By David Wallace-Wells
Earlier this month during Art Basel Miami Beach, at a cocktail party held just inches above Biscayne Bay, an art collector was describing the ordeal of his year of house hunting. He was one half of a well-off, middle-aged gay couple raising two children and hoping to find a place calmer than New York for their kids’ adolescence and their own semi-retirement. Their first choice, he said, was Montecito, the richest part of Santa Barbara County, but then the broker who’d been helping them there died in last December’s mudslides. They decided they couldn’t go back. They looked at a few houses in Malibu — “but they all burned down.” In the end, they chose Miami. “You know climate change is coming for South Florida, too, right?” someone asked. “At least it’ll be slow,” the collector replied, clearly having thought about it. With a hurricane, you get at least a few days’ warning, he said, and with sea-level rise, years. “Then, it’ll just be like Venice.”
As recently as a few years ago, this was not the way the wealthy tended to talk about the dilemmas of child-rearing. As much as Americans may have feared the wrath of global warming, we assumed that most of us would be spared its most brutal impacts, by the prophylaxis of our collective wealth, and that the very richest among us might be able to shield themselves entirely. But that’s changing. The Kardashians may have hired private firefighters to fend off this fall’s Woolsey fire, but millions around the country watched the same family evacuate via Instagram Story, too.
If the country’s plutocrats are now scrambling to secure their lives from climate change, terrified about what it will mean for the future of their families, where does that leave the rest of us? Over the last year or two, the question I’ve been asked more than any other by people who know I write about warming concerns kids: whether it’s moral to reproduce in this climate; whether it’s responsible to have children; whether it is fair to the planet or, perhaps more important, to the children.
As it happens, earlier this year, my wife and I did have a child, Rocca, after several years of “trying.” In other words, when we first conceived of conceiving a child, it was in relative ignorance about warming; like many Americans, we knew about climate change in a sort of theoretical way, but thought that the threat of it ended roughly at the shoreline, and that we could go on living our lives as we always had, without worrying too much — trusting that others, “in charge,” would fix it. By the time we’d actually conceived, we were no longer under that illusion, thanks to unprecedented hurricanes and wildfires and floods, and the year or so I’d spent buried in the dark news from climate science. By the time Rocca was born, the news had grown grimmer: studies predicting deaths from air pollution in the tens of millions, and cities in India and the Middle East made uninhabitable by direct heat as soon as 2050. In the nine months since, it has grown grimmer still: a global, lethal heat wave this past summer, the worst wildfires in California history, the “doomsday” IPCC report warning that the world had only 12 years to cut carbon emissions in half, or risk true climate catastrophe.
This is, as unhappy as it may be to believe, not an unusual accident of the year or month in which our daughter was born. Take any chunk of nine months over the last decade and the picture of climate change is sure to have darkened in that time. Take any chunk of nine months in the future and the same is likely to be true. Extend the chunk of time to the length of a childhood, or a full life, and that picture of climate suffering gets dramatically worse. Should we stay the present course on emissions, Rocca will probably live to see a world in which certain places could be struck by six climate-driven natural disasters simultaneously and global damages from those climate impacts could pass $600 trillion — more than double the amount of wealth than exists in the world today. More than a hundred million would be dead from air pollution, and a hundred million more made homeless by heat, drought, and flooding. The pressure on our politics would be, by any standard we’d use today, too much for the system to bear.
You might expect these premonitions to settle like sediment into family planning. And indeed, among the young and well-off in Europe and the United States, for whom reproductive choices are often freighted with political meaning, they have. Among this outwardly conscientious cohort, there is worry about bringing new children into a damaged world, full of suffering, and about “contributing” to the problem by crowding the climate stage with more players, each a little consumption machine. “Want to fight climate change?” the Guardian asked in 2017. “Have fewer children.” That year and the next, the paper published several variations on the theme, as did many other publications delivered to the Western bourgeois, including the New York Times: “Add this to the list of decisions affected by climate change: Should I have children?”