Climate anxiety isn’t behind the current baby bust — but it might influence the next one
Blaming birth rates on climate change won’t solve our problems or help us understand the next generation.
When Andrew Bryant awoke to yet another gray day in Seattle, he didn’t think much of the lack of sunshine streaming into his bedroom. What was strange, however, was the silence.
There was no thunder, no lightning, not even a light pitter-patter of rain trickling down through the gutters. He brushed his teeth in the stillness and made a cup of coffee in his peacefully quiet kitchen. Happy to leave his umbrella at home for once, Bryant got ready for the day and thought he’d check the weather to see if he needed a jacket. As he peered out through a window, expecting to see a pale, overcast sky, he was taken aback by the thick blanket of smoke that obscured his view of the city. Seattle, in peak smoke season for the third year in a row as a result of nearby wildfires, had finally had enough.
“For me, that was the first time I had experientially faced a taste of what it might be like to live in an environment that was not in my control and didn’t feel safe, for myself and my kids,” Bryant says.
Climate change may be a political buzzword, but it’s also our new global reality. Every year, 150,000 premature deaths are linked to the climate crisis. What was once a distant concern has become an immediate worry as more people are considering our warming planet to be a real and dangerous threat to their daily lives. In some countries, the share of people concerned about climate change escalated by almost 30 percentage points in just six years. There is no denying that the climate is now one of our top priorities, since even in the middle of a pandemic, people are just as concerned about climate change as they are about infectious diseases.
Equally on the rise are cautions about the baby bust, or the rapidly slowing birth rate that continues to screech to a further halt each year. Worldwide, the birth rate has been steadily decreasing since 1988, and the U.S. is no exception. Just this week, the CDC announced that the birth and fertility rates in the U.S. dropped by 4% in 2020, reaching record lows. Despite how easy it may be to attribute these falling numbers to climate activists like BirthStrikers, young people’s feelings about climate change aren’t actually causing the current baby bust — but they could be behind the next one.
As young people are growing increasingly concerned about the climate, new terms like ecoanxiety and climate anxiety are created to help mental health professionals keep up with modern environmental stressors. Bryant, whose professional interests include the impact of climate change on mental health, says there are two main components of climate anxiety: anxiety and grief. He describes anxiety as a fear people have about something they can’t control, like the climate, that arises when they don’t have a clear action step to take. One of the ways this anxiety can manifest itself, he says, is in a constant need to refresh Twitter for the latest climate news. Additionally, he explains grief as the loss or anticipated loss of things people love or value. For individuals with climate anxiety, this can include the loss of nature, ecosystems, or a future that they envision for themselves and their families.
While we can’t ignore that climate anxiety is a real phenomenon that many young people are experiencing, it seems premature to call it the reason for the baby bust when some just aren’t ready to have children yet. The trend of pushing off parenthood has persisted for the past 50 years, and it’s still prevalent today. For a variety of reasons, including financial, patriarchal, and gendered ones, young adults aren’t achieving that once-coveted 2.5 kids, white picket fence ideal in the first quarter of their lives the same way they used to.
Katie Hayden says that among her and her friends, climate change is just one of the many factors that make them hesitant when thinking about having children. But for her, financial stability wins out over rising temperatures because it’s more immediately practical. And in 2016, she decided she wouldn’t want to have a child under President Trump, which extended her timeline even further.
While Hayden isn’t completely against ever having children, she acknowledges that there are more aspects today to consider that weren’t as important to her parents as they are to her. “I wonder if people thought that climate change was going to get as bad, if people like my mother or people from her generation would have made different decisions,” she says. A person’s reasons for wanting or not wanting to have children can be based on broad social phenomena, says Dr. Janet Lefkowitz, a gynecologist based in Atlanta. Since the world today is vastly different (and warmer) from the world previous generations grew up in, those reasons have transformed for today’s young adults.
Jenn Meakem says she’s heard arguments that younger generations shouldn’t be having children because the population is increasing too quickly for the Earth to handle — and she’s not alone. Known as populationism, this idea has been gaining traction for years. Meakem doesn’t subscribe to populationism; instead, like Hayden, she considers climate change to be just another factor in her growing list of things that matter when thinking about building a family.
One core tenet of populationism is the idea that young people should be fostering or adopting children instead of creating more of them. Meakem says, as a gay person, this route is already one she’s thought about, and she knows about the supposed climate benefits from doing so, like reduced strain on the planet’s resources. Overall, she says she just isn’t sure if anyone she knows feels a strong connection between plans to have kids and plans to save the planet because she thinks those conversations are still awkward to have, even with close friends.
For Elisa Guerrero, hinging parenting plans on climate change only sounds realistic in certain contexts. Guerrero says she’s most often seen populationist arguments in online comment sections underneath news articles or on social media posts. She understands having climate anxiety, but populationism sounds like more of a stretch to her — so if she does eventually decide not to have children, she says that wouldn’t be the reason why.
