Refraining from having children is (currently) a moral imperative
Wait, what? Why?
Please forgive me for what is clearly a very provocative title; it wasn’t my intention to make a click-bait headline, it’s just my best attempt at an accurate summation of this post. Forget the title for a while; we’ll come back to it later. For now, let’s turn our focus to climate change.
The climate catastrophe is imminent
Climate change has been on humanity’s collective radar for quite a while now. Since up until relatively recently it has been a slowly burning phenomenon, the level of urgency in the public discourse has not kept up with the rapidly changing world and the science related to climate change. Severe effects from climate change are not something that will happen “eventually” – they are happening now and the rate at which they become more severe is accelerating.
You can see the rapidly changing world all around you:
- The great barrier reef is nearly dead. One of the wonders of the world has been killed by climate change. Globally, all coral reefs will die around when we hit 2°C of warming. The entire marine ecosystem is at threat due to ocean acidification. It isn’t just marine life at threat: terrestrial ecosystems are going out of whack due to the heating atmosphere. The pine borer beetle has ran rampant destroying pine forests out west due to winters not being cold enough to suppress the beetle.
- Heat: California spent their entire fire fighting budget in 2018 before the start of the usual fire season. Now in the actual fire season, California is experiencing the largest and deadliest fire in the state’s history. Globally 2018 has seen massive wildfires across the globe, including in the arctic circle! Simultaneously 2018 has seen extreme, nearly unprecedented heatwaves in continental Europe and the UK. Cape Town South Africa has seen record droughts.
- Water: As the planet warms, there is more energy in the atmosphere (and more water vapor). So as the climate changes, certain areas will face increased droughts and others will face heavier flooding and more severe storms. This year has been a record hurricane season in the US. Weather related disasters causing damage over 1 billion dollars have occurred at more than double the historical average the last 4 years. We’re beyond the point where we need to attach the “climate change makes severe weather events more likely but isn’t necessarily responsible for an individual weather event” disclaimer to these disasters as we talk about them. The majority of them are caused (or exacerbated) directly by climate change. Let’s call a spade a spade. (6/19 edit: This has been one of the wettest springs on record, and as a result the percentage of corn planted is the lowest ever recorded at this date. One year of reduced corn output won’t be catastrophic, but as these events become more common, it will lead to food shortages and price spikes – both of which are incredibly destabilizing to developing countries.)
- The arctic sea level ice extent is decreasing yearly, with some estimates that the arctic will be completely ice free in the summer as soon as 2050 (6/19 edit: this is actually looking likely to happen by 2035). Almost all glaciers are in retreat.
- The climate is already behaving in unusual and worrying ways. The gulf stream is the weakest it has been in 1600 years. The ridiculously resilient ridge is messing with the weather in the western United States and is probably related to California’s severe drought. The blob (it’s actually called that) in the Pacific ocean is setting ocean temperature records, killing marine life, and causing irregular weather in the Western US. The arctic wildly broke temperature records this winter – suggesting that the climate system is becoming more chaotic.
- It isn’t just the direct impacts of climate change that will cause us issues. The droughts and shifting weather will cause a massive refugee crisis. Look at how destabilizing just the small Syrian refugee crisis has been on Europe politically – it is largely behind the rise of far-right populists there.
- We’re living in (and the cause of) one of the 6 largest extinction events in world history – the appropriately named Holocene extinction. We’ve already caused the death of 83 percent of the wild mammals on earth. Human fishing has put fish stocks globally on the verge of collapse. If the world continues fishing at the rate it currently is, there will be no fish left by 2050.
It can be hard to understand the degree to which the warming is accelerating. This video helps put just how rapidly this is happening into perspective.
Science cannot save us (in time)
When discussing climate change with people I’ve heard very optimistic perspectives that future technology will save us (either renewables, carbon sequestration technology, or geoengineering). Unfortunately that is demonstrably not the case.
