Climate change is shaping parenthood choices, according to a study from UCL.

The consequences of climate change extend beyond global environmental distress. Today, they intertwine with a global mental health crisis too.

A new study by researchers at University College London (UCL) has reviewed the intricate connection between climate change and individuals’ attitudes towards reproduction. In 12 of the 13 research papers reviewed, stronger concerns about climate breakdown were affecting reproductive decision-making. 

The term eco-anxiety’ describes a range of negative emotional responses, including hopelessness, worry, fear, guilt and anger, as a response to climate change. 

Eco-anxiety causes an emotional burden, especially among young people, and has been found to have knock-on effects on life choices, most notably and recently, on the decision to have children. 

The review, published on Nov. 9 in PLOS Climate, concludes that because of climate change-related reasons, people now hold a negative attitude towards reproduction and a desire or intent for fewer children, or even none at all. However, the reasons are not as simple as once thought.

The team’s assessment found that globally there are four main factors that underpin an individual’s decision not to have children: uncertainty about the future of an unborn child, environmentalist views centered on overpopulation and overconsumption, meeting family subsistence needs and political sentiments. 

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“Our first-of-its-kind study shows that there is a complex and intricate relationship between climate change and reproductive choices, with differences noted both within and between countries across the world,” said Hope Dillarstone, lead author of the study.  

Differences between regions included that participants from Zambia and Ethiopia decided not to have children for reasons not seen in the Global North, such as to meet subsistence needs during periods of declining agricultural productivity. 

Such results provide an interesting avenue for further research, the review notes, as studies that explore the intersection of climate change, mental health and reproductive decision-making among highly affected Global South populations are currently lacking. 

Other research gaps highlighted include a lack of gender-diverse participants’ voices and no consideration of the effect of climate change concern on when people choose to have children.

“Recent media attention has been paid to a growing number of individuals factoring their concerns about climate change into their childbearing plans. However, we were concerned that public discourse may have oversimplified this relationship,” Dillarstone said. 

For example, the authors recognise that while ethical considerations for not having children (concerns for their future and for their ecological impacts) are often a part of public debate, environmental political considerations and family subsistence needs don’t appear so readily.

To complicate matters further, the latter two concerns were also used as justifications, albeit to a lesser degree, as reasons for having a greater number of children. 

The study underscores the need for new policy frameworks that not only focus on a climate action plan for the future but also incorporate considerations for mental, sexual and reproductive health.

So, what does this all mean?

An individual’s decision to not have children for climate-related reasons is more complex than once thought. Firstly, there is the moral responsibility of deciding whether to bring a new child into a world where their future may be uncertain or even unlivable.  As mentioned, the study highlighted other factors including environmentalist views centered on overconsumption, overpopulation, meeting family subsistence needs and political sentiments. Furthermore, the emissions associated with actually having a child and their contribution to climate change has also been an important factor. 

Many renowned professionals and bioethicists have tried to untangle the web of ethical issues surrounding this parenthood dilemma. 

First and foremost, it’s important to recognise that the decision to have children is one that no one can make for another person, so allowing the space for uncertainty and choice is vitally important. If one chooses not to have a child for climate-related reasons, then that is perfectly as valid as someone wanting one.

It’s often said that we don’t inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children, meaning that the children of tomorrow will live a story that we have the opportunity to write and control. By acting now on climate change, it gives the best possible future for us and future generations. 

Finally, the study shows awareness of the climate crisis is growing among younger generations, and the potential problems it may cause are on people’s minds. The worries are there, and they’re valid; targets for a 1.5°C warmer world look like they will be missed and the state of the planet in 100 years’ time has never been more uncertain. 

By fostering environmental awareness, understanding and respect for choice, we can all contribute to a future where both human well being and environmental sustainability can coexist.