Climate change is and will be an engine of global inequality. Richer people and countries will buy their way out of the worst consequences, often using wealth accumulated by burning fossil fuels. The fear about the future our children will face, when voiced by well-off residents of wealthy countries, sometimes strikes me as a transference of guilt into terror. To face what we’ve done to others is unimaginable. It is easier, somehow, to imagine we have done it to ourselves.
That gets to the second version of this question: Is it immoral to have children, knowing how much carbon emissions residents of rich countries are responsible for? This argument recasts not having children as a form of climate reparations. People in rich countries use more resources than people in poor countries. Fewer people means less resource use.
Fredric Jameson, the Marxist literary critic, is often credited with the observation that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. A similar limit to our political imaginations lurks in this conversation: It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of carbon pollution. “Almost all pollution is fixed by the structure of society,” Leah Stokes, a political scientist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, told me. “The goal is to undo that structure so children can be born into a society that is not putting out carbon pollution. That’s the project.”
And it is a doable one. Per capita carbon emissions in the United States fell from more than 22.2 tons in 1973 to 14.2 tons in 2020. And it can fall much farther. Germans emitted 7.7 tons of carbon per person in 2020. Swedes emitted 3.8 tons. “In a net-zero world, nobody has a carbon footprint, and we could stop tabulating guilt by counting babies,” Wallace-Wells told me.
To decarbonize society is to embrace a better world, for reasons far beyond climate change. “The immediate benefits of climate mitigation actions are spectacular: better air quality, better health outcomes, reduced inequality,” Marvel wrote to me. “I want these things. I also want reforestation and peat bogs and coastal restoration and rewilding. I’m excited about (but not counting on) awesome new tech like cheap carbon removal and nuclear fusion. I’m more excited about boring but effective tech like heat pumps and transmission lines.”
This is a vision of more, not less. Electric cars are quicker to accelerate. A well-insulated home is warmer. Induction stoves don’t fill your home with particulates that are linked to asthma in children and reduced cognitive performance in adults. The wind doesn’t stop blowing because an autocrat has a tantrum; harnessing the solar radiation that bathes our world doesn’t leave us in hock to the House of Saud.
I don’t just prefer a world of net-zero emissions to a world of net-zero children. I think those worlds are in conflict. We face a political problem of politics, not a physics problem. The green future has to be a welcoming one, even a thrilling one. If people cannot see themselves in it, they will fight to stop it. If the cost of caring about climate is to forgo having a family, that cost will be too high. A climate movement that embraces sacrifice as its answer or even as its temperament might do more harm than good. It may accidentally sacrifice the political appeal needed to make the net-zero emissions world real.