The most recent IPCC report found that limiting warming to 1.5°C is a much safer target than 2°C. At 2°C the risk of runaway climate change triggered by feedback loops is significantly higher. If you only follow one link from this post, it’s worth reading about this in more depth here. (Remember that the world has already warmed 1°C.) Let’s be optimistic and assume that even up to 2°C of warming would not would set the earth on a runaway heating spree. (Keep in mind the last time there was this much CO2 in the atmosphere, the earth was 5-8°C warmer and sea levels were 40 meters higher.) To keep warming below 2°C global carbon dioxide emissions must drop to 0 within 20 years. Just in case that didn’t sink in, let me say it again: global carbon emissions must go to zero within 20 years to prevent exceeding 2°C warming. There are currently 1600 new coal plants being constructed globally with an estimated operating lifespan of 40 years. This is in addition to all the carbon based infrastructure that already exists. Can you say, without comical levels of self-delusion, that we have a chance at preventing catastrophic global warming by dropping emissions to zero in 20 years? In this make-or-break period of time in history, the US is pulling out of the Paris climate change agreement.
Remember that even 2°C of warming might trigger runaway warming? The Trump administration EPA predicted that by 2100 we’ll see warming of 3.5°C and argued that at this point it is unpreventable.
Runaway warming? Unfortunately we don’t just have to contend with the fact that our emissions directly cause heating of the planet – as the planet heats, several feedback loops exist which will only serve to continue warming the planet and releasing more CO2, even if all emissions were to by miracle stop today. To keep this from getting too long, I won’t detail them all here, but the two that worry me the most are the ice-albedo feedback (since ice reflects sunlight back into space, as more melts more heat is absorbed) and the melting of the permafrost, which will cause the release of massive amounts of methane. We’ve already passed one climate tipping point in the Barents Sea.
Those arguing that science can save us think that we will develop massive carbon sequestration schemes. First, even if we develop technology to the a point where we have an energy efficient means of capturing carbon, capture will always be less efficient that not releasing it in the first place. Even if we had the technology to capture carbon on gigascales today (we don’t) deploying carbon capture technology on the scale necessary to undo the carbon we’ve released would be the largest human engineering project in history, by at least 100 times. From where will the political will for that arise? The critical time to deal with this was 30 years ago, or at the very least today, not in 30 years from now. No hyperbole – by then it is too late.
I cannot stress this enough: when you take into account the momentum of our economic system, we are already well past the point of no return.
We didn’t start the fire
Is this post just a bunch of apocalyptic doom and gloom? I wish; unfortunately my understanding of the facts is that things are going to be quite bad quite soon. I didn’t write this post to play the blame game. It’s my belief that the systems that exist (self interested organisms competing for limited resources) make it inevitable for this sort of climate catastrophe to happen eventually. (In fact, the last few years have led me to believe that organisms destroying their own habitat is the Great Filter.)
Ultimately, for sake of the argument I’m about to make, it doesn’t matter who is responsible. What matters is that the world is the way it currently is.
Are you going to tell me not to have kids because of their carbon footprint?
No, actually. While it is true that having one fewer child causes a far larger reduction of CO2 than other “green” things (see chart below) the problem is so large that individual efforts to combat it, while the right spirit, cannot in practice solve the problem. It would take massive political and economic change to solve the crisis.
So why refrain from having children? Not in order to be more holier-than-though than vegans (sorry, vegans). Look at it not from your perspective as a potential parent – instead consider the perspective of your hypothetical child:
Non-existence is a neutral state. Children who have never been conceived will never suffer. When choosing to have children, one would hope that the amount of “bad” in the child’s life will be significantly outweighed by the amount of “good”. Global warming will have catastrophic consequences just in our lifetime – it will be even worse in our hypothetical children’s lifetimes. Pulling a being from the peaceful void and inserting them into this collapsing world is doing them grievous harm. Children conceived now will live in a world
- Without coral reefs and with ravaged oceans
- With a massively degraded nature compared to the one we and our parents enjoyed
- With regular catastrophic weather events
- With massive famine, war, and political instability
All of this will continue to get worse throughout the course of their lives. Even worse, these are just the things that are nearly certain to happen in the next 30 years. Imagine what the world will be like by the time they are elderly.
Consider the reasons one may choose to have children – “I want to experience parenthood”, “I want to continue my legacy”, “I want to see what my child would be like”, “I want to raise a good human”. These all have one thing in common: they are about maximizing the welfare of the parent, not maximizing the welfare of the child. Unfortunately, in the world we currently live in, maximizing the welfare of child means not creating it. Fortunately the experience of parenthood is still available through adoption, which gives you the opportunity to have the parenting experience without requiring you to pull a life from the peaceful void and insert it into this world.
