Having fewer children massively helps in reducing CO2 emissions

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For some millennials the decision to have a child has become a challenging moral and ethical dilemma.The climate crisis has made the future increasingly uncertain; should we forgo having a child if we care about their future and are worried about reducing our CO2 emissions?  

And are parents being totally honest about the “joys” of parenthood? What about the boredom, frustration and loss of identity? And what is COVID teaching us about the role of parents today - will the pandemic sway the decision on whether to have kids? KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian talks with Travis Rieder, Director of the Master of Bioethics degree program at the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins University and Jennifer Senior, OP-ED columnist for the New York Times and author of “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood”

The following interview excerpts
have been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

KCRW: We talk about ways to curb greenhouse gases; electric cars, green energy, eating less meat, but not so much about limiting population or having less kids - why not?

Travis Rieder: “For the most part, it's just because it's so taboo. And I should note that it's getting less so over recent years when I first started publishing on this topic, in 2012 2013 when I began my research it was genuinely taboo. So that's changing a little bit. But it's still an incredibly invasive, very personal, very intimate conversation. It's way easier to talk about recycling.”

KCRW: How big of a difference would it be for our climate and for the environment if we decided not to have kids or or or severely limit the number of kids we have? 

Rieder: “There are two different ways to ask the question. You could ask it from a policy standpoint: what if we collectively could make a decision that would significantly reduce the birth rate? What effect would that have? Then you could ask the individual question: given the sorts of things that I personally can do, given the options I have, would I make a difference by not having children?  On both versions of the question, the answer is that having children is an incredibly significant driver of greenhouse gas emissions. 

As an individual can't do much to curb climate change, so the policy level is where change would actually happen.  A scientist named Brian O'Neill researched this, where he asked, if we could reduce the birth rate globally, by about half a child per woman, then what would that do to global greenhouse gas emissions? His calculations showed we could basically take 16 to 29% of what we need in order to accomplish limiting warming to below dangerous levels. So just by reducing fertility by that amount and  importantly, he said, that's an amount that we could reduce completely through non-coercive means; ie no forced policy but just by giving people access to education, health care, family planning. So that is a big deal, so more than anything else or any other kind of single intervention, we make a huge difference.”  

KCRW:To be clear, as a collective society if we had half a kid less per woman that would be the biggest driver in curbing greenhouse gas emissions?

Rieder: “If the single biggest objective is to completely decarbonize the economy well, that one wins as far as major interventions go. And that’s through a completely non-coercive suite of innovations - so like Brian O'Neill said; make sure that everybody has access to education, health care, family planning and that everything's free. There's no coercion all involved there. It's just that people only have kids when they want to have.” 

KCRW: is there a way to calculate how much co2 emissions one human makes?

Rieder: “So now let's switch to the individual side because we're not in charge of policy- and it's probably unrealistic to think that sweeping fertility policies are going to be adopted.  So what should I do? How can I make a real difference?  

How much does it do not to have a child?  There’s another group of scientists, two guys named Murtaugh and Schlax in 2009, published a paper where they coined the term carbon legacy of individuals. And their basic point was, procreation has the most impact of anything that you can do because if you choose not to have a child, then the impact extends into the future; so, when we think about procreation, we stand on top of an iceberg. future emissions and you choose not to have a child, you're carving office off a slice of that iceberg indefinitely into the future as long as we are net positive emitters.  You are responsible for not just your emissions and your offsprings but your offsprings, offsprings generations ahead of you. 

The choice not to have a child is not only the most effective thing that you can do to reduce your emissions. But when you do have a child, you wipe out all other emissions savings that you could potentially have by a lot- so on their calculations, the choice to have a child raises your all time carbon footprint by about 600% - which is huge. So that’s about 10,000 metric tons, which is about six times your non-procreative lifetime carbon impact, if you're an average American. So it’s not just your child it is the legacy of that child.”

KCRW:You decided to have one kid. Philosophically and environmentally how did you come to that decision?

Rieder: “So my partner and I had been together a decade and we did a lot of thinking about this issue and it wasn't just that having a child increases our impact on the world but if we create a child, and we have a household of one child, then that's a kid that we're not adopting. And there are lots of kids in the world who need parenting resources.

I spend a lot of my time in my professional life researching climate change, and the future ain't looking great, right. So not only am I worried about my child making it worse, I'm worried about her living with the consequences of what we're doing. My daughter was born in 2014 and I hope as a parent that she lives to see 2100. Well, what is the world projected to look like in 2100? And it's not a world that I want to send the person that I will predictably love the most into. So we had lots of these conversations and there were incredibly good reasons not to have children. 

And so then the question is, why did you anyway? And we had a series of thoughts about it. So one, we think there's a difference between being permitted to do something that's a pure luxury, like flying across the Atlantic to Italy or doing something that’s genuinely meaningful -like procreating. You're building a family in this very special way. 

