This aligns with qualitative research that social researcher Dr Rebecca Huntley has undertaken in Australia, which shows overwhelming concern about climate change in young people under 25.
It’s easy to understand why. The most recent Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change report found that under the most ambitious emission reduction scenarios, the world is likely to be heated to 1.5 degrees or more above pre-industrial levels by 2040, exposing it to the kinds of extreme weather currently damaging Europe and North America.
Australians under 25 recognise the next few years are critical and some are prepared to pause their family plans to see if governments “get their shit together” and rapidly decarbonise, says Dr Huntley, also the author of How to Talk About Climate Change in a Way That Makes a Difference.
“Even among those who are open to having children they are a bit more hesitant, asking if they want to raise a child in this kind of world,” she says.
But when people do have children it sometimes prompts a renewed sense of environmental commitment, Dr Huntley says. She has noticed this phenomenon in her role as advisory group chair of Australian Parents for Climate Action.
“We get surges of parents coming in after they have their first child, saying they need to be part of a movement to change this.”
Nelli Stevenson, 33, didn’t wait until she had children to get involved in activism. She went to her first environmental protest at age 7 and is now the head of communications at Greenpeace Australia.
A few years ago Stevenson was told she was infertile after a serious medical condition, but happily, this advice proved wrong. Now 34 weeks’ pregnant, Melbourne-based Stevenson says it wasn’t until she turned 29 that overnight she switched from ambivalence about parenthood, and how it might limit her activism, to feeling the strong pull of motherhood.
“I remember the first time I had a briefing from a climate scientist about the warming trajectory we were on, and it was all between 2 and 5 degrees,” Stevenson says. “It’s something I really struggled with because I wanted that incredible experience of becoming a family.”
In Stevenson’s role, reading IPCC reports comes with the territory. When the most recent one was released last month she locked herself away and read the summary from cover to cover.
“It was the very first time I was looking at climate projections and thinking about that timeline affecting my son,” she says. “I have realised that the best I can do as a parent is not only fight as hard as I can for his future, but also to raise him to take on that fight with that next generation.”
This topic comes up in discussion at almost every workshop that Dr Beth Hill facilitates for Psychology for Safe Climate, a not-for-profit group founded a decade ago to support people engaged in climate change work.
“We see people who either don’t want to have children, or haven’t necessarily reached a decision, but feel a lot of despair and doubt,” she says.
Dr Hill recommends talking with friends and peers about these big decisions. They may have similar thoughts, or other points of view, but these “raw and vulnerable “conversations can offer comfort, she says.
It’s a valid choice to not have a child in this climate context, she says. But Dr Hill also points out that even with scientific predictions, we still can’t know exactly what the future will look like.
“I’m not trying to say find silver lining or say it’s all going to be OK. But all you can control … is to make choices that bring you alive and bring you nourishment and connection.”
Alessandra, 26, who lives in northern Sydney, decided four years ago she didn’t feel able to explain to her future children why certain species had become extinct.
Alessandra, who is studying zoology and does not want to use her surname, doesn’t intend to have children unless she sees positive, “huge” action around decarbonisation in the next few years. And frankly, at the moment she’s not hopeful.
“The IPCC report was disgusting to read, we’re just not doing enough. As a first world country we need to act and act now.”
Alessandra is open with friends about her decision, and likes to discuss it. She has a few friends who also do not want children, and a few in their 30s who have decided to start a family even though they are apprehensive about the future.
“It’s a huge grief, it feels like an option has been taken away from me,” she says. “My view has solidified over time, and it just feels like it’s not an option for me.”
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