Highlights From The Comments On Kids And Climate Change

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Ramparen writes:

No one really does it because of climate change imo, that is just a neat excuse to avoid the responsibility and limitations that being a parent brings into your life

Of course, this was immediately followed by some people (1, 2) saying they were seriously considering not having kids because of climate change, and this article had caused them to rethink their stance (you can find more further down).

I don’t want to pick on Ramperen in particular because a lot of people made this point. But I do want to pick on someone, so here goes.

We talk about the Principle of Charity here a lot, and most of you are willing to grant it to right-wingers. If this was the post about how some people really do oppose abortion for moral reasons, and it’s not just sexism - or how some people really do oppose immigration for cultural reasons, and it’s not just racism - or anything along these lines, everyone would be on board. But I think this ethos of acknowledging that people can be honest and have principles, and not immediately jump to “they’re making it up” cuts both ways. Some people are actually really concerned about global warming.

Some people in the comments linked to a University of Bath survey in which 56% of young people said they thought “humanity is doomed” because of climate change. I haven’t looked at the survey closely to see if the methodology was good or if this is a fair summary, and probably some of this is just mood affiliation - “‘yes’ is the side you’re supposed to take if you’re progressive, right?” But I think a lot of young people actually think the world is doomed. If you think the world is doomed - and that its death throes will be pretty horrible - that actually does sound like a good reason not to have children, doesn’t it?

And - a lot of people are vegetarian for ethical reasons, right? That suggests that people sometimes make really major and inconvenient life changes because of their principles. Why is it hard to believe that the decision to have kids could be one of them?

We know that knowing about biases can hurt people. All this cynical stuff about bias and signaling and mood affiliation is good to know, but at some point you have to drop it and admit that occasionally some people do things for the reasons they say that they’re doing them, or else it’s impossible to have a conversation or think in a straight line. I’m sure that for a lot of people the climate is just one of many reasons why they’re turned off of having children, but I take them seriously when they say it is one of the reasons.

I will grudgingly tolerate Luis Pedro’s take on this for at least bringing up an interesting question:

I knew a few people in this situation who I was pretty sure actually really wanted to marry, but I don’t know if I ever followed up on them. Does anyone else have an experience with a couple like that? If so, what happened?

moonshadow adds:

Indeed, looking at other replies here - people are "too lazy" to have kids, "too immature" to have kids, have "excuses" not to have kids... the reality is that not having kids is a decision one is continuously called to justify and defend against attack in ways other life choices are not.

I agree - I don’t see this a lot in my everyday life, so it was pretty disappointing to see how many commenters here want to challenge other people’s life choices not to become parents. I’m always surprised how willing people are to tear up the liberal contract of “I don’t question your (non-externality-having) life choices, you don’t question mine”, especially when they’re not guaranteed to be on the winning side, and would completely freak out if the other side tried to create stigma against them.

Plus, other people not having children just means more places at top colleges available for your kids!

Am I being one of those people? Moonshadow fairly asks me, in the context of why I wrote this post:

Why do you think it is important to convince people who are planning not to have kids to have kids?

Here I have a simple answer, which is that a lot of people really want kids, and having kids would make them happy, and if some of those people weren’t having kids because of climate change, that would make their lives worse. I think telling them that their reason for making their life worse is wrong is an easy way to give them a happier life.

Crotchety Crank writes:

Thanks for this article, Scott - I have a few friends who want kids themselves, but who have found themselves being talked down to by joyless scolds who will denounce them (to their faces, in public) for wanting to have kids, and insisting they would be deeply wrong to do so, for climate-related reasons. (I hope people like this are not also problems in other people's circles.

I think a lot of people who don’t want kids feel like society is pressuring them to have kids, and a lot of people who do want kids feel like (other parts of) society are pressuring them not to. I think society should take a chill pill and people should have however many kids they want.


Mrx writes:

The argument about future elections seems flawed. It is not an accident that elections are very close: the parties are strongly incentivised to position themselves in a way that appeals to approximately the number of people they need to win elections. If you removed 1% of the electorate's left wing, the Democrats wouldn't sit there losing elections for ever, they'd just move slightly to the right until they picked up enough centrists to restore the equilibrium. So there is an effect on policy outcomes, but it's roughly proportional to the population change rather than being hugely amplified by elections as claimed.

