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The Climate Crisis Is Already Transforming the Family

Environmental and existential threats have changed parenting and fertility itself.

Photograph by Clark Hodgin

In the summer of 2020, fires swallowed up huge swaths of the Western United States. Entire landscapes dissolved into an unearthly glow of orange and yellow. Skies over Oregon and California simmered a sickly tangerine. Wildfires roared through China, India, Bolivia, Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, and Greece. Australia’s bushfire season left 25 million acres destroyed after lasting six full months. Flames crawled along the edge of the Arctic, burning throughout Siberia.

That September, Jade Sasser was on a Zoom call with her colleagues when one of them mentioned evacuating. Sasser, an associate professor of gender and sexuality studies at the University of California, Riverside, lives in Pasadena. She had smelled smoke in the air that morning and noticed a light dusting of ash on her car after a quick trip to the grocery store. But her colleague’s comment caught her off guard. As she began packing for her own evacuation, her panicked thoughts turned to her research, at the intersection of climate and reproduction: “What would I do if I had children to take care of? Would my worry and fear overwhelm me? How would I parent through this crisis?”

Climate Anxiety and the Kid Question: Deciding Whether to Have Children in an Uncertain Future
by Jade Sasser
University of California Press, 192 pp., $19.95
The Conceivable Future: Planning Families and Taking Action in the Age of Climate Change
by Meghan Elizabeth Kallman and Josephine Ferorelli
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 384 pp., $26.00

The question of whether to have children amid a deepening climate crisis has been fodder for endless essays and op-eds, books and newsletters; the New York Times columnist and podcaster Ezra Klein has said it’s his listeners’ most popular query. Such discussions have tended to focus on a future child’s carbon footprint, or the morality of bringing a child into the world that is set to experience more frequent and more extreme weather events in the future. They often take place in the conditional tense: What would a child’s life be like if the climate crisis worsens?

Sasser’s new book, Climate Anxiety and the Kid Question, is one of a number of new books that reframe this debate. Instead of probing questions about consumption or lifestyle, they focus on communities, frequently communities of color, that are already experiencing the effects of climate change, often as just one of multiple overlapping crises that shape ideas about and approaches to parenting. These books examine the relationship between reproduction, gender, and power, and map how social and environmental injustice affects people’s bodies, in ways that are already remaking the very notion of reproductive choice. In paying attention to these often overlooked experiences, they illuminate collective modes of surviving—and of parenting—in the face of environmental and other existential threats.

Sasser’s doubt about the wisdom of having children long predated the smoke in the air and the flames at her heels. “As a Black woman, I see hope for the future as a tricky thing,” she writes. “I’ve always been deeply ambivalent about the possibility of parenting a Black child in a country where racism shapes access to such basic rights as health care, education, and the ability to come away from a police encounter alive.” Sasser had been pondering the safety of her future children, informed by a daily sense of dread, well before the skies in her neighborhood swirled with ash.

Lessons for Survival Mothering Against “the Apocalypse”
by: Emily Raboteau
Henry Holt and Company, 304 pp., $29.99

“You would think that race and inequality would come up at some point in the research on the kid question,” Sasser observes. Unfortunately, she continues, “They don’t. Much of the research about climate emotions—a lot of it focused on ‘eco-anxiety’—focuses on the experiences of young, white, middle-class people.” Many polls and surveys don’t ask about race; those that do are frequently dominated by white respondents who often have college degrees. Sasser cites one Canadian survey that was 83 percent white, another of Americans that was 88 percent white and 93 percent college-educated, and another from New Zealand in which 21 out of 24 young people interviewed were white.

In one of the few polls that did break down its respondents by race, Sasser noticed, Black and Hispanic young people were one and a half to two times more likely to say that climate change was a reason they weren’t having children. In the summer of 2021, she launched her own national poll of 2,521 people aged 22 to 35—roughly half of the respondents were people of color and half were white. They had to have at least a high school diploma and believe that climate change is real. The results were nuanced. Interestingly, respondents of color were significantly more likely than white respondents to report optimism and hope with respect to climate change, and significantly less likely to report feeling angry, resentful, powerless, or numb. But they were far more likely to choose one particular negative emotion: traumatized. Most respondents from all backgrounds said that the number of kids they would have in the absence of climate change would not change from the number they wanted now. But, of those who said they would have more kids if it weren’t for climate change, twice as many were people of color. “So it was clear: race is a key factor in climate-driven reproductive anxiety and is shaping some young people’s plans to have fewer children. But why?”