Another important variable to consider is the responsibility young people feel to fix the planet that previous generations left in disrepair. Meakem says she occasionally experiences this kind of existentialism about the planet. When she does, she empathizes with people who feel that “we only hurt the Earth by living.” Dr. Renee Lertzman, a climate psychologist, says that our society’s insistence on framing climate change as a problem that can be solved by individuals is part of what creates these feelings of hopelessness and despair. So “it makes sense that people would have a need to disconnect and tune out” in an almost nihilistic way, she says.
Guerrero believes part of why young people feel so pressured to take on the heavy burden of climate change is because they think they have to. “We didn’t start this problem, we didn’t set up the systems that create it,” she says, “but we are tasked with minimizing the impact as much as we can.” Widespread labeling of Gen Z as the generation that will save the planet pushes a narrative that, in turn, creates guilt in young adults about what being environmentally-friendly really looks like.
This assumed responsibility may attach itself to people’s inner critics, says Bryant. Inner critics drain our energy, he explains, because there’s no way to win arguments it crowds our brains with. Each of us is always going to be doing less for the planet than someone else — we can’t all be Greta Thunberg. Instead, we should embrace the efforts we are already making and acknowledge that we are helping the Earth in the ways that work best for us, Bryant says.
Jordan Owen says for her, it’s not so much about feeling helpless as it is about the problem of climate change being so massive. “I do know that climate change is potentially a world-ending thing,” she says. “But I often have trouble gauging how immediately the world will end.” Lertzman says that feeling disconnected from the bigger picture is understandable because many people’s emotional responses to climate change, like distancing and confusion, are ways of protecting themselves from the issues at hand.
Others, like Bryant, have moved past indecision to tackle the climate crisis head on. That dark and smoky morning was a wake up call that in part led him to create Climate & Mind, a website devoted to collecting and organizing resources about climate anxiety all in one place. What started out as a page just for his own reference turned into an ongoing project that received a flood of support from ecoanxiety sufferers and mental health experts alike. Soon, Bryant was fielding emails and calls from tens of people each day. “It seems to be filling a niche that there’s a need for,” he says.
As the number of websites like Climate & Mind grows, the field of research on climate anxiety and how it affects our lives continues to expand. Another valuable resource is Lertzman’s Project Inside Out, which provides a framework for members to turn their passion for the environment into action that helps the planet and spreads awareness about climate change. Where parenting is concerned, Lefkowitz notes an exciting new study that outlines how reproductive healthcare providers can begin to include climate anxiety in family planning discussions with their patients. The farther information about the climate crisis spreads, the more people will incorporate the planet into their plans.
Lefkowitz says there’s no way of knowing exactly how many young people are putting off or scrapping their decisions to become parents altogether because of climate change, although she does think it’s a worry for some. “I think it’s a very broad question with probably more specific answers that we don’t know yet,” she says. “But I do think we have to ask more about what people who are thinking about their reproductive choices and issues, what are their concerns and stressors?”
So while the current record-setting birth rate has many making sweeping statements about distracted Gen Z activists, to imply that this generation’s reproductive goals are melting with the ice caps is to ignore the dozens of other considerations people take into account when deciding whether or not to become parents. Whether it’s fair to attribute the decline in births and the rise in the age when people are having children to climate change can’t be determined until the conversation centers less around reusable grocery bags and more around the perpetually unpredictable future.
Exploring the Climate Crisis
Getting involved in climate activism is easy, once you know where to start. Here are some of the best resources with helpful information about the climate crisis, climate legislation, and more:
- An interactive map that shows the number of current climate laws, policies, and legal cases in every country worldwide. The map can also show you greenhouse gas emissions data and how much a country is at risk of experiencing severe weather events as predicted by the Global Climate Risk Index.
- A primer on the Earth’s rising temperature, with an interactive temperature graph and data from 2020, the second-warmest year on record.
- The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) publishes the State of the Climate summaries online, which you can read for free here. They also conduct briefings online on the third Thursday of every month at 11:00 a.m. ET, and you can access slideshows from old briefings going back to 2011 here.
- A database of every bill currently in Congress that is related to climate change. Find out which legislators sponsor them and how far each bill has progressed — and consider calling some representatives and advocating for the bills you feel strongly about.
- If you’re looking for some new listening material, there are plenty of podcasts that cover the climate. Try Mongabay Newscast, America Adapts, or How to Save a Planet.
- Or, hear about the climate crisis directly from researchers themselves with an entire TEDTalk playlist dedicated to climate change.
- Interested in climate justice? Organizations like the NAACP, Greenpeace, and even Ben & Jerry’s all have helpful explainers and resources on their websites.