Childless by choice

When Monei Thomason thinks about bringing children into the world her eyes cloud; her brows furrow; her shoulders sag, sinking her lower into the chair.

“It’s climate change that scares me the most, it’s one of the biggest considerations of having a kid. My maternal instinct is saying ‘yes, have a child’ but it’s also like the world is falling apart,” the 24-year-old Salter Point resident says. “If I continue my career trajectory and marry my boyfriend who is on a good career trajectory, then we will be one of the privileged ones. But even then, do you want to place all of the problems that are on our shoulders onto our children’s shoulders?”

Monei isn’t the only one. In a 2021 study published on The Lancet, 43 per-cent of Australian respondents aged between 16 and 25 said they were hesitant to have children. More than 75 per-cent agreed “the future is frightening”. More than 80 per-cent said older generations had ‘failed to take care of the planet’.

Monei Thomason says the planet is already ‘suffering’ the impacts of climate change. Video: Jessica Evensen.

“I read the news most days and there’s almost always a new natural disaster that’s displaced at least 20 to 100 people each day. There’s something happening around the world every day, it’s depressing really,” Monei says. “But if I have a child it’s not like they’re going to live for 30 years and suddenly the word explodes,” she laughs.

“It’s going to be a steady decline in the standard of living; the cost of living; wars could potentially break out because of it [climate change] … it’s not like the child will be suffering the entire time, but there’ll be a huge burden on their shoulders.”

Monei Thomason

The tension of deciding to bring a child into a planet battling greenhouse gases, acid rain and air pollution is one particularly felt by the next generation of parents. On one hand, bringing a child into the world almost guarantees unimaginable, unwavering love. On the other, it feels selfish to pass on the burden of irreversible climate damage.

For future generations it’s a world without rhinos, tigers and orangutans; their sheer existence confined to pages of picture books next to drawings of dinosaurs, sabre-tooth tigers and woolly mammoths. It’s a world where small islands have disappeared, swallowed by the sea of lukewarm icecaps. It’s a world where terms like ‘global warming’, ‘carbon footprint’ and ‘climate anxiety’ are dropped into everyday conversations, not just limited to woke, lefty circles.

Climate Change in Australia’s 2050 climate projection for WA. Infographic: Jessica Evensen

According to the United Nation’s World Meteorological Organisation, July was the planet’s hottest month on record, the United Nations General-Secretary Antonio Guterres describing the northern hemisphere’s summer as a ‘mini Ice-age’. Western Australia has already been rocked by the consequences of global warming. According to Climate Change in Australia, the Federal Government’s arm of climate information and projection data, WA is already experiencing the impacts of climate change which they predict will worsen in coming years. By 2050, CCA estimates WA’s average annual temperature will increase by two degrees Celsius. Perth’s number of days over 40 degrees are projected to increase from 1.5 days a year to five days a year. ‘Very high’ fire days are expected to increase by 40 per-cent.

Are these numbers surprising?

“No, not at all,” Thomason says flatly. “Haven’t they been predicting this stuff for years? Now it’s our problem. It’s on us. We have to fix our parents problems when it was their responsibility this entire time.

“I feel doomed, it’s past the point of apprehension. We’re already screwed now, so what’s the future going to look like?”

Dr Elizabeth Newnham, a psychology lecturer at the School of Population Health at Curtin University, has done extensive work looking at the mental health consequences of climate change among children and adolescents and says the climate crisis is having a significant impact on the mental health of youth.

“We see a range of psychological responses to climate change that are similar to depression like a sense of helplessness. We also see levels of anger and see a range of anxieties including post-traumatic and anticipatory stress,” Dr Newnham says. “But there are valid and growing concerns on the impacts [climate change] is having on mental health, not only from direct exposure, but from secondary exposure.”

Dr Elizabeth Newnham has researched the impacts of climate change on the mental health of youth. Photo: Jessica Evensen.

But Dr Newnham says there is no evidence to suggest population control is the answer to climate change.

“Young people are already making choices about their future, like their family structure, their careers and the skills they’ll require in the future based on their evaluation of the state of the world,” she says.

“We know that a very small portion of the global population contribute to the largest proportion of carbon and fossil fuel outputs, so we really need strong action from a particular part of the population rather than the population growth argument.”

Dr Elizabeth Newnham says young people are thinking ahead. Video: Jessica Evensen.

According to the United Nations 2020 Emissions Gap Report, the globe’s ‘richest one per-cent’ account for more carbon emissions than the ‘poorest 50 per-cent.’ “This group will need to reduce its footprint by a factor of 30 to stay in line with the Paris Agreement targets,” the report reads. “The poorest 50 per-cent could actually increase their footprint several times.”

Earlier this year, The Conversation published an article arguing that solving the climate crisis isn’t as as simple as deciding not to procreate. Rather, authors Martin Sticker and Felix Pinkert reasoned the climate crisis is a ‘collective action problem’.

“The ethical responsibility for reducing emissions rests on the shoulders of not just individuals, but also with societies, their institutions and businesses,” the article reads.

“If we collectively manage to reduce our per capita emissions to net zero by 2050, then having a child today leads to only a small amount of emissions. After 2050, they and their descendants would cease to add to net emissions.

