Part of my motivation for becoming a climate scientist was my grave worries for our future and my desire to make a positive contribution. In today’s world, this isn’t straightforward.
Earlier this year, I wrote publicly of my qualms around desiring children. I have always loved children and always wanted children in my own life. At the same time, among my friends and colleagues, such ordinary desires are increasingly accompanied by long, complex conversations about the ethics of such aspirations.
Children born today face a dramatically different climate future than their parents did.A child born today is a child of a changing – and extreme – global climate. The decision to have a child is a decision to exacerbate such climate extremes.
We collectively recycle, switch off lights, install LEDs and chose green energy providers. But such measures are more than negated by a decision to have children; having a child in Australia is an ongoing commitment to a high carbon future.
At the same time that I wrangled with the inter- and intra-generational consequence of having children, I also experienced years of infertility. Friends married, bought houses and announced surprise babies. All the while, my partner and I were consumed by tests, injections and surgeries, but mostly by unrelenting grief.
Over these years, I analysed climate data demonstrating an extreme future born of our global policy prevarication. Meanwhile, I was dragged into an undertow of crushing sadness, as miscarriage followed miscarriage and my connections to the world slipped further away from me.
And then, just as senselessly as our grief began, it ended. For no particular reason, the expected bad baby news never arrived and now the complexity of having an imagined child will become a concrete ethical entanglement.
Older climate scientists speak widely about their worries for their grandchildren and the world they have provided them. While such concerns must weigh on older minds, younger climate scientists’ future concerns require active deliberation. Should we have children? And if we do, how do we raise them in a world of change and inequity? Can I reconcile my care and concern for the future with such an active and deliberate pursuit of a child?
Put simply, I can’t. Nowadays, the pitter-patter of tiny feet is inevitably the pitter-patter of giant carbon footprints. Reusable nappies, a bike trailer and secondhand jumpsuits might make me feel like I’m taking individual action but they will achieve little. A child born today is inevitably a consumer and, most significantly, is a consumer of greenhouse gases.
Our much longed for child will both exacerbate climate change and will have to fix the problems set in motion by its parents and grandparents. In essence, this burden is the choice I have made for my child.
Having made the decision to multiple my own carbon footprint in perpetuity and to inflict an extreme climate future on my daughter, the question becomes – what now?
Living in and starting a family in volatile and uncertain times are not unique experiences. My grandmother fled Europe in the early 1950s for a better life in Australia. A German Jew, her family had been scattered, with herself interned in Britain, her sister lost in Auschwitz and her family’s desperate flight rebuffed by an indifferent world. Years of horror, combined with strict rations and economic uncertainty drove her to strike out bravely for a new life in Australia with her young babies.
Climate change is a critically different problem. In my grandmother’s time of abject horror, good people were empowered – to varying degrees – to do good. After the war ended, the actions of just a few were recognised as having salvaged the honour of all our humanity. Nowadays, the very act of living in Australia, regardless of concern for our climate future, is detrimental.
I do not pretend my motivation for having children was anything other than entirely selfish, but I hope the consequences are not. Just as in my grandmother’s time when horror was countered by hope, the obverse of our climate challenge is opportunity. I hope today’s children, born of a complex admixture of anxiety, guilt and fear, but all the while fiercely desired, can do better than their parents did. I hope they can be more empathetic, more creative and more responsive than we have been.
As for myself, my work thoughts should be punctured by worry. By senseless luck, my forthcoming daughter will have the opportunity to thrive in a warming world. Many, such as the children of our Pacific Island neighbours, will not. This should prompt more sadness, not less.
Nonetheless, in recognising the sadness of our near neighbours, I also feel compelled to recognise the beauty and opportunity of my own life. Despite my uncomfortable internal conflicts, the impending arrival of a much-wanted baby is intensely joyful.