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  • I have a younger sister, she's 12. I was 12 when my mother gave birth to her, so I know

  • what it is like to raise a child because I was really engaging in that as well.

  • Welcome to crowdscience from the BBC World Service. I'm Geoff Marsh. And this week we're

  • trying to find an answer to one of life's most common quandaries.

  • My name is Philine, I live in Salzburg in Austria. My question for crowdscience is,

  • is it responsible for me to have children?

  • You want that for yourself. I really would like to have children. But when I look at

  • the news, I get quite pessimistic and unsure of the future.

  • The United Nations estimates that drought brought on by the effects of climate change

  • could displace as many as 700 million people by the end of the decade. Thousands of people

  • in the Western United States are spending the weekend in evacuation.

  • We start with these catastrophic floods in western German states.

  • Right now, I'm 24 years old, and I don't want to have to right now, but I might have someday,

  • and what will their future look like? And how will the world be when they are my age

  • or even 50, 60 years old? So I thought about that a bit. And I haven't come to a solution.

  • Because I don't think not having children is the solution. Yeah, so that's why I wrote

  • to crowdscience.

  • Presumably, then if you decided not to have children, that would be a really difficult

  • decision for you.

  • Yeah. And I'm not sure I could make the decision honestly. I might be in the position to think

  • about it right now. But maybe in a few years, I'll be like, yeah, doesn't matter anymore.

  • I want to fool myself.

  • Because as far as biological impulses go, this is the big one, isn't it? Yeah, I know,

  • I know. I can’t promise anything.

  • In some ways, the fact that you're young, and you have no immediate desire to have children,

  • makes you a really great person to ask this question, doesn't it? Because it, you can

  • look at it almost dispassionately.

  • Yeah, yeah, I can just lean back and think about that and think about all the possibilities

  • I have. That's, I think why I am having the courage to ask this question right now.

  • And obviously, the question, is it responsible for you to bring a child onto the planet?

  • It's a very personal question. And only really, you can answer that.

  • I'm not looking for a definitive answer. I'm looking for maybe an approach on the question

  • in an ethical way, and in the scientific way, as well, and maybe some hints how I can tackle

  • that question for myself.

  • So you want a philosophical and scientific toolbox. that will be great. I will do my

  • best. Philine’s question really resonates with me. I am a decade older, but I'm still

  • struggling with the same predicament because, look, it's hard not to notice that the world's

  • becoming increasingly scary. I'm almost becoming desensitised to seeing huge tracts of forest

  • burning, ice sheets disappearing, livelihoods being swept away in floods. Unsurprisingly,

  • lots of young people are starting to ask whether having children is just wrong. And this isn't

  • just anecdotal. Researchers have started to document this worrying trend.

  • So my research through the University of Bath for the past 10 years has been talking primarily

  • with children and young people about how they feel and what they think about the climate

  • and biodiversity crisis.

  • This is Caroline Hickman. She’s a lecturer at the University of Bath in the UK.

  • And I'm also a psychotherapist and a member of the climate psychology Alliance, who have

  • been working for 10 years to bring the psychological understanding of climate change into the frame.

  • Caroline and her colleagues decided recently that they wanted to measure the psychological

  • impacts from as many young people as possible and from across the globe. Just a few months

  • ago, they published the results of a massive study into how young people were thinking

  • and feeling about climate change.

  • We conducted this research with 10,000 children covering 10 different countries in Australia,

  • Brazil, Finland, France, India, Nigeria, Philippines, Portugal, the UK and the US. So we wanted

  • a range of countries, some of whom were in the Global South, and some of whom were facing

  • the immediate impacts of climate change. So the first thing we asked them was how they

  • felt about climate change. We knew that young people were afraid, sad, anxious and angry.

  • There's been previous research done into this over the last few years. What we didn't know

  • was how scared young people were. And two thirds of children were afraid. Four out of

  • 10 young people told us they were hesitant to have children because of the threat of

  • climate change. And over half of our respondents told us they felt that humanity was doomed.

