Fix the climate with smaller families

Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions are at an all time high. That growth tracks explosive world population growth, which is the greatest driver of climate change and a threat multiplier. The Green New Deal has justifiably generated excitement and enthusiasm among people who believe its goal of cutting greenhouse-gas emissions to net zero over 10 years is a crucial goal for humankind. However, it could be far more effective in reaching its goal if it addressed family planning and the empowerment of girls and women.

By Ashley Berke

The world’s population, currently 7.7 billion people, is projected to increase to more than 11 billion by the end of the century. No matter how many solar panels or wind turbines we build, and how many people bike to work, no green policy will do more to reverse global greenhouse emissions than reducing population growth.


Even the most environmentally conscious person creates a significant carbon footprint simply by consuming food, fuel for transportation and energy for heating and cooling, to name just a few obvious impacts. It’s no wonder then that a 2017 study by researchers in Sweden concluded that having fewer children is the most effective way to address global warming and reduce emissions.

Given the existential threat our planet faces, let’s break the taboo on family planning policies.

On a recent episode of his HBO show, “Real Time with Bill Maher,” the comedian did just that when he said, “The great under-discussed factor in the climate crisis is there are just too many of us and we use too much shit … We don’t need smaller carbon footprints, we need less feet.”

At the beginning of the decade, the New York Times noted, “Major American environmental groups have dodged the subject of population for decades, wary of getting caught up in the bruising politics of reproductive health.” That stance hasn’t changed.

While this is understandable — it’s a tough issue for people to talk about — one way to break the taboo is to think about what future kids need rather than what current parents want.

Another way is to acknowledge we can value nature for the “non-humanness” of it. Humans are not green, after all. Had we seen nature this way, we might have avoided the state of affairs in which we find ourselves today.

Not that we don’t all recognize that the politics can be perilous. Recently, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the co-architect of the Green New Deal, questioned in a live stream on her Instagram the morality of having kids:

“Our planet is going to hit disaster if we don’t turn this ship around and so it’s basically like, 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, you know, ‘Is it okay to still have children?’” she said.

The backlash was predictable. On Fox News, the president’s daughter-in-law Lara Trump called Ocasio-Cortez’s comments “a little bit crazy … Just something to tack on to the list of I guess kind of nonsensical things she does sometimes say.” A columnist for the network hyperventilated, “In the name of climate change, the Democratic Party’s unofficial leader seems eager to help everyone else decide who lives and who dies.”

Those types of distortions fuel the irrational societal taboo of family planning, with some people linking it to China’s old one-child policy and its use of forced abortions and sterilization, or earlier excesses like the eugenics movement. It should go without saying that these actions are well out bounds and family planning advocates do not support them.

Another daunting challenge is ignorance of the connection between overpopulation and climate change, as Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) recently demonstrated in breathtaking fashion. In a debate before a Senate vote on the Green New Deal, Lee argued that the way to combat climate change is to have … more kids.

Sen. Mike Lee demonstrates that having more kids is the best way to combat climate change

His logic: more people would mean more innovation to come up with solutions. Of course, Lee’s prescription would have the opposite effect, leading to an increase in greenhouse gases, and we’ve called on him to retract his dangerous comments.

Some might argue that this is a problem for the developing world and its much higher population growth, not the U.S. But that ignores the fact that Americans generate orders of magnitude more in carbon emissions per capita, and consume far more, than those in the developing world.

Better family planning is not just an environmental imperative. It’s a human rights cause, too. Policies that encourage people to wait to become parents until they are ready, and to have smaller families when they do have kids, would mean fewer children in foster care, less inequality and fewer abused kids.

Let’s be clear how this works: Actually ensuring that kids get, right from the start, what the Children’s Rights Convention and any serious reading of human rights promises all children, would require smaller families with more planning and investment. Yes, child welfare and environmental restoration are confluent, linked at the deepest level of causality.

How would we change to a child-centric, rather than parent-centric, approach? One way is through the “Fair Start Model.”

Under it, parents deliberately delay having kids, and in exchange are ensured resources to give their children a fair start in life, and all have small, sustainable families — of one or two children. This last part makes the whole process feasible and ensures less of an impact on the environment.

Moving to a model of smaller families that invest more in each child is crucial for another reason. The only morally sound thing we can do in the face of an ecologically degraded future is ensure a more resilient population — in quantity and quality — that is better adapted for it. Would we really set our kids up for failure by pursuing the opposite?

A Green New Deal that reflects this model could include the following policies:

  • Revised federal tax credits to encourage delayed childbirth, fair start oriented planning, and smaller families rather than existing child tax credits — doubled under the recent GOP tax cuts — that reward parents for having larger families.
  • Prioritized funding for approval of the male pill and other new contraceptives.
  • Authorization of Fair Start orders, in cases of recidivist and egregious cases of abuse and neglect, where a judge could extend a convicted child abuser’s probation if that person impregnates a woman or becomes pregnant. These orders change the very paradigm of family planning to a child-first orientation.

The Fair Start Model seeks to encourage potential parents to take into account the interests of their future child — and that child’s rights to a fair start.

Setting public policy often entails balancing competing interests. In this case, two compelling interests align: putting kids’ rights first and taking the most consequential action to ensure the livability of our planet. If the Green New Deal is to be as transformative as advertised, it must include family planning.

Ashley Berke is the director of communications for Having Kids, a national child welfare organization.

See the original article was published 05/20/19 on The Hill.

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6 thoughts on “Fix the climate with smaller families

  1. Ms. Berke: An excellent, logical, well-reasoned article. Of course, the “Mike Lee bit” made my head spin.

  2. “Some might argue that this is a problem for the developing world and its much higher population growth, not the U.S. But that ignores the fact that Americans generate orders of magnitude more in carbon emissions per capita, and consume far more, than those in the developing world.”

    Note that this is one of the same reasons to advocate for less immigration into countries like the U.S. (in addition to promoting smaller families). Seeing organizations like Having Kids at least acknowledging the role of immigration as the primary contributor to U.S. population growth in articles like this would be appreciated.

  3. I did a paper using the Kaya Identity, C = C/E*E/Y*Y/P*P where C is emissions, E is energy, Y is economic output or GDP and P is population. So C/E is how dirty the energy source–coal worse than renewables, etc., E/Y is efficiency–Europe uses half as much energy/dollar of output, and Y/P is per capita income. A big problem is that people talk about the technological solutions, reducing C/E and E/Y, but that is offset by 2% annual growth in Y/P and 1.1% growth in P, With that total of 3% growth, the economy doubles in size every quarter century. Now way to build enough windmills.

  4. Population growth in the USA is NOT caused by US citizens having babies, since the average US couple has 1.3 children; how they come up with the .(point) 3, I do not have a clue. If the US is having ANY population growth problems, it’s caused by the continuous, uncontrolled influx of illegal aliens from everywhere else in the world. SO, the “solution” to our problem is to “kick them all out” and send them back where they came from. End of story.

  5. Population growth is the greatest threat to American quality of life and ecological health there currently is. It is driven, nationwide, by immigration. We need to reduce immigration by 90% in order to stabilize our population and deal with this threat.

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