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Climate Change’s Unlikely Population Risk: Thinking about Children

Posted in on
March 30, 2021

Author: Ron Dembo

When most people think of climate change, images of wildfires in Australia, melting polar ice caps, and flooding in India come to mind. But what about hundreds of potential parents too afraid to have children? What about radical changes to the global population?

What We Know

Scientists have been mapping the physical risks to our environment for decades now. And you only have to watch a David Attenborough documentary to see them illustrated in heart-breaking detail on the big screen.

In fact, we’ve now got a fairly good grip on the causal science of our climate – new studies on the Indian Ocean Dipole and permafrost in the Arctic reveal ever more about the way in which human emissions are dramatically altering our planet.

What We Don’t

But we often forget that climate change is the poster child for radical uncertainty.

For all we know, it is still a complex mess of non-stationary stochastic processes – a beast of non-linearity, fluidity, novelty, and endless and unexpected disruption. It is full of threshold effects and compounding feedback loops. These mean tiny and seemingly insignificant changes can break out rapidly and snowball into massively high-impact events that are impossible to predict and that have consequences that cannot be guessed in advance.

The Strange and the Unpredictable

And one of those outlying consequences might just be a terrible impact on our collective willingness to bear children.

A recent study in the journal Climate Change found that 96% of people already taking climate concerns into account when making reproductive choices were extremely concerned about their potential child’s wellbeing in a climate-impacted environment.

As one respondent to the survey stated, “Climate change is the sole factor for me in deciding not to have biological children. I don’t want to birth children into a dying world [though] I dearly want to be a mother.”

Another regretted already having children: “I regret having my kids because I am terrified that they will be facing the end of the world due to climate change.”

Translating Uncertainty into Risk

The paper represents a new avenue of scientific investigation into climate change. A few years ago, we had no idea such a phenomenon was occurring. But how might it develop? How bad could the effects become if climate change gets significantly worse? What if it gets better?

We don’t know. And just a few months ago we wouldn’t even have been able to weigh these up as possibilities. That is the nature of climate change – at this point it is radically uncertain and constantly changing.

The best we can do is operate with the knowledge we have available to us. But we must account for the fact that science is constantly advancing and that ideas are rapidly developing, and so our picture of the future must constantly adapt with these changes.

We need to learn how to generate scenarios rapidly – even algorithmically – based on the latest science. And we need to be able to model the way in which these small, seemingly insignificant forces might evolve and eventually translate into macroeconomic impacts. In a world of radical uncertainty, we need to learn how to risk think.

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