This is a good point, which several people brought up.

I’m not sure how to think of the Median Voter Theorem right now, for a few reasons.

First, the MVT assumes that both parties will end up as indistinguishable centrists, but this clearly hasn’t happened, probably because of the primary process. Probably it’s trivial to extend MVT into a world where this happens, but it’s a trivial thing I haven’t done and am not completely sure about.

Second, often elections aren’t close. As a commenter brings up in that thread, the Democrats controlled the House of Representatives nonstop for 38 years from 1955 - 1993. Reagan won the 1984 election by 525 to 13 (and AFAICT MVT should be aiming at the median electoral vote in an electoral system). I think some of this has to do with irrational emotions - ie the South hated Republicans so much after Lincoln and the Civil War that Democrats could do whatever they wanted and still win there. But there sure are a lot of irrational emotions in politics today and I wouldn’t want to count this factor out.

Third, I’m not sure how to think about this particular issue. Washington State proposed a carbon tax a few years ago, and it failed 56 to 44. Suppose that a bunch of pro-carbon-tax activists equal to 7% of the population moved in the next day. How would this change politics? Would the climate change activists propose something even more ambitious, so that chance of success is held constant? And is there a binary distribution here, such that “carbon tax” is going to offend some people and excite others no matter what the rate is, and so it’s hard to get something that is “like a carbon tax but appeals to 6% more voters”?

I bet political scientists have good answers to all these questions, but I don’t know them.

This also reminded me of the recent Ezra Klein piece on David Shor. Shor is telling Democrats that if they took more popular positions they could get more votes; Democrats’ response has been mixed:

Many in the Democratic data world simply disagree that policy communication holds the power Shor believes it does or that the popularity of a message is as important as he thinks it is.

“There’s no argument that saying unpopular things is better than saying popular things. My argument is it’s not close to being an important enough factor to warrant attention,” [Democratic bigwig Michael] Podhorzer told me. “If the object is for Democrats to win, that’s a tertiary, at best, factor.” [...]

Shor’s critics argue that he’s too focused on the popularity of what Democrats say, rather than the enthusiasm it can unleash. When pressed, Podhorzer called this theory “viralism” and pointed to Trump as an example of what it can see that popularism cannot. “A lot of things Trump did were grossly unpopular but got him enormous turnout and support from the evangelical community,” Podhorzer said. “Polling is blind to that. Politics isn’t just saying a thing at people who’re evaluating it rationally. It’s about creating energy. Policy positions don’t create energy.”

I’ve written about this here, where I think the research agrees with Shor, but the road from “the median voter changes” to “the parties change their position” seems surprisingly treacherous.


Anatoly Karlin writes:

Not having children because of climate change hysteria just means the Earth gets inherited by people less susceptible to such maladaptive mind viruses, i.e. it is self-defeating at the most fundamental level.

This is basically a eugenics argument (we want the next generation to have good genes), so I think it’s fair to respond to it with another eugenics argument.

The people refusing to have kids because of climate change are some of the most intelligent and ethical people around. This is my assessment from knowing some of them, plus my inference from all the articles about them which usually mentions how they went to top colleges. And by definition, they’re people who really care about helping others and are willing to make major sacrifices to do so.

These are exactly the sort of people whose genes I want in the next generation. And if this article successfully catches the ones most likely to change their mind in response to evidence, even better!


Justin writes:

Good points, but I have to question the methodology on per capita emissions by state/DC. It seems likely that these numbers are based only on generation specifically within the boundary which would creating a misleading impression of standard of living attainable relative to emissions. For example Wyoming imports 14x more energy than it consumes, whereas DC imports almost all of its energy (EIA.gov). 2/3 of DC's electricity mix is fossil fuel https://www.pjm.com/~/media/library/reports-notices/special-reports/20170330-pjms-evolving-resource-mix-and-system-reliability.ashx DC is uses more electricity per capita than 89% of the country, but since it's all imported that seems to not be counted.

This holds true for all the high use states, they export coal or gas, or refine crude oil, to be used in other areas of the country. NY's numbers don't include the carbon from the millions of yards they use annually, steel from Pennsylvania, or the incineration or burial of their rubbish at out-of-state facilities.

