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Will climate worries lead people to have fewer babies?

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Will climate worries lead people to have fewer babies?

The first systematic study of the question finds the answer is more complicated than you might think.
November 14, 2023

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Worries about climate change are beginning to affect people’s decisions about having children, according to a review of previously published studies. Overall, people who are more concerned about climate change also tend to want fewer children or none at all—but people’s feelings about the topic are also more complex than has been portrayed in the media, the study reveals.

Over the last decade, media reports in wealthy countries of the Global North have offered some anecdotal evidence of young people planning to forego having children because of climate change worries. And three movements—Conceivable Future in the United States, BirthStrike in the United Kingdom, and No Future No Children in Canada—have emerged to harness these concerns for political change.

But formal scientific studies of how climate change is affecting people’s reproductive plans and decisions remains scarce, particularly in the Global South.

In the new analysis, researchers searched through half a dozen databases of scientific literature to identify studies related to climate change, mental health, and reproductive decisions. They found 13 English-language studies involving a total of 11,779 participants conducted between 2012 and 2022.

Eleven of the 13 studies were conducted in the Global North—the US, Canada, New Zealand, and Europe—the researchers report in the journal PLOS Climate. Some of the studies were small, involving as few as seven, 14, or 20 participants, but overall seven studies were judged to be high-quality and the remaining six medium-quality.

 

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The previous research included five survey-based quantitative studies, all conducted in the Global North, with a total of 10,788 participants; six qualitative studies, including the two in the Global South, with a total of 384 participants; and two mixed-methods studies that included both multiple-choice and open-ended questions, both based on the same U.S. dataset with 607 participants.

Overall, 12 of the 13 studies yielded solid evidence linking greater climate concern with less positive attitudes about having children and intentions to have fewer children or none at all. Yet four of the studies also offered evidence, albeit weaker, that climate concern may lead some people to desire more children.

So far, media coverage and public conversation about climate concern and reproductive decisions has generally emphasized people’s uncertainty and worries about a hypothetical child’s well-being in a climate-altered world. And this was one of the most prominent themes in the scientific studies too.

But there were other concerns that bubbled up as well. Some participants in studies conducted in the Global North were worried that having children would contribute to overpopulation and overconsumption; in one study, some participants believed that not having children was the best way to reduce one’s personal carbon footprint.

In the studies conducted in Zambia and Ethiopia, some participants wanted fewer children because of worries that they wouldn’t be able to provide for the family as climate change makes it harder to grow crops and raise livestock. But on the other hand, a few men in the Zambian study wanted more children to help with farming and herding under difficult conditions.

Political concerns also surfaced: in one study, some participants were worried that having children would leave them less time for the fight against climate change. “Interestingly only two participants across all studies reported their refusal to have children on a more public scale, as a method of ‘striking’ until systemic change was enacted,” the researchers write. “This is surprising given the prominence of BirthStrike, Conceivable Future, and No Future No Children that had this notion at the very core of their movements.”

And for some, political concerns around climate change provided a reason to have more children, to close the political ‘fertility gap’ in which conservatives tend to have more children than liberals. “Participants feared that this gap would widen if they, as liberal and environmentally conscious individuals, chose to have fewer children which could further exacerbate the climate crisis,” the researchers report.

More studies are needed from the global Global South, the researchers say, as well as more teasing apart of the multiple and often contradictory factors that contribute to reproductive decisions, more input from gender-diverse participants, and longitudinal studies to probe the cause-and-effect relationships between climate concern and family planning, as well as how people’s attitudes may change as they grow older.

Source: Dillarstone H. et al.Climate change, mental health, and reproductive decision-making: A systematic review.” PLoS Climate 2023.

Image: ©Anthropocene Magazine.

 

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