We need to talk about the ethics of having children in a warming world

In a recent Instagram live stream from her kitchen, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) raised a dimension of climate change few politicians would dare to touch.

“Basically, there’s a scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult. And it does lead, I think, young people to have a legitimate question: Is it okay to still have children?” she said.

The criticism from conservatives that followed was predictably swift and hollow. Fox News’s Steve Hilton called it “fascistic” and a “no-child policy.”

But Ocasio-Cortez was voicing a genuine concern of many young prospective parents today who can plainly see that climate change is already here and its worst effects are still to come. These anxieties are beginning to appear in pop culture — they were a major theme in the 2018 film First Reformed.

Business Insider conducted an online poll this month that found that 38 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 agreed that climate change should be a consideration in the decision to have children. For Americans between the ages of 30 and 44, 34 percent said climate change should be a factor in having children.

As we’ve learned from climate scientists in several recent bracing reports, a child born today will be living on a planet that’s likely to be dramatically warmer by the end of the century. We’ve already experienced 1 degree Celsius of average warming since preindustrial times, and we’re currently on track to reach as much as 4 degrees by 2100.

One degree of warming has already delivered rising sea levels, deadly heat waves, wetter hurricanes, droughts, costlier disasters, bigger wildfires, and more illnesses, to name a few impacts, and these effects are only going to compound. So clearly, young people have good reason to be worried, not just for themselves but for their future families.

Many also feel angry that decades of political intransigence on climate change has forced them to make such a calculation at all. “The fact that our generation has to ask these questions is politically forceful and massively fucked up,” said Meghan Kallman, a co-founder of Conceivable Future, a group that frames climate change as an issue of reproductive justice.

The discussion of whether to have children on environmental grounds quickly leads to some important fundamental questions, like what parents owe their children: Are the resources of this planet something we rightfully inherited from our ancestors, or are clean air, safe water, and a stable climate things we are borrowing from our grandchildren?

However, the conversation can also raise controversial ideas like anti-natalism, the philosophy that each birth has a negative value to society. And the idea of limiting births has historically been informed by pseudoscience and leadened with racism and classism, often brought up by the powerful as a way to limit less desirable peoples.

So for families navigating their impact on the world, it’s all the more critical to make a decision about birth that weighs philosophical, ethical, religious, and environmental concerns properly to avoid these pitfalls.

Fortunately, there’s a growing discussion about the ethics of having children, with some groups trying to help parents grapple with their concerns without pushing them in one direction or another. Instead, their goal is to encourage political action. We’re in a make-or-break era of climate change, where our current actions or lack thereof will lock us into a certain outcome. A clear vision of the stakes for our own progeny is a powerful motivator to act aggressively to limit emissions, regardless of our own verdicts on having children.

Among people who have already given this much thought, here are some of their key concerns.

The decision to have children is deeply personal, but some are now addressing it publicly
Kallman and her Conceivable Future co-founder Josephine Ferorelli have collected testimonies from people concerned about balancing their desires to build a family with their concerns for the planet. It’s a way to have a public conversation about the rational and irrational worries of having children. “The nice thing about a testimony is that it’s your own truth,” Kallman said. “It’s a very, very public way to be vulnerable.”

Witnesses say many dead, injured in shooting at New Zealand mosque

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said 49 people have been killed and injured in a shooting at a mosque in the center of Christchurch, New Zealand.

New Zealand police tweeted that officers responded to a “serious ongoing firearms incident” around 1:40 p.m. Friday (8:40 p.m. Thursday ET). They said schools in the city had been placed on lockdown and urged people to stay indoors.

Nearly two hours after the initial response, police tweeted that the situation was “serious and evolving.”

“Police are responding with its full capability to manage the situation, but the risk environment remains extremely high.”

There was no official word on casualties, but witnesses said the Masjid Al Noor mosque was full for Friday afternoon prayers and many people were dead.

Witness Len Peneha told the Associated Press he saw a man dressed in black enter the mosque and then heard dozens of shots, followed by people running from the mosque in terror. Peneha, who has lived next door to the mosque for about five years, said the gunman ran outside, dropped what appeared to be a semi-automatic weapon in Peneha’s driveway, and fled before emergency services arrived.

Peneha said he went into the mosque to try and help.

“I saw dead people everywhere,” he said. “There were three in the hallway, at the door leading into the mosque, and people inside the mosque. It’s unbelievable nutty. I don’t understand how anyone could do this to these people, to anyone. It’s ridiculous.”

Zayd Blissett, chairman of the Association of Marlborough, told Stuff.co.NZ that he received a text the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand (FIANZ) saying “50 shot” at the mosque.

