As the effects of climate change are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore, Americans are weighing the impacts of having children amid a global climate crisis.

A 2018 poll conducted by Morning Consult for The New York Times showed that a third of American men and women aged 20 to 45 cited climate change as a factor in their decision to have or consider having fewer children.

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Morning Consult data from 2020 finds that 11 percent of childless U.S. adults say climate change is a “major reason” they do not currently have children, and 15 percent say it plays a minor role.

One reason behind this choice is the concern regarding personal emissions. According to a 2017 study published in Environmental Research Letters, having fewer children can save many tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

This finding sparked major backlash, arguing that scientists should stay out of major life decisions such as having children, and prompted new studies debunking the effect of children on climate change.

A 2017 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences modeled a global one-child policy and found that “even a rapid transition to a worldwide one-child policy leads to a population similar to today’s by 2100.” Climate-conscious policies and technology would have a far greater, more immediate impact according to the authors.

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A report by Founders Pledge points out that most studies advising fewer children don’t account for likely changes in government policy in the future. The organization predicts climate policy will almost certainly get much stricter over the course of our children’s and grandchildren’s lifetimes, especially in developed nations where emissions are trending downward.

Studies that estimate the carbon impact of children assume the children will be consuming at the same rate as their parents under the same circumstances. Parents may have some power over their carbon legacy, fighting for aggressive climate action in their own lifetimes and then raising their children to be even more environmentally-conscious consumers and advocates for climate action.

Still, another climate-related reason people may have fewer children is deep-seated anxiety about what their children’s future may look like. Massive wildfires, droughts, heatwaves, and rising sea levels have already devastated the U.S. and are likely to become more frequent due to climate change.

“Many young, climate-concerned people are experiencing real anguish about this decision,” Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, assistant professor of Environmental Studies at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, told the BBC. “While concerns about the carbon footprint of procreation tend to be abstract, anxiety about children being able to lead a good life in a climate-changed future is extremely emotional and deep.”

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Ultimately, the choice of whether to have fewer children is personal. And it is a privilege.

Historically, movements to limit reproduction can have severe repercussions, often with sexist and racist undertones. The opportunity to have or not have children depends heavily on socioeconomic status and access to contraceptives, abortion, and healthcare. In the U.S. and globally, economic, social, and political determinants beyond climate change still weigh on the choice to bring a child into this world.

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