life after warming

Parenting the Climate Change Generation

A family sits along the shore of Lake Elsinore as they watch the Holy Fire burn in the distance, in Lake Elsinore, Calif. More than a thousand firefighters battled to keep a raging Southern California forest fire from reaching foothill neighborhoods.
A family sits along the shore of Lake Elsinore as they watch the Holy Fire burn in the distance, in Lake Elsinore, Calif. More than a thousand firefighters battled to keep a raging Southern California forest fire from reaching foothill neighborhoods. Photo: Patrick Record/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Earlier this month during Art Basel Miami Beach, at a cocktail party held just inches above Biscayne Bay, an art collector was describing the ordeal of his year of house hunting. He was one half of a well-off, middle-aged gay couple raising two children and hoping to find a place calmer than New York for their kids’ adolescence and their own semi-retirement. Their first choice, he said, was Montecito, the richest part of Santa Barbara County, but then the broker who’d been helping them there died in last December’s mudslides. They decided they couldn’t go back. They looked at a few houses in Malibu — “but they all burned down.” In the end, they chose Miami. “You know climate change is coming for South Florida, too, right?” someone asked. “At least it’ll be slow,” the collector replied, clearly having thought about it. With a hurricane, you get at least a few days’ warning, he said, and with sea-level rise, years. “Then, it’ll just be like Venice.”

As recently as a few years ago, this was not the way the wealthy tended to talk about the dilemmas of child-rearing. As much as Americans may have feared the wrath of global warming, we assumed that most of us would be spared its most brutal impacts, by the prophylaxis of our collective wealth, and that the very richest among us might be able to shield themselves entirely. But that’s changing. The Kardashians may have hired private firefighters to fend off this fall’s Woolsey fire, but millions around the country watched the same family evacuate via Instagram Story, too.

If the country’s plutocrats are now scrambling to secure their lives from climate change, terrified about what it will mean for the future of their families, where does that leave the rest of us? Over the last year or two, the question I’ve been asked more than any other by people who know I write about warming concerns kids: whether it’s moral to reproduce in this climate; whether it’s responsible to have children; whether it is fair to the planet or, perhaps more important, to the children.

As it happens, earlier this year, my wife and I did have a child, Rocca, after several years of “trying.” In other words, when we first conceived of conceiving a child, it was in relative ignorance about warming; like many Americans, we knew about climate change in a sort of theoretical way, but thought that the threat of it ended roughly at the shoreline, and that we could go on living our lives as we always had, without worrying too much — trusting that others, “in charge,” would fix it. By the time we’d actually conceived, we were no longer under that illusion, thanks to unprecedented hurricanes and wildfires and floods, and the year or so I’d spent buried in the dark news from climate science. By the time Rocca was born, the news had grown grimmer: studies predicting deaths from air pollution in the tens of millions, and cities in India and the Middle East made uninhabitable by direct heat as soon as 2050. In the nine months since, it has grown grimmer still: a global, lethal heat wave this past summer, the worst wildfires in California history, the “doomsday” IPCC report warning that the world had only 12 years to cut carbon emissions in half, or risk true climate catastrophe.

This is, as unhappy as it may be to believe, not an unusual accident of the year or month in which our daughter was born. Take any chunk of nine months over the last decade and the picture of climate change is sure to have darkened in that time. Take any chunk of nine months in the future and the same is likely to be true. Extend the chunk of time to the length of a childhood, or a full life, and that picture of climate suffering gets dramatically worse. Should we stay the present course on emissions, Rocca will probably live to see a world in which certain places could be struck by six climate-driven natural disasters simultaneously and global damages from those climate impacts could pass $600 trillion — more than double the amount of wealth than exists in the world today. More than a hundred million would be dead from air pollution, and a hundred million more made homeless by heat, drought, and flooding. The pressure on our politics would be, by any standard we’d use today, too much for the system to bear.

You might expect these premonitions to settle like sediment into family planning. And indeed, among the young and well-off in Europe and the United States, for whom reproductive choices are often freighted with political meaning, they have. Among this outwardly conscientious cohort, there is worry about bringing new children into a damaged world, full of suffering, and about “contributing” to the problem by crowding the climate stage with more players, each a little consumption machine. “Want to fight climate change?” the Guardian asked in 2017. “Have fewer children.” That year and the next, the paper published several variations on the theme, as did many other publications delivered to the Western bourgeois, including the New York Times: “Add this to the list of decisions affected by climate change: Should I have children?”

