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By Max Kummerow and Carter Dillard

Martin Sticker and Felix Pinkert recently wrote a piece for The Conversation assuaging parents and would-be parents who might feel guilty for having kids amid the worsening climate crisis. The gist of their argument is that previous studies have overestimated the carbon impact of having children, and that “should net zero be achieved, it would be possible to have children without being saddled with environmental guilt.”

A first thing to say is that the focus should not be on parental guilt, rather on the fate of the children in a warming world. We think policies will be required to incentivize fewer children and consuming less, both of which seem to us necessary for decent lives for future generations.

Sticker and Pinkert have a good point. The influential article that claimed five times more additional emissions from an extra child than from the sum of all the other virtuous climate saving behaviors like turning down the heat, smaller house, drive a Prius, recycle, etc. did not account for decarbonization. This can be better understood by using the Kaya Identity, a way of singling out the contributions of technology versus behaviors.

C = C/E * E/Y * Y/P * P

Where C is emissions, C/E is emissions per unit of energy generated (lower for solar panels, higher for coal), E/Y is energy used per dollar of economic output or GDP (meaning energy efficiency), Y/P is per capita income, and P is population. Yes, if C/E goes to zero, C (the left-hand side emissions total) goes to zero. But, with population and income growth doubling the size of the world economy four times in a century (to 16 times larger), will C/E go to zero?

Is pushing for growth in the face of the climate crisis reckless? 

Is pushing for growth in the face of the climate crisis reckless? 

There are three serious problems with the “don’t worry about population, the world is going to a zero emissions economy.” One is that it is not annual emissions that matter, but cumulative emissions. Once the greenhouse gasses are up there, they keep warming the earth for thousands of years. So, as Bill McKibben correctly put it, “Winning the climate battle slowly is losing.” Zero emissions in 2050 won’t save us if by then there are already too many greenhouse feedbacks triggered that will keep the earth warming.

Second, we concede that C/E of the human economy might eventually go close to zero. Carbon fuels will run out, for one thing. But decarbonizing will require new technology, some not yet invented, and hundreds of trillions of dollars invested in retooling most of the world economy including buildings, ships, cars, trucks, farm equipment, factories, air conditioning, cement, petrochemicals, and fertilizer, while ending beef production and stopping destruction of soils and forests. Also stopping permafrost melting and forest fires. It might happen eventually, but probably not fast enough to keep cumulative carbon in the safe zone. That is a sure bet because cumulative carbon is already 415 ppm, while the safe zone is estimated to max out at 350 ppm.

And then there is that embarrassing problem that despite all the solar panels, growth has so far kept global emissions increasing in something like 16 out of 22 years in the 21st century. If emissions are still rising, how will they go to zero by 2050? How will more people not mean more emissions?

Our projections using what seem to be reasonable numbers, demonstrate that the world cannot go to zero C/E fast enough to prevent catastrophic climate change without the behavioral changes of degrowth—both cutting population and cutting consumption. (Both Y/P and P need to get smaller in Kaya language.). Whether the ratio of emissions reduction per child compared to our own emissions reduction is 5 to 1 or 2 to 1 may not matter much. The biggest problem with population growth is that more people slow down the transition by demanding more energy. Moreover, 15% of world emissions come from tropical forest clearing, much of which is motivated by rising demand for beef and growing populations clearing land for subsistence farms.

How can we be free in a world dominated by other people? 

How can we be free in a world dominated by other people? 

And while Sticker and Felix end their piece acknowledging that achieving net zero “remains distant” (they do not cite studies which show how population growth is actually undoing climate mitigation progress) they remain committed to their advice that change should be addressed by "institutional and structural change” rather than individual lifestyle changes. 

It's admirable that they wish to avoid saddling parents and would-be parents with guilt, but the argument misses many key ethical questions raised by the decision to have a child in the climate crisis. Does the advice apply equally to someone wishing to have their first child, as opposed to a particularly wealthy couple choosing to have their eighth? Have the latter impinged on the rights of the former?