Sasser offers three possible, and complementary, explanations: One is that people of color already feel unsafe in the United States, having suffered the cumulative harms of racism and colonialism. Climate change and fossil-fuel extraction subjects communities of color—in places such as historically redlined neighborhoods with vastly fewer trees than their rich counterparts, or Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” or urban drilling zones—to additional toxins, heat exposure, and air pollution, which affect their feelings about creating families. Second, surveys show people of color are more concerned about climate change, per se. And third, this level of concern appears higher partly because of the contrast with the attitudes of white people, who report greater faith in institutions and society to protect them, which makes them “less reproductively anxious than they should be.”

A loss of that faith in society is one reason Victoria, a 23-year-old daughter of Ghanaian immigrants who lives in inland California, hesitates to have children. In her area, “the diesel trucks on the road and intense heat collide to create some of the worst air quality in the country,” Sasser writes. Victoria tells Sasser that her dream of having as many as four children may be stymied by “environmental chaos.” For Victoria, racism and discrimination, and the accompanying difficulties with access to health care and quality education, are potent enough challenges even before getting to climate change. “It isn’t self-hatred, I love being Black, but the things I’ve gone through… I wouldn’t wish it on other children,” she says.

Martina, a 27-year-old Black public school teacher in Baltimore, wants to have a child, but wonders “whether she would be able to manage children from a mental health perspective.” When she walks outside in unseasonably hot weather, she tells Sasser, “I can already see how the climate affects my emotions, and I could see how that could get worse as climate change gets worse.” And indeed, when Sasser looks at her survey data, as well as other research and polls on this, she sees an unaddressed mental health crisis among young people of color. “This anxiety is layered on top of structural and systemic inequalities, fears and concerns that future children will endure discrimination, injustice, and an increasingly unlivable planet,” she writes, “and that their parents will not have the ability to buffer that and protect their children.”

Sasser places these decisions in a tradition of what she calls “reproductive resistance,” citing examples of enslaved Black women using plants as contraceptives and abortifacients to resist forced breeding, groups like the Jane Collective performing abortions outside of the medical system, and feminists and environmentalists in the 1960s who connected population with sustainability. Reproductive resistance is distinct, in Sasser’s analysis, from “reproductive refusal,” a more recent phenomenon of women safely and intentionally forgoing parenthood thanks to modern contraception. It frames reproductive decisions as “an active way of fighting back against the undesirable conditions shaping pregnancy, birth, and parenting.”

When reproductive resistance forms the basis of a visible political movement, things can get messy. Two prominent examples, both led by young women who captured global headlines in 2019, show how readily such “reproductive resistance in public,” as Sasser calls it, can be co-opted, or at least willfully misunderstood. Less than a year after a release of the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report warning of the dire consequences of exceeding 1.5 degrees warming by 2030, then 18-year-old Canadian climate organizer Emma Lim and some of her friends launched a small campaign called #NoFutureNoChildren, inviting people to join them in signing an online petition: “I pledge to not have children until I am sure my government will ensure a safe future for them.”

Lim, who had worked as a nanny and always wanted children, hoped to spark an intergenerational conversation by holding her parents’ would-be grandchildren hostage to political demands: more action to address climate change, now. The U.K.-based BirthStrike movement aimed to bring together reproductive-age people to discuss their anxieties about having children; founded by the musician and climate activist Blythe Pepino, it was another social media campaign that started as a Tumblr page and grew to include an active Facebook page. Lim’s advocacy was “predicated on refusing to keep distressing climate emotions, and their impacts on reproductive questions, private,” Sasser writes, and BirthStrike’s goal was to show how society’s prioritization of economic growth over a habitable planet was “affecting the human ability and desire to give birth,” according to its statement. Yet neither movement lasted more than 18 months. In part, this was because media coverage misinterpreted both movements as anti-natalist; in BirthStrike’s case, its Facebook page was subject to frequent postings by eco-fascists and neo-Malthusians who wanted the group to take a position against population growth, which ran counter to the movement’s core ethos.

Beyond the misreading and co-optation by malign actors, there are other obvious limits to some of these tactics, including, most painfully, missing out on a wanted child. Given the scope and scale of the climate crisis, solving it is a burden no one individual should shoulder. As climate activists Josephine Ferorelli and Meghan Elizabeth Kallman often point out, the logical end point of an analysis that links human numbers to climate change is to kill yourself. (They don’t say this snarkily; people in the climate movement have committed suicide in despair.) “Reducing one’s personal carbon footprint has become a classic dead-end dilemma that obscures rather than exposes the real problem, and the real solutions,” they write in The Conceivable Future: Planning Families and Taking Action in the Age of Climate Change.

