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For some millennials, climate change clock ticks louder than biological one

“I had this internal struggle: ‘Do I really want to bring a child into this world?’” a Seattle 29-year-old said.
Illustration of woman holding her pregnant belly shaped like an earth.
With each child, citizens of the developed world increase their carbon footprint sixfold, adding roughly 60 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, one study found. Chloe Cushman / for NBC News

SEATTLE — Erika Lundahl writes and performs her own songs. She works in Seattle for a company that publishes books on the environment. She thinks a lot about how best to occupy her place in the world. Yet, despite this full life, Lundahl, at 27, feels a clock ticking.

Her biological clock, yes, but also the one to fix global warming, or face the likelihood that she and her potential children will have to live in a seriously marginalized world.

“There is this sense that if you don’t have kids soon, you could be putting them in a harder position,” Lundahl said. “But if you do have them, that will not be easy either, with the storms, the intense droughts, the precariousness of the times. It’s like you are playing with two ticking time bombs — yours and the planet’s.”

Fears of bringing children into a troubled world may be as old as recorded history. The government reported last year that U.S. birth rates had hit a 30-year low, attributed partly to millennials who felt they were under economic duress.

But climate concern also appears to be surging. Today’s young adults have been taught since grade school that life on Earth promises to become more precarious. Now, groups have formed to support conversation around the tenuous future. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., recently posted an Instagram Live video that brought attention to the question. Given the looming fallout of climate change, she asked, “Is it OK to still have children?”

A recent poll for Business Insider found that 30 percent of Americans agree, at least somewhat, that the potentially life-threatening effects of climate change should be factored into decisions about whether to have children. A little more than 8 percent of those surveyed strongly held that view. And a New York Times poll last summer revealed that 11 percent of those who don’t want children, or aren’t sure, cited climate change as one reason.

New revelations fuel the sense of uncertainty, including a November report from U.S. government scientists that detailed the myriad threats that climate change will pose for the American economy and way of life. Drought in the Southwest, powerful hurricanes in the South and devastating wildfires in California have all been exacerbated by temperature increases, driven by humanity’s burning of fossil fuels, the report found.

Frustrated by the government’s muted response, some activists have taken matters into their own hands. They are driving electric vehicles, taking public transportation more often and swearing off meat. All those changes will reduce the output of Earth-warming greenhouse gases. But no personal action reduces a person’s carbon footprint like having fewer children.

With each child, citizens of the developed world increase their carbon footprint sixfold, adding roughly 60 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, one oft-quoted study concluded. The calculation figures the probability that each offspring may also reproduce — potentially expanding an individual's carbon footprint for decades after they die. Put another way, forgoing having a child has more than 25 times the carbon-reducing impact of giving up a gas-burning car.

Such details remain a distant abstraction for most people. But for Lundahl, her friends in Seattle and an increasing number of other Americans, the reality of climate-driven disruption feels all too real. The once-pristine Pacific Northwest choked on weeks of thick smoke last summer, forcing the cancellation of hundreds of flights at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, as wildfires, exacerbated by climate change, swept the region.

Josephine Ferorelli, left, and Meghan Kallman co-founded Conceivable Future.
Josephine Ferorelli, left, and Meghan Kallman co-founded Conceivable Future.Jennifer Ludden

Four years ago, two women who shared fears about rearing children in such a world formed the group Conceivable Future to create a safe space for talk about it. One of the co-founders, Josephine Ferorelli, a writer, editor and yoga instructor, said that, early on, the topic was greeted as “fringey or hysterical or weird.”

They have no way of measuring how many people now share their concerns, but one thing is clear: “When we talk to women, there is a huge amount of relief, even excitement, that we were bringing this issue out in the open,” Ferorelli, 36, said. “People are like: ‘Oh my God. I felt like I was the only one who felt this way.’”

‘Do I really want to bring a child into this world?’

Natalie Lubsen, 28, a friend of Lundahl’s, would like to have children. But Lubsen — who works in the marketing office of a magazine that seeks “a more just, sustainable and compassionate world” — said she sometimes sees a bleak horizon.

“It kind of feels like anything can happen, as the impacts spiral,” Lubsen said, “with a lot more global unrest, famine, mass migration, water insecurity, food insecurity, potential political collapses and natural disasters.”

In the summer of 2015, Lubsen, Lundahl and friends gathered with about two dozen others in the meeting room of a Seattle cooperative market. Lundahl helped organize the event as a volunteer for Conceivable Future. It was the first time the friends had joined with others in Seattle to publicly discuss their fears about childbearing in a time of climate change.

Erika Lundahl
Erika LundahlDoug Indrick

Another in the Seattle friend-group, Caitlin Blair-Stahn, recalled the gathering as a time for “being present with our grief about climate change … and then being able to talk about taking action purposefully and, hopefully at some point, even joyously, to make a change.”

The challenge feels intensely personal for Blair-Stahn, 29, a nanny, who has dreamed since she was young of becoming a mother. But her longtime boyfriend, now her husband, had different ideas.

“I had this internal struggle: ‘Do I really want to bring a child into this world?’” Nathaniel Blair-Stahn, 40, said. At the 2015 Conceivable Future meeting he made a video, expressing his anger at the idea that “we’re going to use up everything in the world until there is nothing left.”

‘Do I really want to bring a child into this world?’

