Looking for a surefire way to leave a lasting carbon footprint? Try having a child.
According to analysts at Morgan Stanley, “having a child is 7 times worse for the climate in CO2 emissions annually than the next 10 most discussed mitigants that individuals can do.” The more children you have, the worse the impact—exacerbating your own footprint exponentially by guaranteeing generations of footprints to come.
It comes as no surprise to many college students that we’re in the midst of a full-fledged climate crisis—one which will only subside if met with bold, urgent action. But just how far are students willing to go to mitigate their impact on the environment? Is having a child truly worth the cost?
To answer this question, we investigated whether a sense of environmental responsibility was negatively correlated with a desire to have children. We narrowed in on five schools: Stanford, UVM, UPenn, Georgetown, and UMich.
For starters, we looked at each school’s average response to the question “I want a family with ____ children.” Across the board, the distribution peaked somewhere around 2 or 3 kids, though a sizable number of students at each school said they preferred to remain child-free.
How does this distribution shift when environmental awareness is brought into the mix? Next, we broke down students’ responses to the question “I go to great lengths to minimize my harm to the planet” from 1 to 7, where 7 indicates the highest level of environmental consciousness.
Overall, we found that the higher a student’s response, the more likely they were to say they wanted 0 children. We did, however, observe an interesting caveat: at UVM, UPenn, and Georgetown, the group that cared the least about minimizing their environmental impact had one of the higher percentages of students with no interest in having children.
What exactly accounts for the relationship between environmental awareness and a desire for children? One obvious explanation is that students who are more concerned about their environmental impact are willing to give up child-rearing for the sake of the climate.
But it might not be so simple. For starters, the amount of time it takes to raise a child exceeds the narrow window we still have for immediate climate action. As climate scientist Kimberly Nicholas explains, child-rearing falls outside “the relevant timeframe for actually stabilizing the climate, given that we have this decade to cut emissions in half.”
It’s also a tall order to demand that young people who do want to raise families make such a significant personal sacrifice for the sake of the climate, especially when the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions can be traced to just a handful of large corporations.
With this in mind, there’s another explanation, one that’s possibly more bleak: perhaps the prospect of bringing a child into an uncertain world destined for environmental doom isn’t all that appealing anymore. Students who are familiar with the raging climate crisis may also be more attuned to other threats, problems, inequalities, and disparities that pervade our society. Perhaps it feels selfish to subject even more individuals to so much difficulty and injustice.
Of course, we don’t need to adopt such a pessimistic outlook. College students, more than anything, are characterized by their unrelenting drive to learn and solve problems. If anyone is equipped with the passion, integrity, and knowledge to better the world for generations to come, it’s today’s youth. Let’s not lose hope so soon.