In 2014, Ferorelli and Kallman founded Conceivable Future, a series of informal conversations about children and climate change. Although neither of the founders has ever publicly discussed their own reproductive plans, press coverage of their activism so frequently bore headlines something like “Meet The Women Who’re Choosing Not to Start Families Because of Climate Change” that, as with the BirthStrike and #NoFutureNoChildren movements, the misunderstanding of their message seemed almost deliberate. In reality, their gatherings begin with a simple, open-ended question: “How is climate change shaping your reproductive life?” The goal is to help people process their emotions with others who share their concerns, and then to spur them to action: About half of the book gives guidance on how to get involved, meaningfully and sustainably, with climate activism. “We do not use our reproductive capacities as political ends,” they write. “Rather, those capacities are an entry point to understanding our experiences, building relationships, and gearing up for greater action.”

This distinction is important. Ferorelli and Kallman note that when political movements put sex or reproduction at their center, there is a danger of editing “our identities down to our reproductive and/or sexual capacities”—which ­reinforces gender binaries, discourages men from participating in protest, and often relies on influencing men in power rather than exercising power autonomously. “It’s a power move—but a complicated one,” they observe.

The sex strike dates to at least 411 BCE and the first performance of the Greek play Lysistrata, which depicted a woman organizing her peers to withhold sex in order to compel their husbands to bring the Peloponnesian War to an end. Kallman and Ferorelli also cite the women of the Iroquois Nation, who used sex to exercise veto power over whether the tribe went to war; the Liberian women whose sex strike in 2002 helped end a 14-year civil war the following year; and the 2006 sex strike waged by wives and girlfriends of gang members in Pereira, Colombia. By withholding sex in the name of peace, these actions represent a powerful subversion of the common relationship between sex and armed conflict, in which rape is used as a weapon of war.

Then there are the movements centered on women’s identities as mothers: Argentina’s Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the Vietnam-era Another Mother for Peace, Mothers Against Drunk Driving. More recently, the authors observe, the centrality of motherhood has given way to a focus on life, and women’s role in “giving, sustaining, and defending” it. The women-founded and -led #BlackLivesMatter movement, they note, “emphasizes creating the conditions for life, in the face of the state-led violence that threatens it.” All these movements are, at their heart, about bodily autonomy: about the right to make one’s own reproductive and sexual choices, and the ability to live free from violence, whether at the hands of the state or one’s fellow citizens.

Climate change, though, has already come for our bodies. Air pollution kills millions a year. People have perished by the hundreds and thousands in typhoons, hurricanes, and floods. Nor does climate change merely inflict death; it profoundly alters our capacity for creating life. Ferorelli and Kallman highlight an often overlooked aspect of the climate-change reproduction question, namely, the way that heat, toxins, and other damage we’ve visited on our surroundings now impair our reproductive health.

Yudith Nieto, a 34-year-old climate activist, artist, and translator, got involved with organizing to fight the Keystone XL Pipeline. Nieto’s family left their farmland in San Luis Potosí, Mexico, to work in the United States. Living in East End, one of Houston’s most polluted neighborhoods, Nieto saw how her family suffered from the carcinogens and chemicals she could smell in the air. Her cousins had asthma, she tells Kallman and Ferorelli, and her aunts had “issues in their reproductive organs, reproductive issues, their children being born early, and having children with mental health and development issues.” Nieto’s testimony makes clear that while, for some, climate change has made the choice to have children more psychologically fraught, for others, climate change, acting on the body, may be taking that choice away.

The authors catalog myriad harms. Living near a fracking site is associated with higher risk of preterm birth. Spikes in air pollution are linked to spontaneous pregnancy loss. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals such as bisphenol A, or BPA, phthalates, and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, have affected sperm counts on six out of seven continents, with one large meta study finding a 50 percent drop between 1973 and 2018. A 10-degree Fahrenheit temperature rise increases the risk of stillbirth by 10.4 percent. A growing stretch of the Southern United States is becoming friendly territory for Zika-infected mosquitoes. And while some of these threats may seem indiscriminate—heat and pollution affect large geographical areas at one time—people’s ability to cope varies vastly according to the resources at their disposal.

The novelist and essayist Emily Raboteau’s Lessons for Survival: Mothering Against “the Apocalypse” also traces how social and environmental strains leave their marks on the body. As she processes the election of Donald Trump, the cry of #MeToo, and Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, she is beset by “brain fog, tension headaches, jaw pain,” and more. Millions of women were enraged, and she observes how her own body and the bodies of women close to her bore the symptoms of their fury.

We grew fibroids. Nobody knew why more Black and brown women were afflicted at a higher rate.… Our uterine linings began appearing in unexpected parts of our bodies, including our brains. Endometriosis. Prolapse. Fibromyalgia. Some of us dissociated. Some of us had panic attacks. The level of cortisol in our bloodstreams grew toxic. They removed the uterus of my friend.