Children interact with a screen depicting the ocean.
Children interact with a screen depicting the ocean. Photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Hospital for Special Surgery Foundation

The effect on the personal choices of the consumer class is perhaps a narrow way of thinking about global warming, though it demonstrates a strain of strange ascetic pride among the well-to-do. “The egoism of child-bearing is like the egoism of colonizing a country,” the novelist Sheila Heti writes, in a representative passage from Motherhood, her meditation on the meaning of parenthood, which she chose to avoid. But that ascetic pride takes a lot of forms, including demonstrations of stoicism in the face of suffering you believe will be quite profound — for you and your children. “A world of extinction and catastrophe, a world in which harmony with nature had long been foreclosed,” is how the author Roy Scranton described the scale of that suffering, in “Raising My Child in a Doomed World,” an essay published in the Times last July. “My partner and I had, in our selfishness, doomed our daughter to life on a dystopian planet,” he wrote, “and I could see no way to shield her from the future.” The piece was quickly criticized, by climate activists, for being too eager to declare an endgame for warming; critics also came for “It’s Okay to Have Children,” in which Jacobin’s Connor Kilpatrick argued against the wave of natalist fatalism.

Others wrestle with different questions — not whether to have children in a time of global warming but how to talk to them about it. One climate writer I know has, in the last few years, taken his teenage children to see the Great Barrier Reef, which was once a natural wonder of the world, with the complexity of a great city, and which is now inarguably dying, and Glacier National Park, so named because it once held 150 glaciers; today all but 26 have melted. It’s a beautiful gesture, almost mythological — a parent giving a simultaneous tour of the past and the future to his children. But there are also those parents I know who wonder whether it would be better to spare their children memories like that, memories that will be carried forward for many decades as reminders of what has been lost — or, rather, destroyed. One scientist and mother recently described the book she was working on to me as “Between the World and Me meets The Road.” And when you find your young child crying over a treacly photograph of a skinny polar bear stranded on a tiny melting ice floe, do you tell her the tragedy is far away, in the Arctic; that the world is a complex place, that nature has always been a theater of cruelty, and that the fate of one polar bear is not a reason to shed tears; that it’s a distraction from the climate crisis faced already by millions of people the world over, with whom she might feel a stronger kinship; or that, however trivial and marginal, it is still a powerful sign of the further degradation to come?

Here is what I plan to say, when Rocca is old enough to ask: Further degradation isn’t inescapable, it is optional. That is what I say today, when people ask me about children, including my own — wondering how my wife and I could have even countenanced having a kid, given all we know to fear about the future. But each new baby arrives in a brand-new world, contemplating a whole horizon of possibilities. The perspective is not naïve. We live in that world with them — helping make it for them, and with them, and for ourselves. A new clock starts with every birth, measuring how much more damage will be done to the planet and the life the child will live on it. The horizons are just as open to us, however foreclosed and foreordained they may seem. But we close them off when we say anything about the future being inevitable. What may sound like stoic wisdom is often an alibi for indifference.

Part of our choice was delusion — the same willful blindness that allowed us to grow into our mid-30s, in America, mostly blind to the way our lives and purchases and travel and diets were polluting the futures of our children and their children, and indeed the futures of everyone they might ever meet on this planet. I now know there are climate horrors to come, some of which will inevitably be visited on my kids — that is what it means for warming to be an all-encompassing, all-touching threat. But I also know that those horrors are not yet scripted. We are staging them by inaction, and by action, can stop them. Climate change means some bleak prospects for the decades ahead, but I don’t believe the appropriate response to that challenge is withdrawal, surrender. I think you have to do everything you can to make the world accommodate the life you want to have for yourself, and your family, rather than giving up early, before the fight has been lost or won, and acclimating yourself to a dreary future brought into being by others less concerned about climate pain. The fight is, definitively, not yet lost — in fact will never be lost, so long as we avoid extinction, because however warm the planet gets, it will always be the case that the decade that follows could contain more suffering or less.

And I have to admit: I am also excited for everything that Rocca and her sisters and brothers will see and do. Yes, she will hit her child-rearing years around 2050, when we could have climate refugees in the many tens of millions; and, yes, she will be entering old age at the end of the century, the end-stage bookmark on all of our very bleak projections for warming. In between, she will watch the world doing battle with a genuinely existential threat, and the people of her generation making a future for themselves, and the generations they bring into being, on this planet. And she won’t just be watching it, she will be living it — quite literally the greatest story ever told. It may well bring a happy ending.

Parenting the Climate Change Generation