Opinion: Climate Change Is a Political Crisis, Not a Reproductive One

Asking millennials to forego children in the name of climate change only lets the fossil fuel industry off the hook.

The climate strikes led by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg and youth groups around the world have achieved great strides, growing rapidly and drawing attention to the dire climate dilemma we face today. A majority of Americans are concerned about climate change and want people to address it right now, according to a recent CBS poll.

But one popular proposal to emerge, that people should have fewer kids, probably isn’t the climate panacea that would-be parents would like to believe. Going childless will do little to derail the main drivers of climate change, and asking millennials to take on that burden — as if the problem’s their responsibility — only lets the fossil fuel industry’s juggernaut off the hook.

The idea of foregoing children to mitigate climate change is essentially an extension of arguments that call for individuals to help save the climate by changing their consumer behavior — say, by switching to energy-efficient light bulbs, installing solar panels, eating less meat, or buying fuel-efficient cars. But it would surely take decades to substantially reduce the world’s population by going childless, if that is even an achievable and desirable societal goal, and we’re already set to overshoot the world’s carbon budget — the level of cumulative carbon emissions that would result in reaching the critical threshold of 2 degrees Celsius of warming — in the 2030s. Climate change is a structural problem involving politics and economics, not personal choices, and solving it will require huge political and economic changes.

That’s not to say that population doesn’t matter. More than 11,000 scientists signed on to a paper, which came out in early November, arguing for “drastic transformations regarding economic and population policies,” among other things, to avert the worst outcomes of climate change. But when it comes to carbon emissions, economics and population are inevitably intertwined. After all, it’s the rich who generate most of the Earth’s carbon emissions. According to a 2015 study, the wealthiest 10 percent of the world is responsible for half of global emissions. A more recent study showed that, even among people who make a conscious effort to limit their carbon footprints, emissions are closely tied to income level. So if a rich family were to decide to have one fewer kid, the family’s emissions would indeed be lower than they would be otherwise.

But a focus on population inevitably puts the burden of climate change on the backs of poorer people and people in developing countries — who tend to drive global population growth — despite them not being a major cause of global warming. No one would blame climate change on Ugandans or Afghans, even though the population growth rates in those countries are among the highest in the world. Neither would anyone blame it on the Latin American immigrants contributing to the U.S.’s (slower) population expansion. Population growth in the U.S. isn’t being driven by high-income, high carbon-emitting families having more children.

Our personal choices aren’t unimportant, but alone they won’t cut it. Although one less child might mean fewer carbon emissions for one family, it would barely register as a blip on U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and it would also have little to no effect on average emissions per person. Globally, those per capita emissions have held steady, according to data available through 2014, regardless of how many babies people have made. So even if we all stopped having kids for the sake of the climate, it wouldn’t be enough to get us to the International Panel on Climate Change’s recommended goal of net zero carbon emissions by the year 2050.

A focus on population inevitably puts the burden of climate change on the backs of poorer people and people in developing countries.

Scientists predict that by the end of the century, climate change will have brought more intense hurricanes and typhoons, sea levels rising between 12 inches and 8.2 feet, and more massive wildfires and extreme droughts. At best, humane population-focused measures — policies like making family-planning services available to all and removing barriers to their access — might delay the next Sandy- or Katrina-like superstorm that batters the East or Gulf Coast, or the next megafire that scorches another California town. But everything else being equal, those increasingly destructive disasters will still come.

That’s likely why climate-focused nongovernmental organizations like 350.org and Sunrise Movement aren’t advocating for fewer kids but instead for government policies that decouple economic growth from carbon emissions. It’s that coupling that has scientists worried that climate change will worsen as developing countries mature and expand their middle classes. To start, the solution will call for rapidly replacing fossil fuels like oil and coal with climate-friendly power sources, especially solar and wind power. Fully realizing the decoupling will require society-wide changes to many industries and infrastructure systems, including transportation systems, the electric grid, agriculture, and housing.

When we’re bombarded with news stories about disturbing climate-related impacts every day, it’s natural to want to make a difference somehow. Major political and structural changes aren’t easy to achieve, and people want to do what they can on their own, including assessing the impacts of their own actions. Furthermore, the decision of whether to have a child can stir up deeply personal worries. But the child’s impact on climate change need not be among them.

The decision of whether to have a child can stir up deeply personal worries. But the child’s impact on climate change need not be among them.

An obsession with population merely distracts from the elephant in the room: It lets the fossil fuel industry win. Recent reports showed that 71 percent of carbon emissions are due to just 100 companies. A third of the world’s emissions come from 20 of those companies, all of them in the fossil fuel industry. ExxonMobil, BP, and Chevron — the three investor-owned companies highest on the list — don’t care if you choose not to have a child. Since 1965, those companies have polluted the atmosphere with the equivalent of well more than 100 billion tons of carbon dioxide, and they’ll pump out many more in the decades to come — whether or not you have an offspring. They each spend tens of millions of dollars lobbying to block climate policies at the state and federal level every year. In the face of that reality, asking a young person to go child-free for climate change smacks of gaslighting. The world’s ongoing carbon emissions have little to do with a woman’s uterus.

Environmentalists and advocates for climate action want to protect and preserve the Earth for future generations, not just current ones. Let’s stay focused on the root causes of climate change. Our climate crisis is not primarily a reproductive crisis but a political and economic one. If you’re passionate about tackling climate change, you might make a tiny difference with your individual consumer and reproductive choices. But the biggest lifestyle choice you can make to combat climate change is not to forego having a kid, it’s to become a climate activist — and raise your kid to become one too.

Ramin Skibba (@raminskibba) is an astrophysicist turned science writer and freelance journalist who is based in the Bay AreaSan Diego. He has written for WIRED, The Atlantic, Slate, Scientific American, and Nature, among other publications.