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As the dead from hurricane Ian pile up, there is a more subtle threat looming in the lives of the children Ian touched – the pollution it can cause. The storm made it hard to find clean drinking water.

Ian, driven to intensity in part by the climate crisis, represents the feedback loops we are seeing elsewhere in nature, with one ecological problem causing another. And Ian was disastrous for another reason that connected the storm to the climate crisis. Florida politicians had gone out of their way to place a growing population in its path, growth that itself is helping drive the climate crisis.

As an activist and researcher I’m keenly aware of this, and am the controversies that surround having kids, and parenting them, the age of a climate crisis that could devastate futures. But the impact of all of these things, like access to clean drinking water in the wake of Ian, will not be felt equally among children. Florida recently ranked near the worst in the nation for levels of inequality, and inequality changes how children experience and can respond to environmental threats.

Can the storm help wake us up to the need to change the way we plan families, both to limit our impact on nature but also to have and raise kids in ways that lessens the extent to which we put them in harm’s way?

Smaller families allow more investment in each child 

Smaller families allow more investment in each child 

Yes – and it’s called climate-crisis parenting.

What is climate-crisis parenting? Basically, it’s moving to collective investments that maximize child equity, child prosperity and that improve generational resilience. Hurricane Ian, Fiona and their intensified forebears should convince us that human activity – and the family policies that increase that activity - causes the climate change that, looping back, threatens the kids we have.

It reminds us of the need to change the way we parent to fit the environment in which we are doing it.

For many, our moms and dads nurtured us, drove us to sports practices and games, and helped with homework. Though parenting now requires upgrading to prepare future generations that involves a paradigm shift from formidable fears toward climate resilience and survival. And we can think of climate crisis parenting in four steps.

First we have to shift from seeing having kids and parenting as something personal to something interpersonal. It matters beyond what our families, defining the world around us, albeit often too slowly for our human brains to see. As such, true family values should require our shifting our priorities to reducing child poverty and alleviating adversity and other threats from the climate crisis so that our children live in a future that is ecologically, and socially, hospitable to them.

I want other people to plan their families, and parent, to protect others’ kids and theirs at the same time, not in a bubble that separates our children until they clash together, and it’s too late.

Today, too many households contend with disasters that are anything but natural. FEMA officials warn of storm surge and intensity. This year’s extreme heat, wildfires, and floods represent devastation challenging us beyond our wildest dreams. Kids are disproportionately harmed by polluted air and contaminated water too.

What conditions would you not want to be born into? 

What conditions would you not want to be born into? 

In an increasingly dangerous world, climate-crisis parenting means prepare, anticipating and responding to crises that threaten the children we have by changing the way we plan for and have them. There’s no denying the climate crisis endangers children, creates unimaginable hardships, and destroys their health and with it their life prospects to flourish in a variety of horrible ways. That is why the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) is such a crucial step in the right direction.

The IRA is a decisive response that fairly anticipates the climate crisis by driving demand for electric vehicles, low-carbon materials/construction and cleaner technologies, and extends tax credits and increases in funding for pioneering energy technologies, which produce lower-carbon and zero emissions. The landmark IRA creates jobs, reduces waste and improves efficiency.

Preemptively, the IRA also combines with other federal policies that seek to drive down child poverty. These policies and other factors has driven down rates of child poverty in the United States, with a 59 percent decline from 1993 to 2019. The factors range from increased employment rates to mothers’ participation in the labor force, to higher minimum wages. Elsewhere, the impact of child tax credit payments – literally offsetting the income parents report – have helped drive down the poverty rates.

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This brings us to a second tenet of climate crisis parenting: Prioritizing equitable birth and development conditions that, and the distribution of wealth necessary to, level the field of life opportunities for all children. We must abandon the ridiculous myth that being born rich or poor, with the lot in life that assigns us, is a matter of fortune rather than the absence of good policy.

Preparation leads to good things. 

Preparation leads to good things. 

Think of our values of freedom and democracy – that which the United States touts as its political ideal – simply as self-determination. If we want our children to live free we will have to do more than nibble at their poverty. We will need to restore the natural world and eliminate the emissions that are polluting their lives and futures. In part that means accurate measuring of emissions, a first step that we have yet to take, as the science on methane changes constantly to reveal new levels of threat.

But it also means reducing not just poverty but the gulf of inequity that separates rich and poor kids, the gulf that will determine who the climate crisis kills. We should be ensuring true equality of opportunity for all children, not the United States of today where rich kids and poor kids carry their class into adulthood. And on that ideal, the news is not great. Child economic inequality remains sky high, as does intergenerational wealth immobility.

The disparity among children is even greater when we account for race, with the 2019 median wealth Black households in the United States standing at $24,100, against $189,100 for white households. So while a focus on policies that cut childhood poverty are great, we are far from anything resembling equality of opportunity, as being born rich or poor largely determines our economic class later in life.

Inequity is inherited 

Inequity is inherited 

What is the third tenet of climate crisis parenting? We need a universal ethics of smaller and more sustainable families where there is a natural fit between the time and love parents can give each child, and love for the natural or nonhuman ecologies children will need restored in order to thrive. Child tax credit income can also have undesirable consequences. If treated a prenatal incentives to increase fertility rates, which is the goal of many politicians, the temporary payments can not only mask structural poverty, inequity and racism but they can exacerbate the climate crisis, driving up rates of population growth which long-run have a disastrous and success-reversing impact on attempts to mitigate the climate crisis.

Climate impacts on children, which are already manifesting as the climate crisis unfolds, compound the impacts of poverty, creating life-long health consequences that drag down anything resembling equality of opportunity in life. To the extent we have focused on poverty, rather than equity, because of our obsession with economic growth and gross domestic product, the climate crisis is another reason to change course. Total product should not matter less than how it is distributed, and how it impacts the ecosystems humans need to thrive.

If we care about children, we will do more than use modest attempts to improve their life prospects.

And with this we arrive at the last tenet of climate crisis parenting: Being ready, in the sense of embracing the other tenets described above, before we choose to have children. Horrific cases of child abuse and neglect, something that remains widespread with disastrous consequences for everyone involved and especially for the children as they go through life, show the overwhelming need for this.

Parental readiness, over procreative privacy, truly changes the world.

This all pivots us from a family planning system – the system most fundamental to who we are and who we are becoming – that focuses on fulfilling would-be parental desire to a system that collectively focuses on what future children need. That move – from parent to child centric – would allow us to move beyond reducing poverty towards ensuring equality of opportunity.

One solution to actually implement climate crisis parenting could be as simple as steeply redistributive baby bond legislation designed to incentivize family planning that actually gives all children equal opportunities in life, socially and ecologically. There is no need to ignore the long run threat, while dealing with immediate ones.

Baby bonds, if made truly equitable, have another value. They can be used to entitle and incentivize planning and delay, which in turn reduce family sizes and vastly increase the long-run success of climate crisis mitigation efforts. Combined with some of the factors that have helped drive down poverty, these bonds – if equitable – free women and children from the bonds of pronatalism, and poverty.

With the climate crisis upon us we need to do more than reduce poverty. We need to change to a new form of parenting: Climate crisis parenting. We need to meet our ideals of democracy and freedom and doing that will take greater – and more equitable – investments in family planning and the future generations who otherwise face unimaginable challenges that our social and environmental policies have created for them. We owe them that much.

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