Children and Climate Change

The topic of "children and climate change" is getting a lot of discussion, although the #childstrike conversation is more related to despair over climate change than it is to mitigating climate change.


But there is a conversation specific to the carbon footprint of having (or not having) children, and that literature suggests that avoiding having a child may be, by far, the most important thing an individual can do to help mitigate climate change. The relevant literature is attached as Jump Thoughts to the left. You can explore the much larger topic of Population and Climate Change through the Deep Dive attached to this thought as a Parent Thought.


The relationship between children and climate change mitigation is tricky:

  • On the one hand, a growing global population has clearly contributed to growing global GHG emissions and to climate change.
  • On the other hand, global population is pretty much cast in stone for the next few decades, and individual decision-making regarding whether to have or not have children will have virtually no impact on whether a 2oC climate change target (or any other target) is achieved during the next few decades.
  • The literature suggesting that avoiding having a child is the best available way to reduce your carbon footprint is based on a long list of assumptions and calculations. And if course assumes that reducing your personal carbon footprint is the most important thing you can do to mitigate climate change. As previously discussed, that's a questionable assumption.

The other problem with counting "avoided children" as climate change mitigation can be illustrated by a somewhat analogous conservation program by the World Wildlife Fund (WFF) intended to protect an endangered lizard on a remote Pacific Island a couple of decades ago. 


After failing to protect the lizard through other means, the WWF decided to offer a reward for anyone "not catching a lizard."  The result was entirely predictable.  A huge number of people showed up to claim the monetary reward for "not catching the lizard," while the lizard's numbers continued to decline. 


The same kind of outcome is inevitable when it comes to any suggestion of rewarding not having children in the interest of climate change. Even without assuming nefarious intent, people will report not having had "another child" as evidence of their climate change commitment. The fundamental problem here can be seen in Margaret Heffernan's , and her quote with respect to climate change:


"In climate change, all the forces of willful blindness come together like synchronized swimmers in a spectacular water ballet." 


As with other options discussed here, if you choose to forego children as a response to climate change, that's certainly your prerogative. But don't think of that as "doing your part" for climate change if that means  failing to engage in some of the other ways discussed here.