I've also always questioned how flights play into this, even though the share of emissions is relatively small. Rural residents do drive much more, but rarely fly. Half the US never flies. Based on my anecdotal experiences in NYC and DC it seems likely that they account for an outsize share of these emissions as well, although I can't find data on this beyond broad emissions stats - https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/10/17/climate/flying-shame-emissions.html

Thanks. After checking this information I agree this is sketchy and that what state you live in matters less than I thought for how much CO2 you emit.

As far as I know the urban vs. rural carbon calculations do correct for this, and so urban-dwellers will still emit somewhat less than the US average, but someone can tell me if I’m wrong.


Several people argued I was underestimating the downsides of climate change. Scri writes:

I definitely agree with the general thrust of your argument, that the damage caused by climate change is not going to be so terrible that you shouldn't have children, but I would quibble the point about climate change being unlikely to affect peoples lives in the west.

Climate migration, and food and water insecurity, both have potential as destabilising political forces. Add into this the political dysfunction in the US, and you could get into a situation where these problems, which are solvable to be sure, don't get dealt with in an effective way. I think that could lead to many kinds of disruption in peoples day to day lives, and I don't think that that's a scenario that is totally unrealistic.

I agree that I didn’t do a great job addressing concerns about global warming somewhere in between “bad for Third Worlders but not for you” and “everyone dies”. I haven’t seen these fleshed out very well (maybe someone did flesh them out, but I haven’t seen it).

I tried to explain in the post that the First World is really, really far away from significant food and water shortages. “The government pays farmers not to grow crops” still sounds like a 90’s era conservative talking point, but it’s still true, and the Biden administration has increased not-growing-crops payments to be higher than ever. Right now we only eat about a third of our crops directly - the rest goes mostly to animals, usually requiring about 10x calories of grain to produce x calories of meat. There are currently many foods that can give a day’s worth of calories for about $2, meaning that the cost of food could dectuple and still be affordable on minimum wage. I’m not sure how much more I can stress how far we are from practical First World food and water shortages.

I agree the Third World could run into a lot of problems. Many people brought up the prospect of climate refugees affecting quality of life in developed countries. I guess I have a pretty cynical perspective on this, which is that - we’ve already proven developed countries will reject refugees long before they start to have any significant economic impact. Refugees seem to be something we take zero chances with, something where we’re heavily biased towards rejecting them at the slightest sign that maybe someone thinks something might possibly be affecting vague unmeasurable qualities. If we ever approached a point where refugees could actually cause techno-economic decline or civil war or whatever, we would have already built a giant unscaleable border wall. I don’t think our civilization should necessarily be proud of this, but I think it’s true and makes the threat of climate refugees less impactful.

A few people have claimed that one danger actually is that the flood of climate refugees will put right-wing governments into power. I guess that if you don’t like right-wing governments, think left-wing parties are too principled to take anti-refugee positions, and think the median voter theorem is imperfect, then this is a real risk.


Other people think I’m overestimating the risks from climate change. David Friedman writes:

I agree with your conclusion, but you should not be so willing to believe alarmist scare stories.

"This has already been pretty bad, with unusually many hurricanes, wildfires, and droughts."

The IPCC claimed that climate change had increased droughts in the fourth report, retracted that claim in the fifth. For hurricanes, a long discussion by Chris Landsea, who wrote a substantial part of one of the IPCC report's section on hurricanes is at https://www.aoml.noaa.gov/hrd/Landsea/gw_hurricanes/

If you actually read the IPCC reports with care, instead of the news media, things look a lot less bleak. Here are some of my favorite quotes:

There is no evidence that surface water and groundwater drought frequency has changed over the last few decades, although impacts of drought have increased mostly due to increased water demand.

Economic losses due to extreme weather events have increased globally, mostly due to increase in wealth and exposure, with a possible influence of climate change (low confidence in attribution to climate change).

Some low-lying developing countries and small island states are expected to face very high impacts that, in some cases, could have associated damage and adaptation costs of several percentage points of GDP.

... most recent observed terrestrial-species extinctions have not been attributed to recent climate change, despite some speculative efforts (high confidence).

With these recognized limitations, the incomplete estimates of global annual economic losses for additional temperature increases of ~2°C are between 0.2 and 2.0% of income ... .

