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Are Climate Change Concerns Affecting People’s Reproductive Choices?

A black and white photo of a baby holding a parent's hand.
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Complex ethical, environmental and political concerns surrounding climate change may be causing people to reconsider having children, according to research from University College London (UCL). The study is published in PLOS Climate.

The impact of eco-anxiety

“Eco-anxiety” is a relatively new addition to our vocabularies, describing fear, worry, guilt, anger and other negative emotions toward our changing climate.

In a 2018 survey, approximately one-third of child-free Americans aged 20–45 referred to being “worried about climate change” as an explanation for not having children.

Ethical concerns for the quality-of-life that children might experience in a climate-changed future is one of the main rationales to forgo having them. In their new study, UCL researchers investigated whether there was indeed evidence to support these claims, and if other motivating factors – aside from ethical concerns – could also play a role in decision-making.

“Recent media attention has been paid to a growing number of individuals factoring their concerns about climate change into their childbearing plans,” said Hope Dillarstone, the lead author of the study and a former postgraduate student at the UCL Institute for Global Health. “However, we were concerned that public discourse may have oversimplified this relationship.”

“Our first-of-its-kind study shows that there is a complex and intricate relationship between climate change and reproductive choices, with differences noted both within and between countries across the world,” Dillarstone added.

Climate concerns may influence family planning

The researchers led a systematic review of 13 separate studies conducted between 2012 and 2022, encompassing over 10,000 participants largely from the “Global North” – countries such as the USA, Canada and Europe as well as New Zealand.

Climate change concerns were typically associated with less favorable attitudes towards having children, as well as a desire for having fewer children or none at all. This was the case for 12 of the 13 studies analyzed.

There were four main reasons put forward by participants:

  • Uncertainty about the child’s future in a climate-changed world.
  • Environmentalist and ecological concerns regarding overpopulation and overconsumption in a world with already stretched resources.
  • Meeting family subsistence needs during declining agricultural productivity.
  • Political attitudes – two participants reported forgoing having children as a form of “strike” until systemic change is implemented.

Some participants considered the final two themes as reasons to have more children, however. For example, some participants in Zambia were concerned about supporting their family without the assistance of additional children helping with domestic work, household labor and water and food collection.

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“Our analysis shows that not only are many people concerned about their child’s welfare growing up in a world of uncertainty, but that they are also considering the impact of having children on the environment, their family’s ability to subsist and their politics,” Dillarstone explained.

“Understanding why some people choose to adjust their reproductive decisions as a result of climate change may prove instrumental for shaping public policy, showing a need for collaboration among policymakers to incorporate local-level environmental concerns within national and international climate change, mental health and sexual and reproductive health policies,” she added.

More interdisciplinary research investigating the effects of climate change, mental health and reproductive decision-making is warranted, particularly for highly affected Global South populations where current research is lacking.

Reference: Dillarstone H, Brown LJ, Flores EC. Climate change, mental health, and reproductive decision-making: A systematic review. PLOS Climate. 2023;2(11):e0000236. doi: 10.1371/journal.pclm.0000236

This article is a rework of a press release issued by University College London. Material has been edited for length and content.