Global warming and climate change are having a chilling effect on family planning.
Young adults say that concerns over climate change and uncertainty about the future of the planet influence their reproductive decision-making, according to a new University of Arizona study released on Earth Day.
The peer-reviewed report interviewed 24 adults ages 18 to 35 who said that climate change, aka the significant, large-scale change in average weather patterns such as conditions becoming warmer, wetter or drier over several decades or more, does indeed play an important role in deciding whether or not to have kids. And while this is a small sample size, larger studies have found similar results. A recent Morning Consult poll of 4,400 Americans found that one in four childless adults say climate change influenced their reproductive decisions.
The most common concern in the new University of Arizona report was overconsumption, with the Gen Z and millennial respondents worrying about how their children would contribute to climate change by adding to the carbon footprint, as well as overusing resources like food and water that could become more scarce in the future. Indeed, the World Health Organization warned last July that almost 690 million people went hungry in 2019 — up by 10 million from 2018, and by nearly 60 million over the previous five years. And that was before the COVID-19 pandemic of the past year, which could push 130 million more people into chronic hunger.
Overpopulation was another popular concern among those surveyed in the new report, with some young adults saying they felt that having more than two children would be selfish because they would be “over-replacing” themselves and their partner. What’s more, many were considering adoption as a “low-carbon alternative” to starting a family.
Finally, many of the young adults choosing to go childless said that uncertainty over the future was also discouraging them from starting families. Many expressed feelings of guilt, as if they would be doing something “morally or ethically wrong” if they brought babies into a world with such a possibly bleak future, the paper added. But some subjects did express optimism that future generations could make things better, although that would be a heavy burden to place on the next generation.
“Many people now are severely affected in terms of mental health with regard to climate change concerns,” wrote the study’s lead author, Sabrina Helm, an associate professor in family and consumer sciences. “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 beyond the immediate effect of weather phenomena.”
The U.S. birthrate plummeted to a 35-year low of 1.7 births per woman in 2019, which is well below the replacement level of 2.1 births per woman. And even though millions of Americans were sheltering in place without much to do over the past year, lockdowns didn’t lead to a COVID baby boom. In fact, a report from the Brookings Institution is calling the past 12 months a “COVID baby bust,” predicting between 300,000 and 500,000 fewer births in 2021. And some companies and economists are bracing for the long-term impact from fewer infants.
To have babies, or not to have babies, is a question that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) infamously raised in an Instagram live stream in 2019. “Basically, there’s a scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult,” she said. “And it does lead, I think, young people to have a legitimate question: Is it okay to still have children?”
Her comments drew backlash, particularly among conservative pundits like Fox News host Steve Hilton, who referred to it as a “no-child policy” and called it “disturbingly authoritarian, even fascistic.”
But indeed, economic and environmental factors alike are weighing on some adults’ decisions to start a family — or not to.
Most childless millennials (almost three in five) said one reason they don’t have kids is because it’s simply too expensive to raise them, according to a Morning Consult poll of 4,400 adults last fall, which included 1,287 millennials. But a third (34%) also noted that concern about climate change was another reason for choosing not to have children. And among adults of all ages, one in four (26%) also said that climate change has factored into their reproductive decisions.
And that’s aligned with a previous poll Morning Consult conducted for the New York Times in 2018. It surveyed 1,858 people ages 20 to 45, and 11% of respondents said they “didn’t want children or weren’t sure” because they were “worried about climate change.” And a third (33%) said they were having fewer children than they wanted because of climate-change concerns.