Levels of greenhouse gases and carbon emissions – the primary drivers of climate change – are seen to increase in densely populated areas. According to City Carbon Footprints, Seoul, South Korea has a population of 21,254,000 and a carbon footprint of 276 ± 51.8 metric tonnes. In comparison, Waterloo, Canada has a population of 282,000 and a carbon footprint of 4.4 ± 2.5 metric tonnes. But the source of these emissions – cars, airplanes and factories – are the root cause rather than humans themselves.

Carbon footprints of world cities in 2013. Data taken from Carbon City Footprints. Infographic: Jessica Evensen.

Given such data, Dr Newnham says an ethical burden shouldn’t be placed on those who decide to have children. “People have agency and their own evaluation of what they would like to do with their lives, so that’s really important,” she says. “Personal choice is really important, but I hope there’s accurate information available so people don’t feel like not having children is required as part of climate action.”

A brighter future?

When Maria Dude thinks about bringing children into the world, her eyes glow; her brows jerk up in excitement; she sits up a little taller in her desk chair. “I’m unsure, I”m a little worried, but I’m weirdly excited,” she says.

Maria Dude is ‘weirdly excited’ about the next generation of climate leaders. Photo: Jessica Evensen.

“I’m excited to see the next generation who’s being brought up now … We probably could have prevented [climate change] a little bit more, but if we stop having children altogether then who’s going to come up with a solution?”

“If I have two kids it isn’t going to change anything, but it could. But if I didn’t have children, it would be a loss because that’s two or three people who could potentially come up with an idea to solve climate change.”

The 23-year-old is heavily involved with Millennium Kids Inc, a Perth-based not-for-profit organisation encouraging and empowering young Australians with climate-related solutions.

“We’re all about giving children a voice … they come to us with their ideas about climate, sustainability or whatever they want to help the world and then we pair them with mentors and turn their projects into realities,” she says.

Since Maria’s involvement with Millennium Kids she has witnessed the commitment of a new generation pledging to solve the climate crisis. This, she says, has solidified the idea that the future of the planet is in safe hands.

“If you had asked me how I felt about climate change a couple of years ago before I was in this sphere, I was probably not that optimistic. But when you see kids that are so young come up with such amazing ideas, it kind of gives you hope.”

Maria Dude says children’s ideas about climate change are often dismissed. Photo: Jessica Evensen.

“There was this really amazing project a few months ago – this boy was about 10 years old and he thought of something so simple I couldn’t believe no one else had thought of it.

“He noticed that a lot of climate change information was in English, but a lot of the population in WA speak Punjabi and Mandarin, so he pitched an idea to the City of Canning and created a poster which basically says ’10 steps to decrease your carbon footprint’. He had it translated and given out, but it was so amazing because it was something so simple and in front of your face the whole time.”

Maria’s optimism is refreshing. There’s no trace of cynicism or scepticism. Instead, her eyes twinkle with hope.

“I’m excited,” she beams. “I mean we take a while, but after some time we always tend to come up with some really good solutions to problems that affect us humans. No one has the answer to climate change, but I’m doing my part and voicing my concerns where I can.”

Looking forward

When Liam Harte thinks about the future of the planet he laughs sardonically.

“I feel like it’s hard to go through four years of studying environmental science and feel optimistic about the future,” he says. For over a decade, the 32-year-old Joondanna resident has worked as an environmental scientist in the mining and agriculture sector.

“Having studied what I’ve studied, having watched what I’ve watched, you can see the world is under significant amounts of stress and strains, atmospherically and oceanically,” Liam says dryly. “Even as a kid back in primary school when we were discussing greenhouse gases back in the early 2000’s, I remember being worried about the planet. There were a number of environmental issues like dry land solidity and greenhouse gases. All that kind of stuff was on the table.”

Two years ago, Liam and his partner, Peta, had little baby Oliver. But Liam says the decision to have a child wasn’t made lightly. Factors like climate change, geopolitical tensions and a rocky economy were all taken into consideration before the couple tried for a baby.

“I suppose you have to think about the future when you’re thinking about having kids,” he says. “You’re thinking, ‘Is tomorrow going to be better than today?’ … there’s also the more literal idea of should we be having more kids because is adding additional humans to the population going to increase the impact of climate change?”

Since having Oliver, the pair have been deliberate about minimising their own environmental impacts. “Both of his parents studied environmental science, so we’re very much interested in the living world around us and that plays a big role in what we consider important in raising a child,” Liam says.

“It’s great at the moment. Oliver’s super into animals – fish especially, so that’s so great because I love it too … but one of my pet peeves is that I hate food wastage and as it turns out, it’s much more difficult to reduce food wastage when there’s a two-year-old lobbing it at you,” he laughs. “But all of these things are key components of what I consider key parts of my value system as a parent.”

Like Monei Thomason, Liam questions the authenticity of governments banding together to help solve the climate crisis. “Can our geopolitical system change enough so that we can break down the barriers that are stopping us from addressing key climate questions and move forward by working together?”

“Whenever you have these climate forums, geopolitics plays a large role in the outcome of these sessions – who’s willing to do what, and who’s willing to take some of the responsibility. I suppose I’m concerned that we are currently hitting the end where our current structure is not capable of changing fast enough to address some of the climate problems before they get to an extremely bad point.”

But one thing is certain. As a father, Liam knows he must model behaviours that he hopes Oliver will eventually mirror.

“Maybe it’s less about what you tell them and more about what you show them,” he says. “They’re more likely to push back when you’re constantly nagging them to turn the lights off. But if you’re constantly showing them, hopefully, they get the idea eventually.”