“I’m just heartbroken,” he said. “In fact, I’m sitting here crying. This is New Zealand. This can’t happen here.”

A third witness, Mohammed Nazir, told TVNZ he saw three women shot and bleeding outside the mosque. He told police that he called the police climbed a wall to escape, leaving his shoes behind in the process.

A witness who declined to give his name told Stuff the gunman was wearing a helmet and fired more than 50 shots.

“He had a big gun and a lot of bullets and he came through and started shooting like everyone in the mosque, like everywhere, and they have to smash the door and the glass from the window and from the small door to try and get out,” he said.

The Guardian reported that police had discovered a bomb in a beige Subaru that had crashed in the center of Christchurch, approximately two miles from the mosque. The paper reported that police officers had cordoned off the street and were keeping a safe distance from the vehicle.

Christchurch, located on New Zealand’s South Island, is the third-largest city in the country with a population of just over 400,000. It was affected by a devastating earthquake in February 2011, which killed 185 people and triggered the collapse of thousands of buildings across the city.

The case for spraying (just enough) chemicals into the sky to fight climate change

If you think pumping the sky full of chemicals sounds like a weird way to fight climate change, you’re not alone. Solar geoengineering — the idea of injecting aerosols into the high atmosphere to reflect sunlight back into space and make for a cooler planet — is very controversial. And not just because it seems so offbeat.

Although geoengineering is not yet being deployed in the real world, past computer modeling studies have suggested it could produce unintended effects like droughts. Some have worried that it might create new climate inequities, worsening the weather in some regions even as it improves conditions in others. It’s incurred so much backlash that until recently it’s been among scientists, and even today, much less attention is devoted to exploring this strategy than to cutting emissions.

But a study published this week in Nature Climate Change argues that the strategy could be highly successful — it’s all a matter of how much geoengineering we use. Yes, spraying a huge quantity of aerosols aimed at totally eliminating global warming can produce unwanted effects. Yet applying the right “dose” — just enough to cut global warming in half — could do the trick without causing negative side effects, the scientists say.

“The analogy is not perfect, but solar geoengineering is a little like a drug which treats high blood pressure,” said lead author Peter Irvine of Harvard University. “An overdose would be harmful, but a well-chosen dose could reduce your risks.”

In the study, Irvine and his co-authors used a high-resolution computer model to simulate what would happen if we deployed geoengineering with the goal of halving global warming, in a scenario where the carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere have doubled preindustrial levels. (Currently, we’re at about 1.4 times those earlier levels.) Whereas most previous research only looked at temperature and precipitation, this study also examined other things that matter to people, like water availability.

The results? Geoengineering cooled the planet and reduced the intensity of extreme weather events like hurricanes. Importantly, this held true across the entire globe. There weren’t regional winners and losers, just winners. If anything, the researchers noted, the regions that suffered most from climate change were the most likely to see it reduced.

Critics of geoengineering have worried that although it may benefit the rich, it could harm low-income people, who may be less equipped to cope with unpredicted weather changes if things go awry, and who won’t get as much say in deployment. But David Keith, a senior author on the study and a Harvard physics professor, told me he believes it would be a net benefit for low-income people.

“The poorest people tend to suffer most from climate change because they’re the most vulnerable. Reducing extreme weather benefits the most vulnerable the most. The only reason I’m interested in this is because of that,” he said.

The study has significant limitations
Don’t get too excited just yet. The study — a collaboration between Harvard, MIT, and Princeton — is based on a highly idealized scenario.

The researchers chose to use a scenario where atmospheric CO2 levels have doubled preindustrial levels by the time geoengineering is deployed. “Double” may sound like a lot, but some climate scientists believe our CO2 levels will be woefully higher than that by the middle of this century. And we’re not even close to ready for any large-scale deployment of geoengineering. So by using this scenario, the study may be setting itself up for an unrealistically optimistic result.

It’s also important to note that the study doesn’t actually model what happens when you shoot aerosols into the sky. It models what happens if the sun’s rays are dimmed. Although that’s a fairly common proxy, Rutgers University climate expert Alan Robock objects that it doesn’t precisely capture the impact of spraying aerosols, which could have other effects, like messing with atmospheric circulation.

The team behind the study agrees that modeling aerosols is also important but believes that asking one model to do everything isn’t necessarily the best option, according to Keith. “The climate models treat aerosols pretty badly, so it’s not clear you can trust the results. In our opinion it makes more sense to use this model, and then separately do models that have very good representations of aerosols. It’s like building a bridge from two sides,” he told me.