To love a child is sacred. You guard their innocence and shield their infectious joy—not from mystical monsters but from those that walk the realms of humanity. My nephew introduced me to that torturous sort of love more than 11 years ago. My four-year-old niece fills me with that love whenever she jumps into my arms, something I’ll miss when she outgrows it. Watching them grow up is its own form of heartbreak, but I often comfort myself with a simple thought: “I’ll have my own kids someday.”
Nowadays, that comfort is gone because, well, I’m not so sure I’ll have kids after all. Sure, I have everything I need to start a family—a loving partner, financial stability, community—yet I find myself questioning whether I should ever conceive.
As a bisexual Latina who’s a daughter of immigrants, I’m terrified of a future where our next president ignores the climate crisis. My brown-skinned babies are sure to look a lot like the ones President Donald Trump throws into cages, and I worry about their health in an ecosystem fraught by heat, disease, and pollution. I dread a society even more dangerous and draining than the current.
Welcome to The Frontline, where I’m getting personal. I’m Yessenia Funes, the climate editor at Atmos. In this week’s final installment, I’m sharing my personal stake in America’s first climate election. This year’s elections could be the difference between whether we respond to the climate crisis in time. So I ask myself: Is it just to conceive in a world doomed by racism and rising tides, by tipped scales and toppled glaciers?
Sabrina Helm is an associate professor of consumer sciences at the University of Arizona. She focuses on climate change marketing, sustainable consumption, and the psychological effects of climate change—because that, of course, affects consumer behavior.
One of her latest papers, which is not yet peer-reviewed but has been proposed to a journal, examined how climate change factors into the decision of 24 participants from the U.S. and New Zealand to have children. This question is common in climate circles. If you want to reduce your individual carbon footprint, have fewer children, the research tells us.
As the paper puts it, “most participants” were seriously concerned with the future and, thus, felt climate anxiety. When I spoke to Helm about these findings, she mentioned that many people also expressed feelings of guilt. Makes sense. That’s how I imagine I’ll feel should my kid ever suffer at the hands of the climate crisis, an inevitable scenario given the projections for the economy and air quality.
Surprisingly, Helm noted that some participants also felt hope. They saw children as a reason to carry on, to make the world better. Something about that really stuck with me. I often imagine how proud a child could make me one day. The youth-led climate movements that have sprung up in recent years have been a source of endless inspiration and awe for me. I dream of the power my own child may have one day.
That—and the endless joy of playing dress-up—makes this all the harder for me. I really want to be pregnant one day and become a mother, but I don’t know if I can mentally handle the weight of that decision should the world go to shit. So I reached out to another professional. After all, Helm’s research shows I’m not alone in feeling afraid and anxious about whether to bring children into a climate-ravaged world.
“There is no right answer to this.”
Psychologist Ellen Peters is the director of the Center for Science Communication Research at the University of Oregon and studies the power of communication. She offered some helpful—albeit limiting—insight. I asked her straight-up: Should I let this fear stop me from having kids?!
“I can’t give advice on that other than it is a very deeply, deeply, deeply personal question,” she said, leaving me a little disappointed, but I get it. “I would advise somebody faced with that as an option to think deeply about the pros and cons of your choice and what they mean for, your own personal values. There is no right answer to this.”
Her point around there being no “right” answer did comfort me a bit. Peters went on to explain that these feelings have different origins for different individuals.
“For some people, they have looked deeply into the data, and they’ve informed themselves,” she told me—not knowing she was describing me perfectly. “And so they understand not just what the data are, but they understand what the data mean for the long term.”
Others, she said, may be basing their decisions on those around them, which is the complete opposite of my situation but fascinating to think about. If I were listening to my friends and family, I’d probably be on baby number two by now. However, my fear is there guiding me for good reason.
“For the most part, emotions are very helpful things,” Peters said. “They help us make our way through this incredibly complex world that we live in, helping us to quickly and efficiently avoid things that are really risky and go toward things that are less risky.”
The main task, however, is deciding how much of a risk you’re dealing with. In this particular situation, we’re talking about Climageddon. The climate crisis is a huge risk! Tremendous and terrifying, even! Part of what fuels negative emotions like mine, according to Peters, may be a lack of self-efficacy, or the confidence that you have the power to do something about a given situation.
That’s the thing, though: With climate change, no one individual does have the power to solve it. Even if I take small steps to reduce my impact—through buying local vegetables or using reusable bags—the world will still be on fire so long as our leaders don’t transform our society.
Still, there is the case to be made around being a climate-conscious parent and passing that knowledge and wisdom down, right? My kids should, in theory at least, be less carbon-intensive than those who didn’t grow up in a household constantly thinking about this. At the very least, they’d be incredibly informed decision-makers as adults. If those of us contemplating the climate crisis stop having kids, how will we pass on what we’ve learned?
Peters suggests individuals like myself can get out to vote to help feel they’re doing their part. Yes, that might help a bit, I suppose—but not if climate deniers walk the halls of Congress or the White House.
I don’t have any clear answers for folks. I don’t have any clear answers for myself. I often find myself admiring my dark-haired, chisel-faced partner, imagining what our little ones may look like. Sometimes, I’m filled with excitement. Other times, I feel an extraordinary sadness.
What are we leaving behind for tomorrow’s kids? Will they be OK? Perhaps instead of looking to my partner, I should be looking to the youth around me. The ones hitting the streets. The ones organizing massive phone banks. The one who won’t give up because they can’t. Maybe they’ll have the answer I seek.