I was also struck some years ago by a piece written by William Nordhaus responding to a WSJ OpEd that argued that climate change was not a catastrophe requiring immediate response. His calculation at the time was that the net cost of doing nothing for fifty years instead the optimal policy starting immediately was about $4.1 trillion. Spread out over a century and the entire world, that works out to a reduction of average world GNP of about one twentieth of one percent. He didn't put it that way. You can find my comments on his piece and a link to it at:

I broadly agree with this. The direct effects on world GDP will be low.

My concern is something more like: one commenter brought up the 1980s Ethiopia famine, which killed about a million people (also, “400,000 refugees left the country…2.5 million people were internally displaced, [and] almost 200,000 children were orphaned.”) Climatologists suspect a major contributor to the famine was global dimming, a phenomenon where air pollution decreases sunlight over certain parts of the world.

So here are various true things you can say about global dimming:

  • It probably cost less than a trillion dollars and less than 0.1% of GWP

  • If we’d made any really serious efforts to prevent it, those efforts would have cost more, in monetary terms, than the dimming itself

  • For all we know it improved the climates of other parts of the world and made them better off, who knows? Maybe some deserts were able to grow more plants because global dimming made them less scorching.

  • In the grand scheme of things, most people didn’t notice it. It didn’t bring down civilization, or cause technological collapse. I had never heard of it until right now, and there’s no real reason I should have.

  • The famine was mostly the fault of communism and an incompetent government destroying Ethiopia’s agricultural sector, which made it extra vulnerable to global-dimming-induced drought. If we had only had global dimming and not these other vulnerabilities, it would have been fine.

  • We will never actually be able to know for sure whether the Ethiopia famine would have happened anyway without global dimming. Wikipedia cites a claim that dimming was the “leading factor” in the famine, but other sources go quite into depth about the climatological causes of the famine without even mentioning it.

But, also:

  • There’s a pretty decent chance that global dimming killed like a million people.

My expectation for global warming is that it will be a few times worse than global dimming, but basically follow the same dynamics. In 2100 or whenever, we developed-country-citizens will still be alive, we’ll still be squinting really hard to see if global warming made a difference in economic growth, and there will be several million people dead from disasters that we suspect (but will never be sure) that global warming made more likely or worsened.

Preventing global warming will never seem cost-effective because the global economy just doesn’t place a very high value on the lives of Ethiopian subsistence farmers. But we can choose place a high value on their lives, and I think if we do that then preventing global warming seems worth it in expectation.

I am much less certain of any of this than I am certain that it’s funny that the hurricane report is by a guy named “Landsea”


Kyle M writes:

I looked into this during a previous California drought and my (very limited) understanding is that alfalfa is an important part of crop rotation in California because it sucks salt out of the ground very effectively. CA starts with high salt content and other crops raise the salt content more, which risks “salting the land” and wrecking the soil. I’m sure there are other crop mixes and intensiveness that could work, but the issue isn’t alfalfa specifically.

Thank you. I had previously used “California devotes a lot of water to growing alfalfa” as an argument that we waste resources, since alfalfa mostly goes to cows and is very inefficient. But it sounds like there’s a good reason for this, so I’ll leave this point out of future arguments unless someone convinces me there isn’t.


Prince Machiavelli writes:

"Life in the First World will continue, with worse weather and maybe a weaker economy, but more or less the same as always."

Exactly, life will be slightly harder and will get harder until we reach an equilibrium or intervene to prevent further climate change. A slightly worse economy probably also means the cost of having a child increases even further into absurdity i.e people with children will burden *more* of the climate change induced costs even if the average person isn't effected much.

I think the first sentence is claiming there’s an equilibrium - if climate change ever gets so bad that it starts inconveniencing people more than attempts to fix climate change would, we’ll act.

I think the flaw here is that it takes a lot of time to act to stop climate change. Both in terms of the physical action (eg transitioning from fossil fuel plants to solar plants) and in terms of emissions (CO2 emitted today stays in the atmosphere and keeps warming the planet for decades to centuries). If we start acting once climate change becomes un-ignorably bad, it will be decades before we see any results. And by that time, things will have gotten worse and we will have wished we’d done even more. The only exception might be fairly extreme geo-engineering attempts that we’ll wish we didn’t have to experiment with. I think trying to respond to climate change early is the right call.


