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Raising Children in a Warming World

Kids with N95 masks sit together on a paddleboard

By Leah Wyatt

Many evenings after dinner, my husband and I assemble our three small children, ages 3, 3, and 5, and head to a forested walking trail near our home for a “hike.” Crunching our way down a verdant hill, we stop to admire colorful leaves and oddly shaped shrubs. We listen for birds, and startle at squirrels scuttling in the undergrowth. Sometimes, we hear the throaty hoot of owls high in the trees. We scan a tiny stream for fish (reliably, there are none), and eventually turn to head home.

I hope that these simple excursions, while much different than our extended treks possible pre-children, help my kids learn to love and respect our Earth and the life it supports.

I have three children, and I care deeply about climate change. This often feels incongruous: my family is sucking down what many would consider to be more than our fair share of resources, and in doing so, generating carbon emissions that are warming our Earth to unprecedented levels.

I understand the position of those who could theoretically bear children but decide not to do so given our current climate situation; I struggle with feelings of guilt and anxiety related to the size of my family and the state of the Earth my children will face. Is it ethical to purposefully expand our species’ footprint, arguably valuing human life over all other life? Will our choices intensify the suffering of our own children, and of others? These are deeply unsettling questions. And they are questions that have now entered public discourse. Giving birth to fewer emitters clearly reduces potential carbon emissions, though some sources indicate that possible changes to future emissions policy may offset the impacts associated with having children.

Bearing and raising children is for many people a deeply felt human desire, but it is also bound up with complicated questions of privilege. Many women around the world don’t get to decide whether, when, and how they have children. But even more privileged than the ability to choose not to have children, of course, is the ability to choose to have children who will (like all Americans) use a wildly disproportionate share of the world’s resources. Population growth is a concern, but in terms of emissions, it would take 90 Sudanese kids to equal the footprint of 3 Americans. We need to build a world in which all people have the freedom to decide their family size—but also one in which no one, by virtue of extreme inequality, sees it as their right to generate high emissions (either directly, or by creating a new human).

If we who live in high-income countries want to have children—as many of us do—we should take particular care to fight for the deep system changes that will reduce our impact.

Yet when raising young children, remaining in the present moment can be vital to maintaining balance and sanity—and this orientation can be in tension with the need to fight for systemic change. Avoiding thoughts of the future is tempting: envisioning the future years and decades from now—given climate change, social unrest, COVID-19, and other ills facing our world—is painful. During recent months, many of us have retreated into the safety of our homes, in an emotional as well as a physical sense. But it’s critical to continue to engage with unsettling external issues. Because I have children, I want to bury my head under a pile of pillows and forget about the world’s woes. But because I have children, for whom I want the world to be better, avoidance and denial are inexcusable.

I see my role as a parent as motivation to lean into climate activism. As a parent, I’ve never voted more carefully in my life, meticulously evaluating candidate profiles and opting for those most committed to green legislation and eco-conscious leadership. I am also actively seeking out opportunities to fight climate change in my community, and hope to involve my kids as soon as possible. I want my children to know that they can use their privilege to make a difference in our world.

My responsibility to my children is, to me, intrinsically linked with my responsibility to the world. I want them to have a fulfilled, safe, and healthy life, and a world that can offer them as much. But the planet’s future isn’t guaranteed. My children strengthen my resolve to fight the systems of oppression that threaten life on earth.

As a parent, I want to come from a place of hope. For me, hope means I will not give up, and I will fight fiercely for tomorrow. Hope means I will teach my children to fight with me, beginning by teaching them how to protect our Earth and its resources. And hope means talking openly with my children about the challenges we face. Today’s children must grow knowing how to fight for our Earth—as, heartbreakingly, they won’t have a choice.

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