Raboteau was already familiar with how injustice manifests in illness. In her community in Upper Manhattan, at the nexus of three major highways, one-third of the mostly Black and brown children (including her own sons) have asthma. Few families have the means to move. The wider Harlem neighborhood “has a childhood asthma hospitalization rate six times the national and three times the citywide average,” she writes, noting Black Americans’ higher exposure to air pollution from burning fossil fuels. “I am the mother of Black children in America,” she continues; these children are, damningly, canaries in the coal mine.

All three books highlight the responses of people and communities who are intimately acquainted with making a way out of no way; often, but not exclusively, these are mothers. Sasser calls this capacity “reproductive resilience,” encompassing “everyday acts that build the tools, strategies, and community support necessary to survive and thrive in the midst of deeply challenging—seemingly impossible—circumstances.” As she notes, “women of color are called upon to do this all the time,” as are other families navigating “racism, poverty, homophobia, and other forms of oppression and marginalization.”

Sasser and Ferorelli and Kallman also pay explicit homage to the reproductive justice movement, a body of thought and activism that emerged in the mid-1990s, crafted by Black women who did not see their lives or needs reflected in the mainstream, white-led reproductive rights movement. In response to legacies of forced birth, forced sterilization, environmental racism, and state violence, reproductive justice activists demanded the human right to have children, to not have children, and to nurture their children in a safe and healthy environment.

Sasser offers numerous examples of reproductive resilience in action. Lydia, a white high school teacher in her late twenties from Paradise, California, has refocused her classroom efforts from college preparedness to creating meaningful relationships with her students after their families lost everything in the town’s 2018 fire. Monica arrived in the United States with her family as a child, fleeing the Bosnian War; her commitment to having a family is born of “a deep desire to see something remain.” Carla, a Mexican American woman in her early twenties, wonders if her partner will be able to teach their child spearfishing; the thought has compelled her to scale up her anti-capitalist climate organizing. For all families, genetic and chosen, reproductive resilience will require “the new ‘talk.’” Black parents have always had “the talk” with their children about how to stay safe in a racist society; parents from all backgrounds must now help their children process what they are learning about climate change.

Raboteau’s essay collection could be construed as a book-length, kaleidoscopic “the talk,” in the vein of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me and climate organizer Daniel Sherrell’s Warmth. It encompasses both the traditional talk about racism and the new one about the climate emergency that already forms the backdrop to daily life. Seeking guidance on how to live and parent in the face of multiple crises, she embarks on a series of journeys, venturing into a borderless land of reproductive resilience. Her peregrinations take her on a tour of the future that many climate-conscious parents fear: broiling urban neighborhoods with too much blacktop and too few trees; Palestinian villages where, in 2016, residents got by on around 20 liters of water a day, a fraction of the 100 liters per person recommended by the World Health Organization; Alakanuk, Alaska, where Yup’ik elders recall vanished days of abundant fish and seals, their traditional foodstuffs.

The people living in these difficult circumstances offer, for Raboteau, models of resilience in the face of hardship; they move her with small acts of generosity and empathy. Ahmad, a water technician who works for a nonprofit that brings solar and wind power to isolated Palestinian villages, notices she is dehydrated and produces a peach for her; she bonds with a Palestinian feminist who received a version of “the talk” in her own childhood. Her friend Luz, who lost all her belongings in Hurricane Sandy, including a large and cherished library, moves into an RV she names Langston and becomes the world’s most appealing prepper. She tells Raboteau to make sure she always brings food and water with her in case she gets stuck underground on the subway, and advises her on what to have in her go bag (“Tuna packets. Nuts. Mini flashlight. Compact charger. Medical supplies. Change of clothes. Water. Filter. Knife…”) for when a natural disaster strikes.

Community and creativity, all three books conclude, are crucial to facing the climate catastrophe. Raboteau finds them in the creative spirit of the climate art projects she visits around New York City, and in the activists in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, who plan to transition local workers into green jobs and provide cooperatively owned renewable energy sources to residents. “Art is exactly what we need, and so much more of it,” Sasser writes, noting that art and political activism are not so distinct. Satirical shows like The North Pole, documentaries like Katrina Babies, and mainstream movies like Don’t Look Up all “create a collective experience and evoke shared emotions,” while demonstrations and walkouts are not too dissimilar from performance art. (She does not comment on climate activists’ splashing famous works of art with soup.) Ferorelli and Kallman advise the reader to “see yourself in beloved community” and use the most vivid parts of imagination to picture a better world.

“I want to see the stars in Boston and New York City,” one woman told Kallman after a talk at Northeastern University, a response that gave Kallman chills. From where I sit in Manhattan’s Chinatown, where the stars have long been hidden by smog and light pollution, such a goal falls somewhere between the poetic and the preposterous. But it also reflects an appropriate scale of ambition: the kind of forceful vision that will be necessary to finding a path through adversity together, guided by grace and grounded in care.