Like our mythic forebears, we seem locked in a doomed cycle of escalating damage. This week, researchers at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report stating that the world is not on track to limit global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the goal of the 2015 Paris agreement. In concrete terms, this means that humankind can — unless rapid, extreme measures are taken — expect severe weather, disruptions to agriculture, and resulting political and economic jolts, along with irreversible climate shifts such as the destruction of polar ice shelves and permanent sea-level increases. The IPCC report holds that it is possible for humanity to halt the course of climate change. But doing so would require, at this late hour, more than a few radical acts of political will.
As Hurricane Michael leaves behind a wake of death, injury and destruction in the Southeast, the fact of climate change feels particularly tangible. Those who live near the coasts can see their futures in every splintered palm and blasted shoreline, and in the blue tarps fixed over torn roofs by the Army Corps of Engineers. But even those living safely inland and those who have the means to move to higher ground as floodwaters rise won’t be able to escape the political turmoil that will arise as space and resources become more and more scarce.
Nonetheless, despite the fact that the United States could play a major role in creating a sustainable future, many American politicians remain glibly indifferent to the threat of climate change. In a very pragmatic sense, therefore, and in a moral one, people seem to be the problem.
On the practical level, some scientists have argued that controlling human population is key to slowing climate change. A 2010 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences calculated, for instance, that “slowing population growth could provide 16-29% of the emissions reductions suggested to be necessary by 2050 to avoid dangerous climate change.” A radical shift in production methods and consumption habits could presumably have the same effect. But tailoring production to provide for a sustainable future isn’t something most corporations seem enthusiastic about, and cutting consumption is, in our culture, also a steep ask. Laws could help. But politicians seem even less interested in protecting our shared future than their masters in industry. Our condition isn’t altogether hopeless. But it can feel futile.
Which raises a question that, while grim and disturbing, has come to me in worried murmurs again and again as climate predictions continue to worsen. Why have children at all, when the future seems so dire? Even if one assumes that having a child won’t contribute to the problem — that our progeny will take seriously the creeping catastrophe their parents didn’t — it still seems likely that today’s youths will be faced with a world vastly and unpredictably altered.
Every child is born to risk. One might argue that all parents know that they are delivering their children from the blank constancy of nonexistence into a world that is certain only to change, and that it’s impossible to be sure of anything except that life is not permanent and is prone to radical, sudden revolutions. This is true, if a bit more determined, in the case of climate change. Bringing a child into a world staring down the throat of its own deadly excesses is both as reasonable and irrational as having a child in any other frightening epoch, and there have been many.
But there’s more to it than that. It also appears to me that a certain disrespect for human life is how we arrived in the climactic fix we’re in now. Governments and corporations have for too long prized the license and lucre of a handful of people over the well-being of the vast majority of the planet’s inhabitants, who are suffering thanks to their recklessness. Holding those actors accountable will require an enormous amount of political will, but also a recognition that the culprits of climate change are not pro- but anti-humanity, and that it’s their ethos which inclines to nihilism, despair and death. Children are a clear statement of hope, a demand that we claim accountability for the future. They are a rejection of cavalier disregard for the planet we share.
After the Fall, in a wounded world, Adam and Eve still had children because life is good. This is ultimately the greatest imperative for halting climate change, and for bearing children, for the parents who want to do it: Life is good. Life itself is good.