Want to Help Fight Climate Change? Have More Children

Tyler Cowen
Want to Help Fight Climate Change? Have More Children

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Fear of climate change is justified. It is not, however, a reason not to have children. That’s because those kids of yours are more likely to be part of the solution than the problem.

This view puts me at odds with millions of younger Americans; a recent online poll indicates that 38 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 say climate change should be a factor in the decision to have children. (Perhaps the most prominent member of this cohort is Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who recently suggested on Instagram that climate change will make future lives so difficult that whether to have children is a “legitimate question.”) There is even a Facebook group, called BirthStrike, for people who have decided not to have children because of climate change.

To put those worries out of mind, ask yourself a simple question: Is the remedy for climate change, to the extent we find one, more likely to come from North America or New Zealand?  Obviously, the wealthier and more populous America is a more likely source of technological innovation, even though it is also a more significant source of greenhouse gases. So if you think progress in this fight is possible at all, you ought to be betting on the more populous nations. By having more children, you are making your nation more populous — thus boosting its capacity to solve the problem.

But even if your kid doesn’t grow up to be a leading scientist or environmental crusader, she may still have a real impact. More people, according to Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Romer, create bigger markets for innovations. There are more medicines for common diseases than for rare diseases, precisely because market size is larger. By having more kids, you are increasing the demand for remedies to climate change. For instance, there are significant fixed costs to coming up with higher-quality electric cars or better solar panels. Investors put money into these areas only because they hope to sell a lot of units. Your children will help boost demand.

Furthermore, if you are sufficiently concerned about climate change that it might influence your child-bearing decisions, there is an above-average chance your children will share similar concerns; political views are to some extent inherited. That will make your kids more likely to want to alleviate the problem.

Look at it this way: If progress on climate change is at all possible, someone will need to contribute to it. Aren’t your potential children among the most likely people to do that? If nothing else, they have an above-average chance of voting for political remedies for the problem, given how you will raise and instruct them.

Alternatively, you might think that climate change is such a huge and terrible problem that even marginal improvements are unlikely, never mind a comprehensive solution. If that’s the case, then you should just do what you want right now and forget about future considerations altogether — whatever you decide, it won’t matter.

Granted, this is a rather silly and nihilistic scenario, but the logic leads to the same result: You should have children if you want to. But by all means, encourage them to be vegetarians and cyclists.

Now consider the issue not in the context of your own decisions about family but in global terms, specifically per-capita carbon emissions. In the U.S., they have been declining for some time, due partly to the shift from coal to natural gas. Electric cars and solar panels, or perhaps nuclear fusion, could bring more progress yet. The future size of the carbon problem will be determined in Asia and Africa — dictated in large part by how fast these regions industrialize, grow and also eat more meat. So ideally you also would also teach your children to do good works — on the environmental front that is — for those parts of the world.

Then there is the matter of historical perspective. Parents had children in medieval times, or for that matter before antibiotics and vaccines. Of all the children who have ever existed, the vast majority have been born into pretty tough circumstances. It is part of the human condition — even as we struggle to improve our lot. Let’s not give up by ceasing to have children.

Finally, leave aside the implausibility of these arguments and consider their assumptions. What you’ll find is zero-sum thinking, negative value judgments about large families, and an attempt to use guilt and shame to steer social and environmental policy. I suspect that is why these arguments are finding some traction, not because they are the result of any careful cost-benefit calculations.

So if you are both worried about climate change and considering starting a family, I say: Put aside the unhelpful mess of emotions some participants in this debate are trying to stir up. Instead, focus on how your decision might boost future innovation. As a bonus, you might find that one of the better approaches to climate change is actually pretty fun.

To contact the author of this story: Tyler Cowen at tcowen2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include "Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero."

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