Why Climate Change Is Making Many Rethink Parenting

illustration of a woman with her eyes closed and clouds, pacifiers, and baby carriages floating around her head

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Some 40 percent of young people say they’re reluctant to have kids, according to one poll.

Lizz Schumer is 34, she lives in New York City and has been married to her husband for seven years. Like most women of her age, she’s thought a lot about starting a family. She’d once considered having kids a “foregone conclusion,” she wrote in an essay for Good Housekeeping, “just another box I was expected to check on the path toward adulthood.” But as the wildfires in the west grow more devastating with each summer, the hurricanes more savage and unpredictable, and the warnings from scientists that we’re hurtling toward a point of no return become more urgent and more frequent, something switched for Schumer and her husband. 

“We started to really think about if we were to bring children into the world, what kind of world are we bringing them into?” she tells KCM.

Schumer’s not alone. This facet of “climate anxiety,” the unease triggered by our slowly warming planet and its cascading consequences, is on the rise. A recent poll of 10,000 young people ages 16 to 25 from around the world found that 40 percent of them were reluctant to have children because of the climate crisis. And 33 percent of young adults who expect to have fewer children cited climate change as a factor, per a 2018 New York Times survey.

Andrew Bryant, a Seattle-based therapist who specializes in treating eco-anxiety, says he’s noticed more clients struggling over whether they want to become parents. Some question whether it’s ethical to have a child, as that will inevitably contribute to the carbon emissions warming our planet. (A much-discussed Swedish study published in 2017 calculated that the greatest impact an individual could make in the fight against climate change was to have one fewer child.) 

Others, like Schumer, fear the next generation will suffer through a series of progressively more devastating natural disasters. And many harbor profound feelings of grief, Bryant said. Where he practices in the Pacific Northwest, for instance, wildfires have ravaged large swaths of the region, clouding the summer air with smoke — a phenomenon that only became routine over the past few years. “There’s a sense of grief about the way summers were in the past,” he says. “There’s a lot of sadness about how a certain park or a glacier they hoped to bring their children to, may one day no longer be there.”

Just look at the historic flooding, which temporarily closed Yellowstone National Park in June and may have forever altered its landscape.

There seems to be a generational divide in how people are approaching this issue, says Jo McAndrews, a therapist in the U.K. and a member of the Climate Psychology Alliance. Millennials, who didn’t grow up thinking about global warming or at least weren’t being bombarded regularly with dire warnings about its effects, are now in the thick of reassessing whether or not they want to be parents. 

That process has been jarring for Hannah Evans, 34, who like Schumer says she once considered having kids “a given” and is grappling with feelings of grief and anxiety.

“I’m having a really hard time right now figuring all of that out,” she says. “It’s like I can’t just table this for a while because we do, as women, have a biological clock.”

For many younger people raised with this messaging, climate change has already deeply impacted their feelings around having children.

“It’s something that’s coming suddenly to a generation of women now in their 20s and 30s, but it’s also changing the childhood expectations of children growing up with this anxiety,” McAndrews says. She sees that apprehension developing in her teenage daughter, who from a young age had dreamed of being a mother but as early as 12 began worrying about raising children in a warming world. 

“When she was 12, she said to me, ‘Does climate change mean I can’t have children?’ So she was questioning it in a way,” McAndrews says. 

This angst doesn’t just exist on the fringe; it’s been pushed into the mainstream consciousness. Celebrities from Miley Cyrus to Seth Rogen to even Prince Harry have gone on the record to say how climate change has prompted them to either forgo parenting entirely or rethink how many children they want. 

In 2019, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gave voice to this feeling in an Instagram live stream from her kitchen. “There’s scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult. And it does lead young people to have a legitimate question: Is it OK to still have children?” she asked. That same year, the BirthStrike movement was formed by a coalition of people in the U.K. who declared their “decision not to bear children due to the severity of the ecological crisis.” 
Both instances were met with contempt. Ocasio-Cortez’s comments were lambasted as alarmist, with one pundit calling it “disturbingly authoritarian, even fascistic.” BirthStrike eventually changed its name because organizers felt it was being misinterpreted as a population control campaign.

So, it’s no wonder this topic and decision remains a taboo, and why so many young people are reluctant to talk about it, says Sabrina Helm, a professor at the University of Arizona. For a recent study on the topic, Helm interviewed young adults from the U.S. and New Zealand. One major theme that surfaced again and again in her conversations was how dismissed her subjects felt when expressing their concerns about having children, especially by their parents or older people in general. 

“Many of them felt invalidated or ridiculed,” Helm says. “While vocalizing their sorrow, they’d say their parents would dismiss them, tell them that they’d eventually meet someone, fall in love, and have 10 kids. They felt really disrespected.”

But they should have a little more sympathy. After all, existential anxiety has almost always been a consideration in family planning. For many Baby Boomers, who remember the duck-and-cover drills of the Cold War era, the threat of nuclear annihilation loomed large over their decisions to have children. Though the comparison between eco-anxiety and nuclear anxiety isn’t perfect. (Teetering on the brink of nuclear war triggered feelings of depression and unease for plenty of people, but the solution — nuclear disarmament — feels a little tidier and easier to grasp conceptually than the global effort it would take to mitigate climate change.) An important distinguishing feature, Bryant says, is the feeling of guilt that accompanies climate anxiety. 

“There’s another layer to it because everybody’s involved through their consumption and behavior, action or inaction,” he says. “So I think that leads to a sense of responsibility and helplessness in the face of a slow-moving process compared to nuclear war.”

Many people are finding it hard to talk about even with their families and friends, which can be an isolating experience. “A lot of people feel alienated or disconnected,” Bryant says, which is why group therapy or support groups can be an effective treatment method. Facilitating conversations about this is the aim of the Motherhood in a Climate Crisis project, a series of performances (patterned a bit after The Vagina Monologues) McAndrews and her colleagues are organizing this summer in the U.K. They’re hoping it provides a venue for all types of women to share their stories, from mothers worried about their children’s futures to those making the choice to remain childfree. 

“If one woman can tell her story of how she’s decided not to have children, that can be out there and we can all talk about that, rather than just ponder statistics,” McAndrews says. “We’re trying to bring this issue to life.”

One point that often goes overlooked is that for many women, deciding not to procreate isn’t an act of nihilism. The head of the BirthStrike movement told the Guardian her aim wasn’t to “solve” the climate crisis through her campaign or to shame anyone who wants to be a parent, rather it’s an effort to channel her grief “into something more active and regenerative and hopeful.” 

Evans says it’s freeing just to have the choice — to either be able to have kids and teach them to be advocates for the planet, or to not and to break away from cultural standards. “I think it’s really empowering,” she says. “Reenvisioning what it means to have a fulfilling, successful life here on this planet, without any of those societal norms dictating my desires.”