Opinion | Is It Ethical to Have Children Amid the Climate Crisis?


To the Editor:

Re “Your Kids Are Not Doomed to a Grim Life,” by Ezra Klein (column, June 9):

Tolstoy said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” I read Mr. Klein’s column as an example of Tolstoy’s observation in action.

Citing Greta Thunberg as a justification for having kids is like concluding that the lottery is a sound financial investment on the basis of one winning ticket. We talk about Greta Thunberg because she’s exceptional. Most people are just average, and right now every “just average” person adds to our environmental problems.

Even in the net-zero emissions world that Mr. Klein and I dream of, every person still has a cost. Humans have to live somewhere, eat food (even if it’s all plants), and use energy (even if it’s renewable). We take space. Every person is another little chunk of forest razed, grassland paved.

We as a species have dug ourselves into a rather nasty hole, and we’re dragging a lot of other species along with us. It’s going to take some work and sacrifice to reverse that, and anyone wondering who has to change their habits need look no further than the nearest mirror.

Philip Semanchuk
Carrboro, N.C.

To the Editor:

This is my 50th year as a climate scientist. For decades I and hundreds of other climate scientists have presented evidence that the world is warming because we are burning fossil fuels. For decades our voices were ridiculed or ignored.

But the tide has turned, and we, like Ezra Klein, recognize that though climate change is a challenge, it is a challenge that we can overcome and will overcome. Yes, we will lose some treasured parts of our ecosystem and people will suffer, because we reacted too slowly and now cannot slow the warming fast enough to save everything. But we can slow the warming sufficiently to allow us, and much of nature, to adapt.

It is far too early to say farewell to civilization. Or to stop having children and grandchildren who will be able to enjoy the wonderful, although imperfect, world we will leave them.

Neville Nicholls
Melbourne, Australia
The writer is emeritus professor at the School of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment, Monash University.

To the Editor:

Ezra Klein’s column felt too optimistic to me at the start, but it got to the grueling details at the end. I personally push back against the notion that the next generation will make the change we need to see in the world. I’m so tired of being thanked by older people with more power than I have for the climate action work I’m doing and being told to keep doing what I’m doing.

We don’t need young people to keep raising the alarm; we need people with power to start putting their money where their mouth is. Next time I get thanked, I’ll respond, “Will you help me?”

Mr. Klein writes, “To bring a child into this world has always been an act of hope.” I’d rephrase that to say that children bring joy, rather than hope, and that counts for a lot in a world with so much suffering and stress.

Monica Nelson
La Jolla, Calif.

To the Editor:

When Ezra Klein concludes, “If the cost of caring about climate is to forgo having a family, that cost will be too high,” he seems to forget that you can have kids without having kids. Indeed, many people do just that.

We adopted our son, James, in February 2020, just weeks before the world locked down. As people’s lives were shrinking, our family grew. He’s been a constant source of joy and light, and we cannot imagine our future without him — no matter how fraught or tenuous his future (or the planet’s) may be.

Opinion Conversation
The climate, and the world, are changing. What challenges will the future bring, and how should we respond to them?

For us, adoption was an ethical choice: We wanted to grow our family, not the population. For others (such as those who can’t conceive or many L.G.B.T.Q. couples), it may be the only choice. And sure, for some, adoption may not be an option at all — or not the right one, anyway.

But any serious “to breed or not to breed?” discussion ought to recognize that families form in myriad ways and that there are multiple paths to becoming a parent. (Just ask any stepparent.)

So, the question for those pondering how to balance their own wants with the fate of the world needn’t be whether to start a family, but how.

Matthew Prescott
Lara Prescott
Portsmouth, N.H.

To the Editor:

As a 79-year-old parent of two adult children and three teenage grandsons, I am immensely grateful for Ezra Klein’s column. However, while we hope that the industrial countries most responsible for the scourge of climate change will actively promote green energy for the foreseeable future, nonetheless the refusal of ignorant politicians and polluting industries in the United States to embrace green energy may doom even reasonable environmental progress.

We are about to learn whether the Supreme Court will significantly weaken the Clean Air Act at the behest of coal companies in West Virginia. This decision could cripple every effort by the federal government to regulate air pollution from coal-fired plants, and represents the height of industrial indifference to the problem and a serious weakness in our democracy’s ability to reduce emissions.

I fear that Mr. Klein’s optimism may be shattered by a single Supreme Court decision. That, indeed, would be tragic.

Michael W. Shurgot

To the Editor:

I don’t begrudge Ezra Klein having two children of his own, but I didn’t find his opinion that the climate crisis should not deter people from having children convincing. He says that for the vast majority of human existence, almost everyone lived in what we consider today to be abject poverty. There has always been mass suffering, so should our ancestors have chosen not to have us?

While it’s appealing to validate our own existence, our ancestors didn’t live on a planet with eight billion people. They also didn’t live in a world with birth control and vaccines. Women had to have more children to ensure that some of them survived.

The world we live in today is vastly different. We don’t need to shore up the population to replace people who die early from war, diseases or unsafe childbirth. We are facing a future where vast swaths of the earth will become uninhabitable, and agricultural output will fall even as population continues to rise.

We have the choice to not make this situation worse. While it’s true that a Greta Thunberg may emerge among those born, it is far more likely that more human brilliance could be unleashed with fewer children who are better taken care of. Morality is considering what would be the greatest good for the greatest number of people, and fewer children, if not none, is an option everyone should consider, as well as adoption.

Clara Fang
The writer is a senior fellow with Citizens’ Climate International.

To the Editor:

In the world of madness and conflict that is engulfing us all right now, Ezra Klein’s column comes as a welcome reminder that our children and grandchildren will do what must be done regarding climate change, simply because they will not and cannot accept a future without better outcomes, for themselves and their children.

Kudos to them, and to Mr. Klein.

Hal Wingo
Rancho Mirage, Calif.

To the Editor:

Ezra Klein’s column assures us, “Your Kids Are Not Doomed.” He’s right — because we can and will restore the climate by 2050.

And young adults would still be wise to follow Bill McKibben’s 1998 advice of “Maybe one.”

Our new book, “Climate Restoration: The Only Future That Will Sustain the Human Race,” shows that with today’s population — 10 times the preindustrial sustainable levels — the path to a new sustainability lies in Mr. McKibben’s sage advice.

If the global norm for family size stabilized at Italy’s current level of 1.3 children, we would see a sustainable population by the end of the century. This 1.3 average could encompass large, small and child-free families, and land us closer to the preindustrial population than our current level.

Those who care about humanity’s flourishing, generation after generation, will opt for both restoring the climate and having small families.

Carole Douglis
Peter Fiekowsky



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