A startling and honestly distressing view is beginning to receive serious consideration in both academic and popular discussions of climate change ethics. According to this view, having a child is a major contributor to climate change. The logical takeaway here is that everyone on Earth ought to consider having fewer children.
Although culturally controversial, the scientific half of this position is fairly well-established. Several years ago, scientists showed that having a child, especially for the world’s wealthy, is one of the worst things you can do for the environment. That data was recycled this past summer in a paper showing that none of the activities most likely to reduce individuals’ carbon footprints are widely discussed.
But scientific evidence and moral theorizing aside, this is a complicated question with plenty of opponents. In what follows, I will address some of the challenges to this idea. Because while I recognize that this is an uncomfortable discussion, I believe that the seriousness of climate change justifies uncomfortable conversations. In this case, that means that we need to stop pretending the decision to have children doesn't have environmental and ethical consequences.
The argument that having a child adds to one’s carbon footprint depends on the view that each of us has a personal carbon ledger for which we are responsible. Furthermore, some amount of an offspring’s emissions count towards the parents’ ledger.
Most environmentalists accept this sort of ledger view when it comes to recycling, driving, and flying, but support begins to decrease when applied to family planning. The opposition is typified by Vox writer David Roberts, who argues that “such an accounting scheme is utterly impractical” because it seems to entail that one is never responsible for one's own emissions. Because "we don’t want to double-count,” as Roberts says, this means parents are really only responsible for their kids’ emissions.
The flaw in this objection is the plausible-sounding caveat: “we don’t want to double-count.” Because why wouldn’t we want to double-count? If moral responsibility added up mathematically, then double-counting would be a serious problem. But I think it’s clear that we should not accept a mathematical model of responsibility.
Consider a different case: If I release a murderer from prison, knowing full well that he intends to kill innocent people, then I bear some responsibility for those deaths — even though the killer is also fully responsible. My having released him doesn’t make him less responsible (he did it!). But his doing it doesn’t eliminate my responsibility either.
Something similar is true, I think, when it comes to having children: Once my daughter is an autonomous agent, she will be responsible for her emissions. But that doesn’t negate my responsibility. Moral responsibility simply isn’t mathematical.
If you buy this view of responsibility, you might eventually admit that having many children is wrong, or at least morally suspect, for standard environmental reasons: Having a child imposes high emissions on the world, while the parents get the benefit. So like with any high-cost luxury, we should limit our indulgence.
The rebuttal to this argument is that individual actions simply don’t make a significant difference, and that institutional action is how you actually have an impact. Do everything you can to minimize your emissions, and the “earth won’t give a damn.”
All of these claims are true. Most individual actions won’t matter in the context of a trillion ton, all-time anthropogenic carbon budget. And indeed, policy and collective action are important for seriously mitigating the harms of climate change.
But does this mean my individual actions are morally permissible? I think the answer is clearly no.
If morality only applied to meaningful change, then morality would rarely recommend actions of symbolic integrity or defiance. We would not, for example, praise the activist who stands up for what she believes in until there was evidence that her tactics work. And those who sacrifice their own interests in order to contribute minuscule amounts of time, money, or labor to alleviating global hunger or poverty would look like suckers rather than saints.
I don’t think these judgments sit well with our moral sensibilities. On reflection, many of us believe that it is wrong to contribute to massive, systematic harms, even if each individual contribution isn’t causally significant. This explains why many of us think you are obligated to do things like recycle, especially when it’s easy. Your recycling doesn’t matter much to the environment — the earth doesn’t give a damn — but you should do it anyway.
The confusion around this sort of moral claim is understandable. Our moral psychology has not yet evolved to solve the problems of today. Humanity grew up in relatively small groups; Rules like “don’t harm others,” or “don’t steal and cheat” are easy to make sense of in a world of largely individual interactions.
That is not our world any longer, though, and our moral sense is evolving to reflect that difference. Moral decisions are no longer about math; Being a part of the solution matters.
The importance of this argument for family size is obvious. If having one fewer child reduces one’s contribution to the harms of climate change, the choice of family size becomes a morally relevant one.
I am certainly not arguing that we should shame parents, or even that we’re obligated to have a certain number of children. As I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t think there is a tidy answer to the challenging questions of procreative ethics. But that does not mean we’re off the moral hook. As we face the very real prospect of catastrophic climate change, difficult — even uncomfortable — conversations are important. Yes, we should discuss the ethics of making babies with care and respect; but we should discuss it.