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If Politicians Want to Raise Birth Rates, They Should Pass Climate Policy

Huge numbers of young people say they’re hesitant to have kids because of climate change.

A woman speaking into a microphone points to the crowd.
Maja Hitij/Getty Images
German climate activist Luisa Neubauer speaks at a climate strike march by Fridays for Future in Berlin, on September 24, 2021.

Because of the climate crisis, other young people often ask Luisa Neubauer whether she would choose to bring children into the world. The fact that people are even asking this question, 25-year-old Neubauer said at a recent online panel, is “a tragic moment for humanity. I don’t think there yet exists in English a word to express how dramatic that is.” Neubauer, who founded Germany’s chapter of the global climate youth movement Fridays for Future, has a point: Surely, it’s a fairly monumental development when a species starts rethinking its most basic instinct to procreate.

A recent landmark study of young people all over the world—which I wrote about here—showed how widespread this question is. Thirty-nine percent of the young people surveyed said they are hesitant to have children of their own because of the climate crisis. The concern is higher in some countries: 47 percent are reluctant to have kids in the climate-vulnerable Philippines and 48 percent in Brazil, where Jair Bolsonaro’s far-right government has presided over unprecedented deforestation of the Amazon rain forest, the world’s biggest carbon sink.

Once upon a time, environmentalists might have cheered falling birth rates. After all, babies born in wealthy countries, particularly, have a large carbon footprint. (Even though they look so innocent! It’s like the Christian doctrine of original sin.) Labeling procreation an ecologically destructive consumer choice—like buying an SUV—has at points been a staple of liberal guilt-tripping over climate.

This line of thinking was always pretty questionable. If we’re not saving the planet for future humans, who are we saving it for? And unless we curb the power of the fossil fuel industry—the real villain of the climate crisis—nobody’s noble individual sacrifices will make any difference. It’s offensive to insist that ordinary people deprive themselves of children and grandchildren on account of Exxon Mobil’s wrongdoing. And like all talk of individual carbon footprints, it’s a complete distraction from the urgent need to curtail fossil fuel production.

But the 39 percent of young people hesitating to have kids aren’t thinking about it from the perspective of carbon footprints. They just don’t want to inflict the climate crisis on their kids or to endure the potential terror of fearing for their children in an increasingly dangerous world. It’s in that spirit that many are considering an undeclared birth strike.

It’s not the first time in history that people have questioned the wisdom of bringing children into a screwed-up world. But this moment is unusual: People don’t usually forgo reproduction en masse out of apocalyptic fear. There is no evidence that Cold War anxieties around nuclear war shaped Americans’ family planning, for example.

One reason today is different is that although the idea of nuclear war was undeniably scary, it was only a possibility. Climate disaster, on the other hand, is a current reality with a grim trajectory: A study published in Nature this week found that if the planet keeps warming at its current pace, a child who was six years old in 2020 will live through 36 times more heat waves, twice as many wildfires, three times more river floods, and twice as many droughts as an adult born in 1960, all increasing the risk of crop failures, as well.

When we become parents, we worry about every possible danger that our children might face, no matter how unlikely. The fears run in our minds on a loop in what a friend of mine once described as “the horror movie in your head.” It can be reassuring to dismiss the most absurd of our parental worries: It turns out there is statistically no chance that the toddler will drown in the toilet, even though the baby industrial complex will try to sell you a toilet lock to prevent that distressing event. (My husband had to talk me out of this one at Buy Buy Baby, and later presented the cheering stats.) It’s harder to talk oneself down from worrying about car accidents or teen suicides, but these are still only possibilities. Climate change, however, is already here.

In this way, young adults’ climate-induced wariness about parenthood is more comparable to birth strikes over the contemporary context for child-rearing. Jenny Brown, in her 2019 book Birth Strike: The Hidden Fight Over Women’s Work (PM Press), argues that a declining birth rate can be an undeclared refusal, by women, to perform work under intolerable conditions. Even before the climate crisis touched mass consciousness, many erstwhile parents in the United States were confronting a lack of societal support—affordable day care, health care, college—and choosing to have fewer children, or none.

To Brown, a labor journalist who has been active in National Women’s Liberation and Redstockings, a birth strike, like any other strike, has powerful potential. In her book, she argues that policymakers and corporate elites want the citizenry to reproduce and provide future workers, and women’s refusal to do so should be framed in political terms, as a demand for better working conditions.

Could young people’s climate birth strike alarm elites into addressing the climate crisis? At times governments have responded to declining birth rates by trying to improve the conditions for reproductive labor. Though most of it comes from labor activism, some of Sweden’s famous social welfare state was influenced in part by policymakers’ concerns about falling birth rates. Bolshevik revolutionary—and government minister—Alexandra Kollontai thought the early Soviet Union should address its low birth rate by making reproduction more appealing: providing state support, including all-day day cares, socialized cooking through public canteens, and maternity hospitals where new mothers could recuperate from birth and spend time with their babies. (Stalin later found much of this program too expensive and simply made abortion illegal.) Similarly, addressing—and mitigating—the climate crisis would improve the conditions for reproductive labor and make having children far more appealing for humans today.

The political implications and potential of the birth rate is a touchy subject, because we’re used to framing reproduction as a personal choice (except for the far right, which is happy to let the government force people in Texas into child-rearing labor). And low birth rates aren’t only a sign of anxiety and pessimism about the future, or poor social supports; when women are more educated and have more career options, they tend to have fewer kids. Having no children—or fewer than your foremothers—can be a sound life choice. But when almost two in five young people say they may not have children of their own because of the climate crisis, that’s not progress. It’s a sign of pain and distress—and a call for help. It may not move congressional Republicans and moderate Democrats into investing in sound climate policy this month—but it should.