There is never a "right" time to have a baby, so the saying goes. There is a myriad of factors to take into consideration when deciding to have a child, which might include financial stability, personal goals and aspirations or accessibility to childcare support. The list goes on and is unique and deeply personal.
"For many people, the question of whether to have children or not is one of the biggest they will face in their lives," Sabrina Helm, associate professor in the Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences at the University of Arizona, said in a press release.
Helm is the lead author of a new study published in Population and Environment that sought to discover whether climate change was a concern that impacted individuals' decisions to have a child.1 "As public concern about climate change grows, anecdotal evidence reported in the media points to a group of people who are questioning their fertility desires and intentions," the researchers write in the paper.
A two-pronged approach
The publication outlines two studies conducted by Helm and colleagues. The first involved content analysis of online comments that were shared in response to news articles that explored a seemingly "growing" trend of individuals opting not to have children because of climate change.
Next, they identified adults aged 18-35 who had shared that climate change was a factor of consideration for them and conducted semi-structured interviews. "We focused on young adults as previous research has shown this age group is more likely to consider climate change as one of the biggest issues and about a third consider climate change in their childbearing decisions," the authors write.
The survey sample consisted of 24 participants: 17 women, four men and three participants that identified as gender non-conforming. Data was collected in Tucson, Auckland and Christchurch.
The interviews asked the participants questions about their knowledge of factors driving climate change, their vision for the future, motivations (and anticipated consequences of) having children or not and the associated emotions.
To analyze the data, the researchers adopted thematic analysis and coding. Two coders utilized deductive and intuitive coding, and a priori template (codes that are developed before examining the data based on the objectives of the research) was created. As analysis began, the codes were either kept or divided into new codes based on new themes that emerged in the data, for example "burden of responsibility".
"In analyzing the interviews, credibility was improved using triangulation through source triangulation (i.e., using quotes from different participants), while transferability was addressed through thick descriptions in the findings to increase the transferability of the findings to other contexts and individuals," write the researchers.
The collective results revealed three major themes: overconsumption, overpopulation and an uncertain future. Overpopulation was the main concern and motivation for opting not to have children in the first study, whereas overconsumption, where participants expressed fears that having children would further contribute to an increased carbon footprint and consumption of vital food and water resources, was the predominant theme in study two.
The third theme – an uncertain future – related to participants' concerns over the prospect of climate change continuing to go "unchecked"; expressions of guilt and feeling a sense of ethical dilemma were highlighted in the interviews and comments. In contrast, however, some participants suggested that the very notion of children provided hope of a "brighter" future: "There was a hope that future generations will get the job done and makes things better, " Helm said.
The opportunity to talk
There are limitations to the study that the authors highlight in the paper; one being the fact that study two was subject to self-selection bias, as only individuals who had expressed that they were considering not having children due to climate change were included. To this end, the researchers state that future studies should aim to include larger study samples and random sampling techniques.
"Many people now are severely affected in terms of mental health with regard to climate change concerns […] Then you add this very important decision about having kids, which very few take lightly, and this is an important topic from a public health perspective. It all ties into this bigger topic of how climate change affects people beyond the immediate effect of weather phenomena," – Helm.
Furthermore, the participants for study two were predominantly women; more research is required to identify what factors contribute to men and individuals that identify as non-gender conforming, opting not to have children in the context of climate change.
Nonetheless, the researchers firmly believe that this is a topic of great public health and policy interest, and that this work is a stepping stone in the right direction: "It's still a bit taboo to even talk about this – about how worried they are – in an environment where there are still people who deny climate change […] "I think what's been lacking is the opportunity to talk about it and hear other people's voices. Maybe this research will help," Helm concluded.
Reference: Helm S, Kemper JA, White SK. No future, no kids–no kids, no future? Popul Environ. 2021. doi:10.1007/s11111-021-00379-5.