Why Climate Change is Prompting Some People to Skip Having Kids

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Key Takeaways

  • For many people, climate change is a big consideration when deciding whether to start a family.
  • New research found that overconsumption, overpopulation, and an uncertain future are the main concerns for those questioning whether it's responsible to have kids in the current environment.
  • The pressure of such a huge decision is causing stress and, in some cases, depression.

Having a child is life-changing, and there are a lot of things to think about before making the leap to parenthood. Can you afford it? (Kids don’t come cheap, right?) Do you have a good support system in place? Do you even want to be a parent, or do you feel pressured by society or family members to follow that route?

According to recent research published in Population and Environment, climate change is another important consideration for a growing number of people. Sabrina Helm, PhD, an associate professor in the Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences in the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is the lead author of a recent peer-reviewed study that examines how climate change is affecting that big decision: to parent or not to parent?

“This research is important because it’s a bit of a taboo to question whether to have children or not,” Helm explains. “As we heard from several of our interviewees, they feel their family and friends do not take them seriously when they speak of their worries for the future, and how they question if having children is a good or responsible choice in the current environment.”

This can lead to considerable stress, even depression, Helm adds, which she sees as another important facet of negative mental health effects associated with climate change. “When talking to my students, most of them in Gen Z, many, if not most of them report having doubts about having children, and being very worried about the future.”

To Parent or Not to Parent

Helm and her team started their research by analyzing comments posted in response to online news articles about people deciding not to have children because of concerns about climate change. Next, they interviewed 24 adults ages 18 to 35 who said climate change was an important consideration in their decision about whether to have children.

Their findings identify three major themes in both the online comments and the interviews:

  • Overconsumption
  • Overpopulation
  • An uncertain future

“Overconsumption and overpopulation were seen as the key contributors towards climate change, and that having children means an automatic increase in climate change,” says Joya Kemper, PhD, a senior lecturer in marketing at the University of Auckland Business School in New Zealand, who co-authored the study. 

Joya Kemper, PhD

Overconsumption and overpopulation were seen as the key contributors towards climate change, and that having children means an automatic increase in climate change.

— Joya Kemper, PhD

For participants interviewed in the US and New Zealand, overconsumption of resources was the main concern, Kemper says. But when it came to online comments and reactions to newspaper articles on the topic, overpopulation was the main concern and motivator for going child-free.

“We also found that newspaper commentators frequently belittled those who chose to go child-free, referring to them as ‘evolutionary outcasts,’ less mature and more selfish (i.e., unwilling to sacrifice time, money to raise children),” Kemper reveals.

“Such negative reactions were also received by our interview participants—they felt their family thought they’d ‘change their mind.’” Yet those who were willing to go child-free saw it as a safeguard against exposing unborn children to environmental risks, she adds.

Helm found it interesting how some study participants linked the topics of hope and despair. “Hope that future children would be change agents toward a better future and because our current young generations already are more climate aware and work toward change,” she says. “Despair because it takes a broader, collective effort to make a real difference and mitigate climate change.”

Helm adds that the study participants saw responsibility to bring about major change for themselves, but mainly for governments and corporations, which many felt were not making sufficient—if any—effort. 

“I was surprised how many people were reporting that they still wanted two children, but definitely not more than two, as this would ‘over-replace’ them,” Helm says. “This is an interesting way of reasoning in the context of perceived overpopulation.” 

The Bigger Picture

There’s no doubt about it—climate change is worrying tons of people, and young people are particularly affected. “They take it into consideration when thinking about their most profound life decisions, and the worry and stress they experience has negative effects on them,” Helm says.

Helm believes that we need to be prepared to deal with a mental health crisis among the younger generations, which will be exacerbated as climate change effects become more apparent in our society. “We need to better prepare ourselves and future generations for environmental changes and build the educational support infrastructure for this effort,” she says. 

Sabrina Helm, PhD

We need to better prepare ourselves and future generations for environmental changes and build the educational support infrastructure for this effort.

— Sabrina Helm, PhD

“The majority of interviewees expressed regret and sadness over having to consider this choice, with some showing advanced symptoms of climate anxiety,” Kemper adds. “We believe this shows a possibly ‘hidden’ strain on young adults' minds as they deal with the consequences of climate change and also carry the burden of their choices.”

Remember, having kids is only one piece of a much larger picture. You could have children and take steps to help reverse climate change on various levels, or you could decide not to have kids but still contribute toward rising levels of greenhouse gases due to your lifestyle choices and habits.

There are many ways to fight against climate change, such as holding fossil fuel companies accountable to their climate policy commitments and writing to your members of Congress to restore and strengthen the scientific workforce in federal agencies. You can find more ways to make a difference on the Union of Concerned Scientists website.

What This Means For You

If you're concerned about climate change, it's natural to worry that having children will increase your burden on the planet. It might help to talk to friends or about how you're feeling, especially those who have similar concerns. You might even consider talking to a therapist, as it's a big decision that shouldn't be taken lightly.

1 Source
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Helm S, Kemper JA, White SK. No future, no kids—no kids, no future? Popul Environ. Published online March 16, 2021. doi:10.1007/s11111-021-00379-5

By Claire Gillespie
Claire Gillespie is a freelance writer specializing in mental health. She’s written for The Washington Post, Vice, Health, Women’s Health, SELF, The Huffington Post, and many more. Claire is passionate about raising awareness for mental health issues and helping people experiencing them not feel so alone.