Media reports and public polls suggest that young people in many countries are increasingly factoring climate change into their reproductive choices, but empirical evidence about this phenomenon is lacking. This article reviews the scholarship on this subject and discusses the results of the first empirical study focused on it, a quantitative and qualitative survey of 607 US-Americans between the ages of 27 and 45. While 59.8% of respondents reported being “very” or “extremely concerned” about the carbon footprint of procreation, 96.5% of respondents were “very” or “extremely concerned” about the well-being of their existing, expected, or hypothetical children in a climate-changed world. This was largely due to an overwhelmingly negative expectation of the future with climate change. Younger respondents were more concerned about the climate impacts their children would experience than older respondents, and there was no statistically significant difference between the eco-reproductive concerns of male and female respondents. These and other results are situated within scholarship about growing climate concern in the USA, the concept of the carbon footprint, the carbon footprint of procreation, individual actions in response to climate change, temporal perceptions of climate change, and expectations about the future in the USA. Potential implications for future research in environmental psychology, environmental sociology, the sociology of reproduction, demography, and climate mitigation are discussed.
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For example, the article publicizing the results of a 2018 BusinessInsider poll (Relman and Hickey 2018) claimed that the poll provided information about the number of Americans who are factoring climate change into their reproductive choices. In reality, it suggested a modest generational shift in applied ethics on the subject.
Calculated using data from the US Census Bureau 2018, US Census Bureau 2019, Monte and Knop 2019, and Morning Consult 2020. This calculation assumes that of the approximately 50 million Americans between the ages of 20 and 45 who did not have children in 2019, the Morning Consult 2020 figures about the percentage of Americans of childbearing age who did not have children at least partially because of climate change concerns were representative of the entire US population.
While digital surveys risk a bias toward those who have Internet access and, given this methodology, those who use social media, the youthfulness of the target population of this survey mitigates that risk. Approximately 98.5% of Americans between 18 and 49 have Internet access, and approximately 83% of those aged 18 to 49 use social media. See Smith and Anderson 2018; Anderson et al. 2019.
The survey utilized branching to present appropriately-worded questions to each respondent, but they are condensed here to apply to respondents in the categories parents, planning, and undecided. Respondents committed to being childfree were not presented with these quantitative questions. This was because their responses to this question would have been less reliable, since most of them had made the decision not to have children at some point in the past. As a result, they would either be reporting on something that had happened in the past, instead of describing their level of concern at the time of the survey, or reporting on a hypothetical concern in the present (how concerned they would be about their children’s futures if they had children).
Childfree, white, female, 42, abroad (Lebanon). All quotations are typical examples of the positions expressed by a number of survey respondents.
Parent, white, female, 38, Minnesota.
Undecided, Asian-American, female, 36, Illinois.
Parent, white, female, 36, New York.
Parent, white, male, 37, Massachusetts.
Undecided, white, male, 28, Massachusetts.
Childfree, white, female, 31, Washington.
Undecided, white, female, 27, Michigan.
Parent, white, female, 38, Florida.
These regrets were expressed across a range of responses to open-ended questions in the survey. The intercoder rating for regret was high (α = 1.0)
Parent, white, female, 40, Minnesota.
Childfree, Asian-American, female, 43, California.
Parent, white, male, 42, Vermont.
Undecided, white, gender fluid, 27, Pennsylvania.
Undecided, white, female, 31, California.
Childfree, white, female, 42, Washington.
Childfree, white, female, 29, California.
Parent, white, female, 44, California.
Undecided, white, male, 30, California.
Childfree, white, female, 32, Oregon.
Childfree, white, female, 30, Minnesota. “With a bullet” is a colloquial expression meaning that something is quickly rising to the top.
Childfree, white, female, 36, California.
This article is concerned with reproductive choices in the age of climate change, but not all people have the freedom or ability to choose whether to have children, or how many. That denial is an incredibly important topic, but it is not the focus of this article. Additionally, this article is focused on the question of biological reproduction, but one alternative to conceiving biological children, frequently cited by respondents, is adoption. This space does not permit an appropriately detailed discussion of how adoption fits into these considerations, though it is worth noting that adoption in the United States is often a difficult, lengthy, and often expensive process, and therefore was carried out less frequently than it was praised by survey respondents.
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The authors would like to acknowledge the generous assistance of Josephine Ferorelli, Cameron Leader-Picone, Dylan Leong, Michael Maniates, Marvin Joseph Montefrio, Valentina Zuin, and the anonymous referees.
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Schneider-Mayerson, M., Leong, K.L. Eco-reproductive concerns in the age of climate change. Climatic Change 163, 1007–1023 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-020-02923-y