  • Eight out of 10 told us that they thought people were failing to take care of the planet.

  • 48% of young people said they felt ignored and dismissed when they tried to talk about

  • climate change.

  • Caroline gave me the full results in all their bleakness and we don't have time here. But

  • in essence, a huge proportion of young people from across the world are worried about climate

  • change, they felt ignored and failed by their leaders, and they thought they were being

  • lied to. And I feel for them, they saw how rapid action based on science was possible

  • during the pandemic. So why was so little seemingly being done to hold the destruction

  • of the climate and environment that they could see happening around them? But it was one

  • of those statistics you might have heard that alarmed me the most, four out of 10 young

  • people that's 40% said they felt reluctant to have children.

  • Yes, that's right. Wow. Yeah, I think that number is much bigger than we ever anticipated.

  • So although I wasn't hugely surprised about the emotions and the feelings and people were

  • telling us, I was really surprised, by the way that the feelings impacted on their thinking.

  • And did you notice any kind of patterns in where anxiety about having children was focused

  • around the globe?

  • Yes. And because climate change is not impacting equally across the globe, it's not surprising

  • that we can see variation by country. So for example, the Philippines 47%, were hesitant

  • to have children. Maybe unsurprising. Not surprising. Exactly. But it's very variable

  • by country, Nigeria, only 23% were hesitant to have children. If we look at India, it

  • is 41%. So it's not an exact correlation with the way that climate change is impacting on

  • the country.

  • So you're not surprised that we got a question from a young lady Philine asking whether it

  • was the right thing to do for her to have children that doesn't presumably surprise

  • you.

  • It doesn't surprise me at all, because I've been hearing this from young people for many

  • years. So I've got young people coming to me for therapy, talking about this. I've got

  • adults, young adults coming for therapy and couples and singularly saying, We don't know

  • whether we should have children or not. Because we're concerned about the climate. We also

  • want children, and we don't know how to deal with this dilemma. So I think that's the most

  • important thing is to always recognise that this is a dilemma. And there isn't a perfect

  • right and wrong answer to this question.

  • Well, bleak as those figures are, I think there's at least some comfort in knowing that

  • you're not alone Philine, in feeling conflicted by this dilemma, as Caroline puts it, and

  • actually perhaps those numbers are somewhat reassuring, in the sense that that's a lot

  • of young people who obviously care about the planet. They are after all her future custodians.

  • But what about Philine’s question on the climate, the impact of having a child for

  • that we're going to need some numbers, and I know just a man for the job.

  • I'm Mike Berners-Lee, I'm a professor at Lancaster University. I'm the author ofHow bad are

  • bananas? the carbon footprint of everythingandThere is no planet B’. I think some

  • people frame up the population growth as you know, the single issue that we need to face

  • if we want a sustainable world. It is an important part of the equation. But it's not the only

  • thing. 12 billion careful people could live really well and sustainably on this planet.

  • On the other hand, 1 billion careless people would trash the place in no time.

  • Can we get some numbers on the climate footprint of a child born, you know around now?

  • Well, I don't have the figures for Austria, but I do have some estimates for the UK, for

  • example, and I think that will be pretty similar. So if you make the basic assumption that a

  • child born in the UK will start off with a typical average UK person's carbon footprint

  • and then that that will fall in line with the way that a typical UK person's carbon

  • footprint is going to fall over time - assuming that the UK meets its carbon commitments to

  • be net zero by 2050. Then the carbon footprint of that child over its lifetime will come

  • out at something like 210 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent over its lifetime. Of course,

  • if it were to be born in average person and not cut its emissions, then it will come out,

  • maybe twice that or three times that are higher. And if you give birth to a child who ends

  • up not caring at all about climate change, either because you don't bring it up to care

  • about it, or it makes its own bad decisions, and it goes off to become both rich and careless,

  • then it could easily end up with a footprint of 5000 tonnes. On the other hand, if there

  • are any people in Malawi average typical Malawians listening to this, then their carbon footprint

  • per year at the moment is not 13 tonnes per year. It's about 0.2 tonnes per year. Although

  • another sort of dimension in the equation is that I hope going forwards that the economy

  • of Malawi will improve and the and the quality of life of Malawians and the life expectancy

  • of Malawians will improve. And of course, unless we're careful, that will also go with

  • somewhat increased carbon footprint.