Stephan Wäldchen writes:

I really support people having children even in the face of the climate crisis. However, I think the strongest argument that I have heard so far is that children are just a high opportunity cost and the money and time spent on them should go into activism, since we are at a decisive moment for how bad it will be. Is there a counter to this argument?

I agree that it’s true that time/energy spent raising children inevitably trades off against time/energy spent doing charity work.

But if you weren’t doing charity work 100% of the time already, then you can sacrifice some other thing you were doing in order to raise children. If you’re not doing very much charity work at all right now, then, well, no problem, is there?

My personal preference is to decide how much time/energy/money I want to spend on charity (I’ve settled on 10% of money; time and energy are harder to budget), and then spend the rest of it however I want. If I want to spend my money on a giant diamond or something else useless like that, I don’t have to feel bad about being privileged or wasteful (or at least no worse than I would feel if I spent it on something tasteful like a flower garden for my house) because it’s all coming out of the same 90% non-charity budget.

I think most people only put a tiny amount of their effort into charity, meaning that they have a big budget of slack to reallocate without harming their charitable efforts. If you want to allocate some of that to having kids, I think that’s as acceptable as any other choice. Maybe kids are such a big choice that it’s inevitable that some of the cost would bleed into your other projects, and I do think that’s a risk, but I also know cases where they don’t. Elon Musk has seven kids, and he’s no slacker.


Phil Getz writes:

You wrote, "The IPCC predicts sea levels will probably rise another half a meter to a meter by 2100".

The linked page says instead, "In its 2019 report, the IPCC projected (chart above) 0.6 to 1.1 meters (1 to 3 feet) of global sea level rise by 2100 (or about 15 millimeters per year) if greenhouse gas emissions remain at high rates (RCP8.5)."

The page THEY link to says instead that RCP8.5 is the most-extreme scenario of RISING emissions, not of emissions continuing as at present.

So the IPCC doesn't predict that sea levels will probably rise another half a meter to a meter. RCP8.5 is an unlikely scenario. The consensus median sea rise by 2100, when I checked about 2 years ago, was about one foot. The only findings since then that I'm aware of would lower that to maybe 8 inches, but that's a guess with high variance, since the findings involved local effects such as the circulation of water underneath ice shelves, rather than global effects.

This is yet another example of climate change claims getting exaggerated with every repetition. All it takes to do that is to let one or two qualifying words slip past which indicate that the result being presented is not the expected result.

Thanks for this correction. Several other people pointed out that even if sea level does rise this much, it doesn’t mean much - many cities are already below sea level and protected by seawalls. Expanding them enough to be prepared for sea level rise will be expensive, but in most cases it’ll be a lot more cost-effective than letting cities drown.


MarketsAreCool writes:

Matt Yglesias touches on this in One Billion Americans. He argues that climate change can only be solved by technological progress. Even if America cut its population by 50%, there are billions of people in south Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa whose lives are rapidly improving, and therefore will see their emissions per capita increase. It's unethical to try and thwart this improvement in their lives, and so the only way to fix climate change is through technological innovation. And the best way to achieve innovation is with more people not less. Yglesias therefore encourages policies to make it easier for Americans to have children, but also to increase immigration to the largest technologically innovative economy.

Edit: I believe he also makes his more generalized case that we have to accept political realities, and that most Americans don't actually want to reduce their energy consumption by 50 or 90%. The solution then is massive renewable energy abundance (including nuclear and geothermal!), along the trends we've seen in the last 20 years, not degrowth through actions or population.


Restam writes:

I'm reminded again of C.S. Lewis's "How Will The Bomb Find You?" essay. It was quoted a fair bit in light of coronavirus fears, but I think it applies even better to climate change:

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. ‘How are we to live in an atomic age?’ I am tempted to reply: ‘Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year [...]; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented… It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

[...] If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs.

To be clear, this doesn't preclude advocating sensible policies about climate change (or sensible precautions against a virus), any more than C.S. Lewis would have opposed sensible policies about nuclear weapons.

But I think this question of "can I even have children" speaks to a way that people are being eaten by fear over climate change in a way that goes beyond mere sensible policies.

Man, I wish I could write like this. Seems like a waste to blog when one could be quoting CS Lewis instead.