How is climate change affecting family size decisions?

Written by Olivia Nater | Published: November 16, 2023

A new study is the first to empirically investigate the relationship between climate change concern and family size. The findings indicate that, unsurprisingly, increased concern is typically associated with less positive attitudes toward reproduction and an intention to have fewer or no children, but there are some interesting exceptions.

Small families for the planet

Anecdotal evidence of people choosing to forego childbearing or limit their family size because of our deteriorating environment crops up frequently in media stories, and if you’re reading this blog, it’s likely you are in the same boat. In its early days, Population Connection, then known as Zero Population Growth or ZPG, actively advocated for small family sizes to reduce humanity’s collective environmental footprint. “Stop at Two” became a popular slogan in the 70s — the idea was that if every couple had no more than two biological children, we would eventually achieve population stabilization. This was considered particularly important in the United States, where material consumption per person has long been one of the highest in the world. As a side note, it turns out that when you remove barriers to contraceptive use as well as education and employment opportunities, especially for women, average family size naturally drops rapidly — all higher income countries except for Israel, Saudi Arabia and Oman now have below-replacement fertility.

Climate change as an increasingly important factor

Climate change as a result of rising greenhouse gas emissions was not yet a widely recognized phenomenon in the 1970s, but today, it is undoubtedly the most prominent environmental issue. The escalating magnitude and urgency of the climate crisis makes it an important factor in many individuals’ reproductive decision-making.

The new paper, published in PLOS Climate, analyzed 13 studies conducted between 2012 and 2022 on the links between climate concern and reproductive desires and intentions. Twelve out of the 13 studies reported that stronger environmental concerns are associated with less favorable reproductive attitudes and a reduced desire and intention to have children. The two main cited reasons were concern over children’s prospective future on a planet ravaged by climate breakdown, as well as concern over the environmental impacts of bringing additional people into this world.

Both concerns are backed by science. Governments are woefully far off track for averting catastrophic climate change, with the critical 1.5°C target likely to be breached before the end of this decade. Existing climate policies and actions would lead to as much as 2.6 to 2.9°C of warming by 2100, which would make large parts of the world uninhabitable. As population growth, alongside per person consumption, is one of the two strongest drivers of increasing greenhouse gas emissions, it is also understandable that some couples wish to restrict their contribution by choosing small families.

The analysis found that concerns about the environmental impacts of having children were not expressed by any participants in the Global South, which the authors claim may reflect their “relatively negligible involvement in overconsumption practices,” but it may also be partly attributable to differences in education and exposure to environmental news.

Further reasons and outliers

Two additional, less common themes cropped up in the analysis. Concern over being able to provide for children under climate change was recorded in two countries — Zambia and Ethiopia. In light of worsening droughts and food and water shortage, some people surveyed in these countries expressed worry that having a large family would mean too many mouths to feed and thus reduced child survival. Secondly, some respondents in Global North settings were politically motivated, saying that having children would detract from their personal environmental activism, and that remaining childfree allows them to maximize their philanthropic endeavors.

Interestingly, these last two themes were also behind some people’s reasons for having (more) children. In Zambia, some participants were concerned about their ability to support their family during times of scarcity without the household labor provided by additional children — the “helping hands” argument. Regarding political motivations, people who chose larger families in response to climate change argued that liberal and environmentally conscious individuals should procreate to maintain a chance of influencing climate policy, considering that people with conservative inclinations tend to have more children.

Geographic imbalance and important considerations

The authors report a big geographic imbalance in the analyzed data, with 85% of included studies based on respondents in the Global North. They call for more research set in the Global South, especially considering that the relationship between climate change and reproductive desires and intentions seems more complex there.

The paper notes the importance of contextualizing survey responses within broader discourses of reproductive freedom, seeing as many people in developing countries still lack the ability to choose whether to become parents or how many children they have. Indeed, an estimated 218 million women in lower- and middle-income countries wish to avoid pregnancy but are not using modern contraception. The authors point out the climate benefits of advancing reproductive rights, noting that “promotion of family planning services coupled with subsidized, readily available access to contraception presents a key opportunity for fostering climate resilience within the Global South, allowing individuals to control their own reproductive trajectories.”

In conclusion, while a growing number of people choosing to have fewer or no children due to climate change reflects thoughtful, compassionate decision-making, it is tragic that many feel unable to fulfill their desired family size as a result. Alongside investing in international family planning, governments urgently need to ramp up efforts to decarbonize our societies so that those who wish to have children do not have to fear an apocalyptic future.