Climate change has caused an unusual debate.
You're reading Tangle: an independent, ad-free, nonpartisan politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the debates of the day. Today's piece is a subscribers' only Friday edition written by Tangle editor Ari Weitzman.
Today's read: 10 minutes.
As an editor for Tangle, during a normal morning I’ll have a few browser tabs open. Usually, I’ll be in the middle of reading some articles about the day’s topic when Isaac shares a Google doc of the newsletter that he’s been preparing, which I then spend some time criticizing. I’ll have another tab open in which I can message Isaac on the side, often useful for the moments when I have criticized him too much and need to apologize.
Occasionally, during the course of the morning, Isaac will send me something he found particularly fascinating: an introspective op-ed, where the author said something in a way Isaac had been struggling to articulate; a convincing blog post, from someone taking a side he generally disagrees with; a well-written article, but one whose Twitter mentions were interestingly aggressive.
On Tuesday, he sent me exactly that.
Ezra Klein had published a piece in the New York Times that took the stance that it is justifiable, morally, to have children. Isaac thought it a bit bizarre that the question needed to be answered at all, but that Klein handled it gracefully. Since I’m Tangle’s resident “climate writer”, he was curious to hear my thoughts. Then, reading some of the article’s reactions on Twitter, he also noticed a certain kind of reaction was getting a lot of engagement. This kind of reaction was not so much one of disagreement — it was more like mirthful derision. This tone and posture is commonplace on Twitter, but it’s especially common anytime a writer boldly argues “climate change will be bad, but not apocalyptically bad.” Look at the treatment Vox got when they made a similar attempt.
Given my interest in the subject, Isaac asked me to write a bit about the disagreement over whether or not it’s morally okay to have children. He and I also talk a lot about ethics, politics, and how people perform their morals online, and he knew I’d have a lot to say. So, what did I think? Would I write about it?
“It’s going to be about ethics.” I told him. “People don’t like to read about ethics.”
But I don’t know… maybe you’ll prove me wrong.
The Argument Against Having Kids
As the next generation comes into maturity, the question of having kids is now front-and-center for them. And it’s no small concern. As many as 40% of young people surveyed in a recent study said they were hesitant to have any children. With the UN issuing a “Code Red” on climate change and new temperature records being set with regularity, it’s easy to understand why 59% of the next generation might be “extremely worried,” while 84% say they are at least “moderately worried.”
According to another survey, as many as 58% of young people are re-considering having any (or additional) children, because of issues related to climate change.
The reasons tend to come in one of two varieties: It is unfair to children to have to grow up in the world we’ve created, or it is unfair of me to create the resource demand of another human life.
The first argument generally looks like this, as quoted from the Modern Fertility survey referenced above: “This isn’t just our generation’s Cold War; it’s bigger than that. Our main fear is a shortage of resources and inability to protect our children from bad things that are coming, and we’re trying to balance our hope for mitigation with how much of an ‘anxiety passion’ this has become.” In short: If I know that climate change will make it hard to exist in the world, it isn’t ethical to inflict that existence upon an innocent person.
The second argument is a little more analytical, and is focused on “the carbon footprint of procreation.” A 2017 study focused on individual actions a person could take to mitigate climate change concluded with these four recommendations, “having one fewer child (an average for developed countries of 58.6 tonnes CO2-equivalent (tCO2e) emission reductions per year), living car-free (2.4 tCO2e saved per year), avoiding airplane travel (1.6 tCO2e saved per roundtrip transatlantic flight) and eating a plant-based diet (0.8 tCO2e saved per year).” In short: If I know that deciding against having a child helps prevent climate change, it isn’t ethical to inflict the effects of climate change on everyone else.
Rebutting Argument 1: Unfair to the Kids
I think most of the online discussion is centered on this point — that having a child is an unfair act to that child — but I actually don’t think it’s very convincing. Many times in human history, things just objectively got worse during some 30-year span. During that time a person could be born, grow up, and bring kids of their own into a world worse than the one they had inhabited. In America in the 1910s, children grew up in a world marked by the first world war and the first global pandemic. If you were born in Europe during the 1330s, you would have grown up at the beginning of the 100 Years War and the outbreak of the Bubonic Plague. If you had been born in the year 530, your childhood would have seen incomprehensible, devastating, and sudden climate change brought on by a series of major volcanic eruptions. But if people during that time had decided not to have children, many of us wouldn’t be here today.
And while it may seem facile to say… Life is good. The fact that you get to be alive at all is good, ergo the fact that someone allowed you to be alive is also good. I will be returning to this point.
Maybe you’ve had this exact discussion with a parent, or as a parent: In the 1960s and 1970s, the world felt on the brink in a way that’s hard to describe now. Nuclear proliferation of the 1940s produced the slowly ticking Doomsday Clock, and we as a species felt our very existence could be snuffed out from moment-to-moment. Those of us who grew up with this problem perceive it as normal, but for the baby boomer generation, nuclear holocaust was a terrifying sudden realization. As terrible as it feels, the idea of leaving for our children a world with a novel existential threat is not actually new to our species; each generation is likely to have their own cause for pessimism.
This is one of the points Ezra Klein was making, generally, in his article: It is morally good to express optimism in the face of pessimism. I urge you to read his framing, but there is a stark truth to being a modern global citizen: You have to allow for some gradations of terribleness in your worldview. Millions are dying of a pandemic, and millions more are dying of hunger, war, and pollution of their air or water. This is not a call to inaction on those things, but more of a statement of their realities.
The act of acknowledging the terribleness in the world does confer some responsibility. To know about it and choose to do nothing is immoral. However, it does not logically follow that the responsible action is to not create more human life. In my opinion, it’s closer to the opposite. If we frame the threat of climate change as a phenomenon that will negatively impact the ability of humans to live on earth, and your solution to that problem is to remove human life from earth, then you’re not solving the problem — you’re reinforcing it.
We want humans to live on earth. Life is good. That’s the whole, heart-of-the-matter, number one reason we care about climate change in the first place.
Rebutting Argument 2: Unfair to Other People
That said, while life is good, living is not uncomplicatedly good. There are some things that, when we do them, we feel the benefits of our choices personally, but not the harms felt by others. What if by existing on Earth, especially in a certain way, we are making it harder for other people on earth?