For all that's ever been said about climate change, we haven't heard nearly enough about the psychological impacts of living in a warming world. If you've heard the grim climate research that science communicators like me weave into our books and documentaries, you've probably felt bouts of fear, fatalism or hopelessness. If you've been impacted by climate disaster, these feelings can set in much deeper, leading to shock, trauma, strained relationships, substance abuse and the loss of personal identity and control.
Vital political and technological work is underway to moderate our climate chaos, but I'm here to evoke a feeling in you for why we also need our actions and policies to reflect an understanding of how our changing environments threaten our mental, social and spiritual well-being.
The anxiety, grief and depression of climate scientists and activists have been reported on for years. Trends we've seen after extreme weather events like hurricane Sandy or Katrina for increased PTSD and suicidality. And there are rich mental-health data from northern communities where warming is the fastest, like the Inuit in Labrador, who face existential distress as they witness the ice, a big part of their identity, vanishing before their eyes.
Now if that weren't enough, the American Psychological Association says that our psychological responses to climate change, like conflict avoidance, helplessness and resignation, are growing. This means that our conscious and unconscious mental processes are holding us back from identifying the causes of the problem for what they are, working on solutions and fostering our own psychological resilience, but we need all those things to take on what we've created.
Lately, I've been studying a phenomenon that's just one example of the emotional hardships that we're seeing. And it comes in the form of a question that a significant amount of people in my generation are struggling to answer. That being: Should I have a child in the age of climate change? After all, any child born today will have to live in a world where hurricanes, flooding, wildfires — what we used to call natural disasters — have become commonplace.
The hottest 20 years on record occurred within the last 22. The UN expects that two-thirds of the global population may face water shortages only six years from now. The World Bank predicts that by 2050, there's going to be 140 million climate refugees in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and South Asia. And other estimates put that number at over one billion. Mass migrations and resource scarcity increase the risk for violence, war and political instability. The UN just reported that we are pushing up to a million species to extinction, many within decades, and our emissions are still increasing, even after the Paris Agreement.
Over the last year and a half, I've been conducting workshops and interviews with hundreds of people about parenting in the climate crisis. And I can tell you that people who are worried about having kids because of climate change are not motivated by an ascetic pride. They're nerve-racked.
There's even a movement called BirthStrike, whose members have declared they're not going to have kids because of the state of the ecological crisis and inaction from governments to address this existential threat. And yes, other generations have also faced their own apocalyptic dangers, but that is no reason to disregard the very real threat to our survival now. Some feel that it's better to adopt children. Or that it's unethical to have more than one, especially three, four or more, because kids increase greenhouse gas emissions.
Now, it is a really unfortunate state of affairs when people who want kids sacrifice their right to because, somehow, they have been told that their lifestyle choices are to blame when the fault is far more systemic, but let's just unpack the logic here.
So an oft-cited study shows that, on average, having one less child in an industrialized nation can save about 59 tons of carbon dioxide per year. While in comparison, living car-free saves nearly 2.5 tons, avoiding a transatlantic flight — and this is just one — saves about 1.5 tons, and eating a plant-based diet can save almost one ton per year. And consider that a Bangladeshi child only adds 56 metric tons of carbon to their parents' carbon legacy over their lifetime, while an American child, in comparison, adds 9,441 to theirs. So this is why some people argue that it's parents from nations with huge carbon footprints who should think the hardest about how many kids they have.
But the decision to have a child and one's feelings about the future are deeply personal, and wrapped up in all sorts of cultural norms, religious beliefs, socioeconomic status, education levels and more. And so to some, this debate about kids in the climate crisis can seem like it came from another planet. Many have more immediate threats to their survival to think about, like, how they're going to put food on the table, when they're a single mom working three jobs, or they're HIV positive or on the move in a migrant caravan. Tragically, though, climate change is really great at intersectionality. It multiplies the stresses marginalized communities already face.
A political scientist once said to me that a leading indicator that climate change is starting to hit home, psychologically, would be an increase in the rate of informed women deciding to not have children. Interesting. Is it hitting home with you, psychologically?
Are you perhaps someone with climate-linked pre-traumatic stress? A climate psychiatrist coined that term, and that's a profession now, by the way, shrinks for climate woes. They're getting work at a time when some high schoolers don't want to apply to university any longer, because they can't foresee a future for themselves. And this brings me back to my main point.
The growing concern about having kids in the climate crisis is an urgent indicator of how hard-pressed people are feeling. Right now, students around the world are screaming for change in the piercing voice of despair. And the fact that we can see how we contribute to this problem that makes us feel unsafe is crazy-making in itself. Climate change is all-encompassing and so are the ways that it messes with our minds. Many activists will tell you that the best antidote to grief is activism. And some psychologists will tell you the answer can be found in therapy. Others believe the key is to imagine you're on your deathbed, reflecting back on what's mattered the most in your life, so you can identify what you should do more of now, with the time that you have left. We need all these ideas, and more, to take care of our innermost selves as the environments we've known become more punishing towards us. And whether you have children or not, we need to be honest about what is happening, and what we owe one another. We cannot afford to treat the psychological impacts of climate change as some afterthought, because the other issues, of science, technology and the politics and economy, feel hard, while this somehow feels soft.
Mental health needs to be an integral part of any climate change survival strategy, requiring funding, and ethics of equity and care, and widespread awareness. Because even if you're the most emotionally avoidant person on the planet, there's no rug in the world that's big enough to sweep this up under.