The climate crisis is changing and complicating the conversation for young couples deciding whether to have children, and for parents deciding how to explain climate change to the children they’re already raising. But New York magazine deputy editor and climate columnist David Wallace-Wells says he’s still holding onto hope for the future his infant daughter, Rocca, will inherit.
“Over the last year or two, the question I’ve been asked more than any other by people who know I write about warming concerns kids: whether it’s moral to reproduce in this climate; whether it’s responsible to have children; whether it is fair to the planet or, perhaps more important, to the children,” Wallace-Wells writes. He concludes that deciding not to have children is its own form of climate fatalism, if not outright indifference.
The climate picture certainly worsened dramatically in the several years before Rocca made her appearance. “When we first conceived of conceiving a child, it was in relative ignorance about warming; like many Americans, we knew about climate change in a sort of theoretical way, but thought the threat of it ended roughly at the shoreline, and that we could go on living our lives as we always had, without worrying too much,” he writes.
“By the time we’d actually conceived, we were no longer under that illusion, thanks to unprecedented hurricanes and wildfires and floods, and the year or so I’d spent buried in the dark news from climate science. By the time Rocca was born, the news had grown grimmer.”
That’s not an “unusual accident” for any nine-month period in the last decade, nor for any likely time in the future. “Extend the chunk of time to the length of a childhood, or a full life, and that picture of climate suffering gets dramatically worse,” he states. And predictably, the likely prospects for Rocca and her generation are settling “like sediment into family planning,” with well-to-do youth in Europe and the United States weighing whether a new child would only contribute to the problem, while suffering from its consequences.
But after New York Times essayist Roy Scranton wrote last July that he and his partner had, “in our selfishness, doomed our daughter to life on a dystopian planet,” climate activists rushed to argue against declaring an endgame in the response to climate change, Wallace-Wells recalls.
The other set of questions, he says, is how to talk to children about climate change and its various impacts.
“Here is what I plan to say, when Rocca is old enough to ask: Further degradation isn’t inescapable, it is optional,” he states. “I now know there are climate horrors to come, some of which will inevitably be visited on my kids—that is what it means for warming to be an all-encompassing, all-touching threat. But I also know those horrors are not yet scripted. We are staging them by inaction, and by action, can stop them. Climate change means some bleak prospects for the decades ahead, but I don’t believe the appropriate response to that challenge is withdrawal, surrender.”
Particularly because “the fight is, definitively, not yet lost—in fact will never be lost, so long as we avoid extinction, because however warm the planet gets, it will always be the case that the decade that follows could contain more suffering or less.”