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'A Future That Is Likely Doomed': Why Climate Change Makes Young People Worried About Having Kids

Published: Tuesday, May 4, 2021 - 1:02pm
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Climate change has changed the way a lot of us think about the future, but for what seems like a growing number of young people, it’s changing something fundamental: Their decision to have children.

It’s a trend that’s been gaining some attention in recent years, and that’s what drew University of Arizona professor Sabrina Helm’s attention. She studies retailing and consumer sciences and is the author of new research trying to find out more about why people are making this decision — often early in life.

Helm and her colleagues conducted two studies: one that analyzed the comments people made to online articles about this topic, and another in which they interviewed people in a more in-depth way about the idea.

The Show spoke with Helm to learn about her findings from both studies.

Interview Highlights

When you were able to do the second of those studies that you mentioned, where you really interviewed people and got into the issues with them, what kinds of concerns did you hear in terms of this more existential question of an uncertain future? Is this really just doomsday? The world is not going to be what it should be — it would be a bad thing to bring people into it?

It went pretty much in both directions. So some people would really say we can't bring another consumer into this world; we already overconsume so many resources, there's not going to be enough left for future generations. If we all have children, have many children, then this is going to just exacerbate the problem. The other perspective was then more in terms of compassion for the children. They're going to grow up in a future that is likely doomed and looking bleak. It's going to be very much harder to survive than it currently is. So there was a lot of recognition of how the younger generations would have to cope with a much more severe challenge and a more challenging environment than we do today. That was a major theme that we found and that was really battling, on the other hand, with hope and also the happiness that people have when they have children. And many of our interviewees, they stated how they perceive a sense of unfairness to even have to consider this issue. So they were really struggling with that recognition that this is an issue that they will be having to deal with.

So is there any research to back this up? Is climate change affecting birth rates? Are we seeing this on a mass scale? 

We do not see this on a mass scale — yet. And there are actually quite contradictory research findings from from past studies. ...  The thing is this climate change and worrying about climate change is a comparatively new phenomenon on the scale that we see it now in the broader population, that people really start worrying about this more and more and develop what we call climate change anxiety.

What do these folks think is the alternative like? Is this something that you think will become segregated in terms of a certain population who has concerns like climate change, opting out of having kids? 

What a lot of my interviewees brought up the issue of social inequity in the context of climate change, and how even in our country, we are affected differently by potential negative consequences of climate change. And so some of them said that actually even thinking about not having children or having fewer children because of climate change is actually a privilege. Many people in the world don't even have the ability to make these kinds of determinations. And we are also in a much more privileged circumstance looking at our our society in terms of potentially coping with the negative effects of climate change.

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