Politics & Policy

The Problem with the ‘Science’ Behind Having Fewer Children for the Planet’s Sake

(Photo: Pavel Losevsky/Dreamstime)
The methodology of a recent study was preposterous on its face.

Would you like to lose ten pounds of ugly fat? Great! Off with your head.

This old chestnut came to mind as I was perusing the now-infamous new study from Lund University’s child-averse climate scientists, advising people to save the planet by giving up their cars, avoiding air travel, becoming vegetarians, and having fewer kids. The study got rave reviews from the Guardian and Jill Filipovic, perhaps because the last item is really the primary thing. It turns out that hamburgers and SUVs are smallish indulgences next to that gurgling bundle of CO2-emitting joy.

The study’s authors, Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas, compare parenthood with several environmentally unfriendly actions (such as driving, eating meat, and using inefficient appliances), ultimately concluding that childbearing does far more damage to the planet than all the other actions they measured. Actually, it’s worse than all the rest combined. Parents, how do you live with yourselves?

I have no scientific credentials of any kind. Nevertheless, I can discern through armchair reflection alone, that these scholars are quite wrong. Infertility is not the best way to reduce your carbon footprint. If you really care about the earth, drink the hemlock.

If that assessment seems harsh, read the write-up for yourself. The methodology alone shows why these authors don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt. Claiming that they want to consider the “maximum possible effect” of our lifestyle choices, Wynes and Nicholas calculate a year’s worth of emissions for most of their evaluated actions. How much CO2 could you save by not driving for a year? How much by eating vegetarian for a year? And so forth.

Parenthood, of course, isn’t the sort of thing you can step into and out of on a per annum basis. That’s the excuse for blaming parents for the projected carbon emissions of their child’s entire life, and then adding still more to that total based on projected grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They’re leaning on this cool concept that another team of climatologists dreamed up, called a “carbon legacy.” Each parent gets credited (or demerited) with half of every child’s projected lifetime emissions, a quarter of each projected grandchild’s projected emissions, and so forth down the generations. The cumulative total becomes your “legacy,” which is how we end up at the conclusion that childbearing is orders of magnitude worse than gas-guzzling, air travel, or the consumption of animal flesh.

Parents, on this evaluation, are worse offenders by far than the childless businessman who flies all over the country, sampling steakhouses and taking joyrides in private helicopters. The Lund study is not just a bleg about inefficient family cars or disposable diapers. It’s about visiting the emissions of the children on the fathers, ultimately convicting parents of the crime of perpetuating human civilization.

Comparing a year’s worth of road trips and beef jerky to the anticipated carbon output of your descendants in perpetuity is just silly on its face. That doesn’t even resemble an apples-to-apples comparison. Now, let’s engage in a little more armchair reflection. Quite recently, our friends on the left were beside themselves over the Paris accords and the Right’s refusal to get serious about climate change. We heard about echo chambers, false prophets, and the infamous conservative fact-aversion. Is there a chance that studies like this play some role in widespread skepticism about scientific claims? Perhaps what we have on our hands is a “crisis of scientific authority.”

Liberals love personal narratives that begin with bad Sunday-school experiences and the rejection of religious authority. That story can be told another way, however.

Think about it like this. Liberals love personal narratives that begin with bad Sunday-school experiences and the rejection of religious authority. That story can be told another way, however.

My own personal memories may be representative. As a kid in science class I was bombarded with Malthusian lifeboat scenarios. I recall one project that required us to generate “creative solutions” for fitting 8 gazillion people into a square mile. We sat drawing pictures of people standing in pyramid formations, passing shrink-wrapped meals up from conveyor belts, while our science teacher thundered on about how this was not science fiction, people, this was math. We heard endless dirges about the dying rainforest, and when I take my kids to science museums today I feel like I’ve walked into a time warp, because the appeals don’t seem to have changed a bit. Climate change (née global warming) already has a pretty lengthy string of bloopers to its name. Believe it or not, this stuff wears away at the credibility of the scientific community, at least among those who don’t already view the white lab coat as a quasi-sacerdotal garment.

Maybe there’s a good explanation for the undying-rainforest crisis. Maybe carbon emissions really are pushing us into a climate crisis. And maybe you have an immortal soul that will suffer eternal torment unless you repent, but it’s hard to convince people of that when you’ve already torched your credibility by stamping obvious absurdities with the authoritative seal. People mistrust politicized science for reasons that any principled empiricist ought to respect: Personal experience suggests to them that it’s unreliable.

The Lund study is very obviously politicized science. Wynes and Nicholas want schools and other state institutions to modify their textbooks and lesson plans, spending less time on “lower-impact actions” (such as recycling and changing light bulbs) and instead pushing the more dramatic changes that have much greater potential to affect carbon output. Wisely noting that “adolescents poised to establish lifelong patterns are an important target group” for environmentalists, Wynes and Nicholas want schools to attack the real problem: children having children, or planning to have them at some future time

The discussion reads like the brainlessly “logical” musings of a sci-fi robot. “Mr. Data, what lifestyle adjustments might help to reduce our carbon footprints?”

“Sir, long-term projections indicate that reduced fertility could reduce CO2-equivalent emissions by approximately 58.6 tons per child, per year.”

That’s the point where a real human is supposed to step forward and explain that human children are not properly classified as “lifestyle adjustments.” Most likely no one in the authors’ own milieu will do that, though, because climate scientists are used to this sort of thing: the weirdly gerrymandered parameters, the childlike faith in awareness-raising, and the shared presumption that religious traditionalists must be violating some ethical principle with their unseemly fecundity. (If Malthus didn’t pan out, perhaps Mann will.) That’s why they won’t bat an eyelash at a study that throws “perpetuating the human race” onto a laundry list of lifestyle choices, along with diet, transportation, and methods of waste disposal.

Do you really want my attention, climate scientists? Commission a study on the climate impact of a liberal-environmentalist suicide pact. Then we’ll talk. If you really want to reduce your footprint, it’s worth recalling that conservation begins at home.


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