How many children should couples have given ongoing climate change?

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Beginning with the work of the now deceased Nobel laureate Gary S. Becker, economists have developed an elaborate theory of fertility that sheds light on a number of salient questions such as how many children couples ought to have, how changes in income and prices impact fertility decisions, and the tradeoff that couples face between the quantity and the quality of children.

Amitrajeet A. Batabyal

It is important to comprehend that this theory views fertility decisions as fundamentally private in nature and little has been done thus far to determine how the theory is impacted by the presence of what economists call externalities, i.e., a cost or a benefit that is caused by one party but incurred or received by another.

However, given that the phenomenon known as climate change is upon us, the seemingly private decision of couples about how many children to have is, in fact, no longer private and this decision has clear and negative environmental effects for both present and future generations that need to be accounted for. Recent research, although based on different assumptions and methodologies, speaks to this point. For instance, research based on the mean distance an automobile travels in a year shows that people in developed nations can save the equivalent of 2.4 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year by living without an automobile. However, if couples had one fewer child then they would save 58.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year!

As a second example, research by statisticians shows that if carbon dioxide emissions stayed similar to 2005 levels for several generations, an American couple having one less child would save the equivalent of 9,441 metric tons of carbon dioxide. In contrast, driving a more fuel-efficient car, i.e., one that gives 10 more miles to the gallon, saves the equivalent of only 148 metric tons of carbon dioxide! In other words, compared to other environmentally friendly actions such as driving an electric vehicle, installing solar panels on one’s rooftop, and reducing red meat consumption, the decision to have one less child has a dramatic effect on carbon dioxide emissions and thereby attenuates the climate change problem.

Some people maintain that adding a single person—or even two persons for that matter—in a planet of 8 billion people makes little or no difference to the insalubrious impacts of climate change. There are two responses to this line of thinking. First, as the numbers presented above show, the absence of even a single human being leads to a non-trivial and positive impact on the climate change problem. Second, even if one accepts the point that being a parent is a salient part of one’s life and that parenthood makes life more meaningful, it does not follow that the private decision of a single couple is also good for the planet in general. In fact, this is a kind of collective action problem because, from a planetary perspective, it is clearly in the best interest of all couples to limit the number of children they have. However, there are no incentives in place that will allow individual couples to adopt this “planetary perspective” in their private decision-making.

How many children then should individual couples have? Although there can be no one answer that makes sense for all couples, we can still identify the factors at work. In particular, the answer involves trading off the private benefit of reproductive freedom with the social loss from contributing to the climate change problem. That said, there is definitely a moral dimension to the question about how many children to have when this decision is viewed in the context of the climate change problem. As such, it is instructive to examine what philosophers have said about this topic.

Trevor Hedberg argues that the tradeoff mentioned above can be satisfied when each couple decides to have no more than two biological children. In contrast, Sarah Conly notes that our planet is suffering serious environmental degradation and that we can see that population increases will make this degradation more severe. This state of affairs leads her to believe that couples do not have a right to have more than one child. Note that because the population replacement rate is 2.1, this view implies that climate change necessitates a reduction in the world’s population. Finally, the bioethicist Travis Reider does not point to a specific number of children that couples ought to have but he too is in favor of couples having small families.

In 1973, while criticizing what he saw to be the inordinate focus on “bigger is better” by mainstream economics, the British economist Ernst Schumacher argued that “small is beautiful.” Given the scourge of climate change, it now looks like the “small is beautiful” line of thinking can also be applied meaningfully to the notion of optimal family size.

Amitrajeet A. Batabyal is a Distinguished Professor, the Arthur J. Gosnell professor of economics, and the Interim Head of the Sustainability Department, all at Rochester Institute of Technology, but these views are his own.

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9 thoughts on “How many children should couples have given ongoing climate change?

