Editor’s Note: Anna Lee is an intern with CNN Opinion. A fourth-year English major at the College of the Holy Cross, she has written for organizations including the University of Oxford Student newspaper, The Malala Fund (Assembly), The Borgen Project and more. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
If temperatures weren’t rising, I’d choose the name “Athena” for a girl. If the rivers were safe, I’d choose “William” for a boy. If I could breathe clean air on my morning commute, I’d paint the nursery a warm yellow. If I could see hope for a sustainable future on this planet, I wouldn’t be spending time mourning the children I’ll probably never have.
If things were different, I’d be honored to become a parent — indeed, I think there is no greater privilege or responsibility. But each day, the current state of the world dissuades me more and more from having children. Like many folks in Gen Z (those born between 1997 and 2012), my main concern is climate change. And, as climate catastrophes are already well in motion (coupled with a host of related socioeconomic and equality issues), I feel as if I would be doing an increasingly irreparable injustice to any children I would bring into this world with my inability to offer them a future.
I am 21, and as I’ve found, my near-certain choice to hold off on parenthood is a commonly shared sentiment among many Gen Z’ers and our millennial older siblings. For instance, in a 2021 NBC article, 39-year-old English teacher Jessica Combes stated: “I refuse to bring children into the burning hellscape we call a planet,” citing climate change and health care as among the reasons she feels her “trepidation was well justified.” Research shows she (and I) are far from alone.
Even those in the public spotlight (and with considerably more resources than the average person) have vocalized their discontentment with bringing children into a climate disaster-ridden world. In an interview with ELLE Magazine, Miley Cyrus vowed not to bring children into the world until she could be sure “[her] kid would live on an earth with fish in the water.” Additionally, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York posed the question I’ve been wrestling with to her Instagram followers in a 2019 livestream: “Is it okay to still have children?”
Climate anxiety is becoming unbearable
Climate anxiety knows no national borders — according to a study from the University of Bath, nearly 40% of 16- to 25-year-old participants from several countries stated that they were hesitant to have children because of climate change. Other organizations, such as the Canadian “No Future No Children” group, have gained considerable traction among teens, many of whom are pledging not to have children until their government takes climate change more seriously. Among them, then-18-year-old Emma Lim stated in 2019 that she was “giving up [her] dream of having a family” until she could be assured her children “will have something to live for and a healthy family to live on.”
As these testimonies illustrate, building a family — and particularly, raising children — isn’t so much a matter of preference, anymore. It’s also a matter of feasibility and, more importantly, ethics. How do we justify bringing children onto a planet where the future feels more indeterminate than ever?
The enormity of climate change, which often feels hopeless and irreversible, and the anxiety and fear about the future that goes with it, seems to have no exit route. It feels like there’s a weight on my chest — and, in discussions of climate, this weight intensifies. I’ve spent many sleepless nights watching footage of forests ablaze and communities flooded, paranoid that someone I know was among the casualties. I’ve seen my own anxieties leap, like a contagion, to my little sister. My climate anxiety doesn’t just spark feelings of fear or sadness — but anger, frustration and resentment for a future I’ve been denied.
I know I am far from the first person, both in Gen Z and in history, to reckon with events of an existential scale when grappling with questions about the future, especially those related to having a family. The past century, alone, is riddled with near-doomsday crises, including WWI and WWII, nuclear threats during the Cold War and frightening economic downturns. In those instances, generations who came before me made different choices — ones that I respect, and which led to the lives my peers and I now enjoy.
But to me, where climate change and other events diverge is human cooperation and responsibility — while war and financial disasters are always caused by humans, they are also rectified by them. However, unlike wartime conflict and periods of financial uncertainty, I can see no hopeful reference point in history to show how humanity might come together to recover from climate change. People are fighting, but their efforts are falling on too many deaf ears.
The US, alone, is an increasingly fractured nation — with unrelenting tides of bigotry and racism, political divides, split loyalties on global conflicts and domestic attacks on LGBTQ rights, women and other groups — and to garner the same level of cooperation with other nations seems like an impossible task. As environmental catastrophes reach a caliber we cannot predict or conceive, having children is becoming less of a risk I’m willing to take.
Why I don’t think I’ll change my mind
At my age, concrete discussions of family and having children are still far down the line — but this is a decision I’ve held firmly to since I, myself, was a child. Passing on my own climate anxiety would be akin to a generational curse — nor do I think the joys of childhood should be tampered with doomsday clocks, higher risks of disease and health issues and climate change’s ripple effects on the economy, violent conflict and education.
As a US citizen, I wield enormous privilege by virtue of location, alone. Coupled with the resources and opportunities that the US provides, my hypothetical children likely wouldn’t be among the worst-affected by climate change. However, that shouldn’t immunize me from considering how my decisions and environmental surroundings may not only impact my own children, but others in less fortunate circumstances (both domestically and internationally). Rather, if I do change my mind and choose to have children, the decision will be heavily prefaced by responsible considerations of ethical sustainability, available resources and the future crises at hand (not to mention the more practical questions of financial security, partnership and preparation).
While it’s dramatic to assume that my choice, alone, would be the catalyst for unstoppable climate catastrophe, many of my decisions emerge from a need for control. Like many Gen Z and Millennial individuals, I feel largely powerless within today’s environmental and political climate. As Greta Thunberg and two other young climate activists — Sophia Kianni and Vanessa Nakate — articulated earlier this year, President Joe Biden’s decision to approve the detrimental Alaskan oil venture, known as the Willow Project, was one of many legislative “betrayals” to younger generations.
Such demonstrations from political leaders only reinforce my distrust with a legislative and political system that continues to fail younger generations — and will probably continue to fail the ones that follow. Not only do some political officials deny the existence of climate change altogether, but even our more “progressive” leaders fail to follow through on their environment-protection promises.
With larger policy control out of the picture, I find myself grasping for any miniscule way to assuage my climate anxiety — finding green travel alternatives, reusing plastic bottles until they fall apart, buying locally sourced food and repurposing any clothes or unwanted items. My decision over whether to have children is yet another example of exerting control over events that seem to be, at this rate, uncontrollable. Still, I wouldn’t feel the need to make these life-altering changes if the main contributors to climate change — such as the uber-wealthy elite and huge corporations — would forego their catastrophic practices.
Reflecting on my experience isn’t a call to action for all young or middle-aged people to abandon their visions for their families, whether those include children or not. Nor do I wish to shame those who choose to have (or have already had) children. Rather, it should provide some insight into what many young people in the US and across the world are having to reckon with — a future that looks incredibly different and less hopeful from our older counterparts. Under today’s environmental and political climate, I find it is better to regret not having children than regret having them.
As temperatures rise and climate policy continues to shake public confidence, the vision for my ideal family looks less, well, ideal. Clamoring voices and pattering feet, the opportunities reaped from my family’s generational sacrifice and the lifelong commitment to raising someone to their greatest potential, have been replaced with depressing alternatives. At most, there’s a frustratingly clean, one-bedroom house, with hours to fill and quiet pervading the halls. But, unless there’s drastic change, and soon, Athena and William will only remain names.
This story is part of CNN’s coverage of climate change ahead of the COP28 summit — covering how the crisis affects our lives as well as the global politics and the potential solutions.
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