all other spheres). Those capitalist structures that punish people for having children are the same ones that are destroying our planet, Kallman believes.

Undecided about having children herself, Kallman wonders if she would feel more confident, if we had “more expansive and supportive social systems that helped women be fuller expressions of themselves.” I consider this question for myself, and answer with a resounding yes.

It’s easy to daydream about the joy a child would bring. The immense, all-encompassing love that could be unleashed. Part of me wants, desperately, to feel that.

But while wanting kids is part of the decision, it’s not the only factor to consider. Even if I focused my entire life on fighting the policies that have enabled climate change, my kids will still suffer because of it, and watch others suffer. I imagine them scavenging, starving, afraid of the world and its drought-stricken wastes. Afraid of their fellow humans. Having learned about elephants the way I learned about dinosaurs: too magnificent to fully be believed.

My children would be wanted and loved. But is that the only thing I owe them? Do we owe our kids safety, security, food, clothes, and shelter? To unequivocally say yes smacks of classism, colonialism, and possible promotion of eugenics. “You have to believe in individual sovereignty to make any kind of meaningful alliance with people who have a history of oppression,” emphasizes Ferorelli.

I imagine them scavenging, starving, having learned about elephants the way I learned about dinosaurs: too magnificent to fully be believed.

For the next few decades at least, my partner and I will likely be able to provide food, clothes, shelter, and at least relative safety and security. In fact, my kids — American kids — will use much more than their fair share of those resources. Which is why the other question must be: what do we owe others’ kids?

I believe we owe them a world worth living in. Kallman and Ferorelli see a way to follow individual reproductive desires and still improve the world through activism. But I worry that — especially in a society with policies so hostile toward families — parenthood could significantly reduce my energy for activism.

Perhaps my kid would grow up to be an activist themself. That wish is problematic, says Rieder, the philosopher. “I worry about creating children for any of one’s own ends… People aren’t tools; we shouldn’t create them for someone else’s projects.” Is loving them a project? Wanting to give them a good life, to teach them about the joys of the world?

There are so many things I want to share with my children. Favorite books. The theater. Standing in the surf, watching ocean water retreat with the tide, washing over toes sinking into wet black sand.

Conceivable Future parties have revealed profound alienation and isolation, says Kallman. Participants worry about how they can contribute their gifts and share their knowledge if they don’t have children.

I dream of taking my kids to Japan where I lived for years, to Eastern Europe where their great-grandparents’ shtetls once stood, to Lebanon where Ryan’s father grew up. I want to show them Petra and the pyramids of Egypt, the two greatest human creations I’ve seen in my life. But the Middle East could be uninhabitable by 2050. I imagine a mother in Egypt wondering what she owes her children. Though her situation is much more dire, this anxiety grips would-be parents across the globe, and I feel kinship with this imagined woman.

Would I be able to honestly talk with my kids about humanity’s incredible capacity for creating beautiful things? How could I, when every moment we would be experiencing firsthand how we destroyed — and then refused large-scale attempts to save — the most beautiful thing imaginable: the natural world?

Does love alone make life worth living, make the world worth living in?

Do we owe our kids moments of calm, and experiences in nature they can enjoy? The chance to swim in the ocean without worrying it will drown them? The chance to explore forest instead of deforested wasteland?

Or, is the fact that they will have love, for a time at least, from me and Ryan and our families, from the friends they will make and lovers they may have, enough? Does love alone make life worth living, make the world worth living in?

Rieder wants his daughter, who will be relatively protected from climate change in the near future, to know that her privilege is not fair. “As other nations need our help to adapt, or as climate migrants need access to new, safe homes, it is my greatest hope that she will put her privilege on the line to advocate for those in need,” he says.

That wish strikes me as an extension of the idea that love might make life worthwhile. Our child might turn the love we give them into more love, and its requisite action, toward others.

I lie awake on the hot nights that are our new normal, that are only going to get hotter. Ryan and I continue to circle this issue. I’m beginning to believe that having children is a fundamentally selfish decision. But isn’t almost everything that we do? Weeks go by and we find no answers. We have set a deadline for the fall, and I have no idea what we will decide.

I consider my future child’s face. Would it have Ryan’s sea green eyes and olive skin? My small hands and flat feet? I can imagine their baby smell, their wild kid’s cackle at some bad pun I’ve made. Talking to them when they’re an awkward-limbed teenager, finally old enough to appreciate The Argonauts or The Clash; the excitement on their face as they understand something incredible humans have made.

And, inevitably, the discussions about something horrible humans have made. And what, if we’re lucky, will come after.


Jessie Szalay’s writing ranges from creative nonfiction to business journalism. She writes, edits, and teaches in a prison education program in Salt Lake City, Utah, where she lives with her husband, bullmastiff, and two geckos.

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