So especially for my partner, who's a woman, who had an interest in gestating and creating life, these are deeply meaningful human experiences. 

So ethicists should not forget these things, it's not all about crunching the numbers. It's the things that make meaning out of our lives, need to go into that calculus as well.”

KCRW:Parenting is a lot of people's minds right now because of the pandemic. What did you learn from writing your book about what parents don’t tell us about parenthood? 

Jennifer Senior: “The boredom of it - that's a lot of it. Which is funny because even Dr. Spock who was the only parenting voice mid century on how to raise a kid, even he was telling moms the relationship between you and your baby was never supposed to be so exclusive; this is going to be boring from time to time. 

People don't want to talk to you about that, they don't like admitting it. The novelist and critic, Fay Weldon wrote something along the lines of,  ‘you think you're a good person until you have a child’ - then you discover the ways you can be a monster, the way that you can be short tempered, you're just constantly butting heads with your own shortcomings. Children very quickly reveal to us who we are and what we can and cannot do.

When children are asked to independently rank what they do or don't love about their parents, we get the lowest ratings for our self control; we tend to yell and lose our patience. People don't like themselves when they do that, it's very hard to admit but we get sort of trapped in these balls of self loathing about how terrible we've been.”

KCRW: What we're hearing right now about the pandemic and the challenge on parents - how does this fit in with the large conversation about modern parenthood?

Senior: “So here are the two things that I think that pandemic has unmasked. Number one, in modern parenthood we rely more than we know on outside structures to make our lives possible. We rely on school, we rely on extracurriculars, we rely on our children being able to wander over to another child's house or to see other children in theirs. We cannot single handedly structure our kids' days. 

There’s a modest percentage of Americans who know how to homeschool and can do it. But it's not how most of us do it. It's a full time commitment, so if you've got a job and four out of 10, American women are actually the, the sole or main breadwinners in their families. So most women are now working, and I'm not even talking about if they're a single parent, but the problem is, most of us now work. So the pandemic has just been catastrophic. 

None of us have the amount of time to do all that is required for our children. We were outsourcing parenting and I don't mean like paying for fancy stuff, public school was like a really big part of our lives. So that's a big thing. What we know about work and any kind of constructive work is that you have to be in a state of flow, you have to have uninterrupted, we need unmolested chunks of time to concentrate. And kids are nothing if not wildly disruptive, they are almost inimical to the idea of flow, particularly young kids, their brains conspire against flow. They are curious and asking lots of questions and poking around, constantly asking things of us and interrupting us every few minutes. So that's a problem. 

Also modern parents don't cook much and they don't clean much. It is the one thing that has really fallen off but what we do is we work. We have a filthy house and we play with our kids. But now because of the pandemic, we are forced to cook and clean a lot and that's all we do. We make a million meals, we load the dishwasher all day long, or wash the dishes all day long. We clean up constantly, our houses are being used really hard right now as they're occupied all day long. So it's a nightmare.”

KCRW: How do you think this is all going to play out? Will people be rethinking maybe having more kids or how they parent? 

Senior: “Here's the thing as you get older, you don't privilege moment to moment happiness as much as you used to and you don’t think in terms of what's going to give your life meaning. And children are tremendous sources of meaning, even if in real time, they compromise your well being.  It doesn't matter who does the polling, they all say that children are tremendous sources of meaning and a pandemic could definitely make you feel a crisis of meaning. 

So I don't want to make a prediction here about what people are going to do. If we’ll see an uptick in the number of marriages, or an uptick in the number of births? - which typically happens after a natural disaster - there’s a good deal of data showing that births, marriages and divorces increase. But I would not necessarily say this moment is going to put people off after having children forever.

In addition, there’s been a lot of work done on the meaning children give us. Daniel Kahneman, won a Nobel Prize for sort of almost inventing behavioral economics. He talked about the ‘experiencing self’ versus the ‘remembering self’  So the ‘experiencing self’, who we are in real time - we don't love being around our kids in real time. We find it pretty exhausting -there's lots of good data on that. Our ‘remember self’, say it's one of the best things we've ever done, we remember it very fondly. Another guy named Dan McAdams has done all this work on how our lives are shaped by the stories that we tell about our lives. Kids are a big part of that narrative. And in general, people regret what they didn't do, far more than what they did do so the idea of not having done something that you could have done, is very upsetting to people. 

So this is not an argument for having children, there are many people who were very clear about not wanting kids. I would never tell anyone to have kids because it gives their lives purpose because you can lead an utterly fulfilled life without them. But for people who want them or who are on the fence and thinking they might want them, I wouldn't discount them because of the environment or other reasons that your later self might tell you are pretty darn compelling.”



  • Travis Rieder - Assistant Director for Education Initiatives, Director of the Master of Bioethics degree program and Research Scholar at the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins University - @TNREthx
  • Jennifer Senior - staff writer for The Atlantic - @jenseniorny


Andrea Brody