I don’t judge or think ill of those who have had children. It’s a natural and virtually unquestioned desire and I realize the vast majority of people haven’t recognized just how bad things are about to get. But if you are considering having kids and haven’t yet, please consider that it may be in the best interest of your kids to never exist. It’s terrible that we’re living at a point in time when that is the case.
Why would you write this?
This is the world right now:
It’s bad enough that this is the world we’ve inherited and we get to live out our days in. But at least we can avoid bringing others into it.
If you know me personally, I didn’t write this with you (whoever you are!) in mind. That’s doubly true if you have or are about to have children – and it isn’t a rebuke of you or your choices. It’s just a explanation of how I feel living in this world, and perhaps an expression of my surprise that I seem to be in a significant minority of people who feel this way. Even if I didn’t change your perspective, hopefully I at least helped you understand mine.
Good news everyone!
More disconcerting news since I wrote this:
‘A kind of dark realism’: Why the climate change problem is starting to look too big to solve – “The world has waited so long that preventing disruptive climate change requires action “unprecedented in scale,” the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in an October report.”
This is the ‘last generation’ that can save nature, WWF says – Vertebrate populations reduced by 60% in the last 40 decades.
The Oceans Are Heating Up Faster Than Expected – The planet has warmed up significantly more than we realized, because the oceans warmed more than expected. “This may have some grave implications for global efforts to meet the climate targets outlined under the Paris Agreement. Currently, world nations are striving to keep global temperatures within 2 degrees Celsius of their preindustrial levels, or a more ambitious 1.5 C if possible. Just last month, the IPCC released a much-anticipated report on the 1.5 C threshold, concluding that meeting the target will require an “unprecedented” effort from world leaders and net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.”
Brazil: Bolsonaro plans threaten Amazon, say experts – The self-declared fascist just elected in Brazil plans to make it much easier to log the Amazon.
The Adorable Optimism of the IPCC – “It’s been a couple of weeks now since the IPCC report came out. You know what it says. If the whole damn species pulls together in a concerted effort “without historical precedent”— if we start right now, and never let up on the throttle— we just might be able to swing the needle back from Catastrophe to mere Disaster. If we cut carbon emissions by half over the next decade, eliminate them entirely by 2050; if the species cuts its meat and dairy consumption by 90%; if we invent new unicorn technologies for sucking carbon back out of the atmosphere (or scale up extant prototype tech by a factor of two million in two years) — if we commit to these and other equally Herculean tasks, then we might just barely be able to keep global temperature from rising more than 1.5°C. We’ll only lose 70-90% of the word’s remaining coral reefs (which are already down by about 50%, let’s not forget). Only 350 million more urban dwellers will be exposed to severe drought and “deadly heat” events. Only 130-140 million will be inundated. Global fire frequency will only increase by 38%. Fish stocks in low latitudes will be irreparably hammered, but it might be possible to save the higher-latitude populations. We’ll only lose a third of the permafrost. You get the idea.”
2100, and the Fundamental Fallacy of Climate Change Predictions – “In a report published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 16 scientists warned that the IPCC’s estimates of climate change might be greatly underestimated, based on – you guessed it – the existence and operation of feedback loops. Remarkably enough, the IPCC barely mentions feedback loops in any of its reports and predictions.”
An oldie but a goodie: Doomsday Prep for the Super Rich – There has been a large increase among the ultra-wealthy in bunkers and land in remote, “breakup of society”-resistant places in the last few years.
California’s most famous butterfly nearing death spiral – Monarch butterfly populations are down 99.4 percent from historic levels and will probably soon go extinct.
No country on Earth is taking the 2 degree climate target seriously – Explains the hard math of what levels of reductions are needed to avoid disaster – and how laughably far we are from even discussing them.
February 10, 2019: Plummeting insect numbers ‘threaten collapse of nature’
July 16, 2019: California’s Wildfires Are 500 Percent Larger Due to Climate Change – each degree of warming causes a super-linear increase in fires. By 2070 under business as usual scenarios, all of the forest in California will have burned and been replaced by grasslands/desert/scrublands.