  1. It’s amazing to me that the topic of climate change and having children is deemed important by many educated people. That means that they have bought into the exaggerated claims of man made climate change. They should consider the principle of Occam’s Razor. In this case, the sun is the major contributor to climate change not man. We are going through a period of historically high solar flares according to astronomer, Dr. Stephen Kates. Also, carbon dioxide is not a toxin, but is essential to producing oxygen through green plant life’s process of photosynthesis. Without carbon dioxide green plant life would be jeopardized which means earth’s food supply, lumber and numerous other essential products would be at risk.

  2. Populations in most parts of the world are collapsing, leading to a crisis with an aging population. This is true in many Asian and European countries, where the birth rate is falling far below replacement. We have many factors limiting reproduction, such as student loan debt, working women, struggles with child care, and the expenses of raising a child.

    Polygamous cultures have an exploding birth rate, and there are few limiting factors. Exhortations to limit births are therefore futile when directed at the US, China, or Europe. We can only maintain our economy with immigrant labor from the remaining high birth countries.

  3. This is a preposterous attempt at a putting a guild trip on the reproductive-aged readers of the Beacon who are considering parenthood. Our 8 billion people create trivially to global CO2 levels compared to natural sources. We are near historic low levels of atmospheric CO2, so the total impact of human activity is a tiny move in the right direction, away from ice ages. Do not believe a word of this as you consider your decision to reproduce.
    RIT, not you, dear reader, should be feel guilty when reading this piece.

    • “Guild trip” and the sneer at human-induced climate change really tells you all you need to know about the above comment.

  4. Another MAN commenting on this!!!???
    At 71, and female, we discussed this in my youth. Those of us who were educated and free/big thinkers knew it was bad idea then.
    I have NEVER regretted it. My former husband has not either.
    When the 501C3, Zero Population Growth, changed its name to something insipid several decades ago, I knew we had lost.
    There was no way of identifying the organization for what its mission was in the beginning.
    All weirdo religions — that would be ALL OF THEM; Politicians; Authorian Monsters (Trump, Orban, etc); and all MEN just want ultimate control over women.
    I don’t believe that anyone really will do a thing about Climate Change, Population Growth and Equality for All Peoples.
    Not when the only thing greedy humans only care about is money.
    The only true hope is huge, deep, unstoppable pandemics; and catastrophes visited on earth beyond our imagination.
    Let the human population of the entire world drop to less than 1 million and begin again.
    It has happened on the planet before, when life was wiped out.

  5. First of all, anyone who believes that couples “do not have a right” to have more than one child should be excluded from any serious conversation on this topic. Secondly, the decision of how many children to have is absolutely a private decision in any society that claims to be a free society. Reducing the value (or rather lack thereof) of each living human to nothing more than a measurement of carbon dioxide omissions is insulting at best, and dystopian at worst.

    All that said, you can bank on the probability that in 10 years, the “experts” will be begging couples to have children to offset the impending population collapse that is already underway due to a current replacement rate far below 2.1 in most developed nations.

    Children are a blessing, not a liability. We should be focusing our efforts on advancing the technologies that will allow us to live safer, more fulfilling lives, in harmony with the changing needs of the planet. People are not the problem, and articles espousing this reductionist viewpoint at least deserves a fair-minded counter argument.

  6. So, just when the demographic trends in Western Society project population decline, I read advocacy here for big Govt regulating how many children families can have? (Btw- this has been tried in China w/ the “one China” policy, it didn’t work, they are paying for it now) . All of this based on some theory of CO2 (a substance which we all exhale btw). Should we add “no-kids” to the ever expanding list of prohibited items? With all of the issues Western societies have, (inc lower fertility, lower testosterone , reduction of male entrants college etc) incentivizing smaller families is the LAST thing we need, we should be doing the opposite. Apparently both candidates for President agree with me. Biden is trying to provide more incentives for family housing, Trump is encouraging babies. If CO2 bothers you, you can do more to attenuate it by planting a tree.

  7. Two years ago, people expressed despair that the US population only grew 0.7% the previous year. Yet even that would double the population in 100 years. That pace would put 350 billion people in the US in 1,000 years and 350 trillion people in 2,000 years. Obviously, we must reach zero or negative population growth before then. It would be much better to do that now rather than waiting for an even worse environmental situation.

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