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Greenhouse guilt differs from guilt one can confess to the priest and be forgiven. The greenhouse gasses, once up there, stay regardless of guilt or expiation. There is no forgiveness from physical laws. Physical laws can’t even be broken if we try. Once the child is born, it will need to eat and will not be able to survive above 35 degrees wet bulb temperatures. Whether or not the parents feel guilt.

Also, why disregard impacts beyond carbon, like methane, or the dozens of other ways expanding the Anthropocene drives the climate crisis, extinctions, soil losses, deforestation, ocean acidification, and many other social and environmental problems? Way back in 1972, the MIT Limits to Growth modeling offered the insight that with exponential growth can avoid one limit, another will soon appear.

Given that having kids not just increases emissions but determines how future generations – the majority of people – will experience the crisis by determining the conditions and places in which they are born and develop, the fostering of their resilience, the resources they may call upon to deal with it, their disposition to cooperate or conflict with others, etc., more care with the subject is due. Their creation can become a double-sided sword which will inflict its death on the very children we are discussing.

How should the advice not to worry differ between wealthy and poor parents, and should they work together to eliminate things like the massive racial wealth gap – which will impact how they experience the crisis - between children so that have equal opportunities in life? Should we consider how having kids defines the nature and success of future democracies, which derive from people who derive from their creation, and which had those democracies been smaller and truly representative they might have averted the crisis?

Is it wrong to urge people to have children without accounting for and leveling out their disparate opportunities in life? 

Is it wrong to urge people to have children without accounting for and leveling out their disparate opportunities in life? 

Our authors do not address these questions, nor do they reject pronatal policies that if successful would change the nature and results of their arguments. Many authors like Sarah Conly, Rivka Weinberg, and Travis Reider, have, and find the scope of not just what intending parents should do in the crisis, but would be ethically permitted to do, much more narrow. Some have even opted for market solution schemes that we might have expected the authors to have adopted.

None are glib about risking the wellbeing of children. And the reality is that the world is now beyond risk.

Infants are being seriously harmed by the climate crisis, and the body count caused by heat waves is growing. They are being harmed because, at the most fundamental level, world leaders in the Twentieth Century chose profit-producing population growth over investing in women and children that would have assured children’s rights to particular levels of development. Who now is going to pay for these harms, and how do we most effectively reverse this process?

We cannot effectively protect children without ensuring they are born into safe conditions, ideally conducive to their development in ways that are consistent with the Children’s Rights Convention and consistent with binding human rights obligations. We most effectively achieve that outcome through family planning incentives/entitlements, which are also required to ensure equality of opportunities in life for all kids and eliminate the massive gap between rich and poor kids that we see today.

Many organizations which are committed to protecting children, animals, the environment and human rights and democracy, the missions of which commit them to helping the compensation discussed here instead have been enabling growth that undoes their claimed successes. They were benefitting large funders by choosing policies that undid with one hand what they claimed to be doing with the other.

One model for ensuring this this transfer is called Fair Start, which uses a simple baseline test geared around climate restoration to measure the wealth transfer and compensation. And because changing family norms is how we actually first account for power relations, and hence freedom, through the actual inclusion of people into political systems that should be based on the self-determination of its members, the model treats the transfer as the first and overriding human right. In it we orient from a just position, and through fair child-centric planning, we become sufficiently other-regarding to physically constitute that limit and decentralize the power others have over us in ways a document, a written constitution, never could.

Birth and developmental inequity carry from generation to generation but can be solved with fair distribution policies. 

Birth and developmental inequity carry from generation to generation but can be solved with fair distribution policies. 

Downstream forms of justice, after the unjust power relations defined by our creation, can never do this. There are dozens of simple and practical ways to begin the transition, which entails becoming sufficiently other-regarding to actually constitute – or account for power relations in – just communities. The first of those steps involve Telling the Truth about our historic family policies, and the multi-leveled harm they caused - like this child starving to death - in a process that benefitted a small minority. Those culpable must admit their wealth was built by putting its true costs on women, children, environment and democracy.

We are at a crossroads in which we can shift extreme concentrations of wealth and power to invest more in children that will protect them and their futures or leave the wealth and power where it is and knowingly place children in harm’s way. Many will take extreme and justified measures to avoid the latter.