To Caitlin, the idea of having a partner who did not want to have children was a “deal-breaker.” The two broke up for more than two years, just after Nathaniel received a doctorate in math from the University of Washington. But after some soul-searching, Nathaniel — his worries about overpopulation notwithstanding — decided that he didn’t want to miss the experience of fatherhood.

Not long into 2019, Caitlin learned that she was pregnant. She and Nathaniel are expecting a little Blair-Stahn in August.

“Maybe it’s a really dumb idea to have kids. On the other hand, the streets aren’t burning right now,” he said recently, laughing at his ambivalence. “And I think kids can actually be a positive thing for society. We’re going to raise our child with our values and to be very active in trying to make a difference in the world.”

That means adding a baby to the couple’s community, sharing living space with friends, recycling and composting and buying locally produced products, while the couple shares a single hybrid to get around Seattle. Nathaniel, who is seeking work as a computer programmer, believes that collective political action will provide much more important solutions to the climate crisis.

“It’s a systemic problem and it needs systemic solutions,” he said, citing the end of fossil fuel consumption as the most critical example. “I feel now like having a kid is an individual choice and changing that, alone, won’t make a big difference.”

‘Morally serious’ consequences

A lively debate has emerged in academia and the media over the question of human reproduction in challenging times.

Travis Rieder, an ethicist with the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins University, urges young people to consider all the usual variables and then add another layer of analysis.

“Procreating both contributes to climate change and creates a new victim of climate change,” said Rieder, a research professor and father of one. “I don’t know whether people should have kids, or whether they should have a big family, but I do believe that climate change should be part of their deliberation, because the consequences of bringing a new person into a changing world are really morally serious.”

Another academic who studies humanity’s interaction with the natural world says the discussion about procreation is laudable, drawing more attention to the seriousness of climate change. But Erle Ellis, a professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, rejects the notion that humans should respond by not having children.

“We are on track for climate change, but we are not on track for the worst of it,” Ellis said. “People who are so concerned they would even consider not having children are the very kind of people who can be part of the solution. By having children they have doubled down on the future. They are motivated. Because they know if they don’t succeed, they are failing not only themselves but this new generation they have brought into the world.”

Conceivable Future co-founder Meghan Kallman said the group does not advocate for people to stop having children, but rather uses reproduction choices as a gateway to engage the public on the issue of global warming.

“Asking these questions helps connect people to the deeper meaning of climate change,” said Kallman, 35, a sociologist. “But the bigger goal is to build an economy and a society and a polity that is clean. And we’ve got to do it fast.”

Not without its critics

In the U.K., a group of women founded BirthStrike, with 200-plus members declaring their decision “not to bear children due to the severity of the ecological crisis and the current inaction of governing forces in the face of this existential threat.” Like Conceivable Future, the international group is conscious not to dictate reproductive decisions to others.

Not everyone welcomes talk about the dangers of human reproduction. The environmental activists have faced criticism from political conservatives and others who have labeled them overly pessimistic, even “anti-natalist.” One Twitter user dubbed them “a particularly paranoid group of lefties.”

BirthStrike co-founder Blythe Pepino went on Fox News’ “Watters' World” in March and was challenged by host Jesse Watters, who suggested that scientists could be just as wrong about climate change as they were when they predicted a massive computer meltdown in the year 2000 and when they suggested that Earth was the center of the universe. “I just don't believe the science,” Watters said, “because it's not all there.”

“You have been told to not believe the science by your government,” Pepino retorted, “and now you don't believe it because it suits you.”

Many of those choosing the no-child path feel as if they are viewed as an oddity in a world where the default setting is for child-rearing. Sometimes their commitment is dismissed as a passing fancy that will change with age.

But many, like Rachel Ries, say that their determination has only deepened, as they see new projections of water and food scarcity. Ries says it’s wrong to dismiss the very real fears of those looking toward a future threatened by global warming. “It’s visceral,” she wrote three years ago on the Conceivable Future website. “It’s dire. It’s real. And there’s POWER in that.”

Ries, 39, a musician in Minneapolis, feels she has not had to give up her maternal instincts entirely, because she lives in a house with her brother, sister-in-law and two nieces and a nephew. “I have found a way to parent,” Ries said. “And I have been very intentional in that way, but also very lucky.”

‘A rude awakening’

For the Seattle friends, the quotidian questions about bearing children have not gone away. Lundahl reports a marked “uptick in my desire to procreate in the last couple of years.” Her boyfriend, who, at 29, is two years older, has not reached that point. Beyond concerns about climate change, there are typical career questions to ponder and student debts to be paid.

Lundahl decided, a little more than a year ago, that the topic was too big to leave her parents out of the discussion. When she described her fraught view of the future, they were shocked.

“It was kind of a rude awakening to another dimension of climate change that I didn’t foresee,” said her father, Dave Lundahl, who runs a behavioral market research firm in Oregon. “My response was to say: ‘Don’t give up. Keep on fighting. Keep on moving forward.’ I said, ‘Being a parent is one of the greatest joys you can have.’ I said, ‘Don’t give up on that joy.’”

Erika recently got an IUD. “I felt like, ‘I am just going to put a stopper on this conversation for a while,” she said, laughing. “But it’s still something that feels real and present. That’s kind of part of the fabric of life, when climate change keeps making itself more known and felt.”

CORRECTION (May 2, 2019, 2:03 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated Nathaniel Blair-Stahn's age. He is 40, not 29.