  • So assuming Philine’s child is born, and lives in Austria, and assuming that an Austrians

  • carbon footprints roughly similar to a Brit, and assuming the global community sticks to

  • its climate goals of reducing carbon emissions to zero by 2050. And assuming, well, that's

  • a lot of assuming. More interesting for Philine I reckon, is where those 210 tonnes of carbon

  • equivalent actually come from, and where someone might actually be able to reduce their own

  • impact.

  • While the average person in the UK day to day their carbon footprints about 13 tonnes

  • a year. And about a quarter of that is the food that they eat. And I'm hoping that will

  • go down a lot as we come to eat less meat and dairy. That's the biggest thing in that.

  • And then a quarter is about the travel that we do and there's no getting around it, we're

  • going to need to reduce by quite a bit, the amount of flying we do. And then also in travel

  • is driving and we need to drive less, but also that will come down as we electrify our

  • vehicles that will help as well. And then the third quarter is our home energy. And

  • that will improve especially as our grid electricity decarbonizes and our homes improve. And then

  • the fourth quarter is everything else. And that specifically, that includes the stuff

  • that we buy. And we're going to get good at dematerialising, having less stuff, making

  • our stuff last longer, getting into the habit of having things repaired, buying secondhand,

  • all those things that are going to dematerialise the economy and help our carbon footprint.

  • So between all those things, we expecting the carbon footprint to come right down. And

  • actually the world will reach we hope, net zero by 2050.

  • You sound quite optimistic about the future. So you've got to think one of two things is

  • going to happen. Either humanity is going to get on top of the climate crisis, in which

  • case, if we're clever about it, you know, we can live better than ever before, we can

  • use this as an opportunity to improve our quality of lives. Like if we're smart about

  • how we do it as bit of habit changing, but you know what we can, it can be better than

  • ever. If we don't get on top of the climate crisis, let's just be very clear. Humanity

  • is heading for a very dark place. So am I hopeful? Well, I think, you know, if we push

  • hard, and we all try hard and encourage everybody else to be trying hard too, then there's no

  • reason why we can't do this.

  • You could argue that the easiest things for Philine to do if she does care about the future

  • of society and life on Earth is to just not have children. If a couple decide that they're

  • just not going to have kids for a mixture of lifestyle and environmental reasons, then

  • I think that is now regarded increasingly as a totally normal lifestyle choice that

  • people make. Whereas I think when I think the day when I was born, it was more often

  • seen as wellOh, dear, how sad for them’. I don't think it seemed like that anymore.

  • And that's, that's really, really good.

  • Agreed. And when you think about the numbers, a few people deciding not to have children,

  • especially in the carbon spewing Global North does seem like it could be an impactful and

  • noble cause. But it is such a tricky one because you never know whether these unborn people

  • would have gone on to become a persuasive environmentalist president or just a conscientious

  • person who grew up in a decarbonised world. Mike left me thinking that it certainly could

  • matter more how you raise a child than whether or not you do and this is actually something

  • that Philine and I had discussed.

  • Yeah, actually, I thought about that as well. Instead of not having children it’s maybe

  • my responsibility to have children and to raise them to be able to check make a change

  • someday and to educate them to the best of my ability. Make sure they listen to crowdscience.

  • Yeah, for sure. Yeah, no, exactly. Because the one thing you do have control over if

  • you have children, is how you try to raise them. You don't have control over who else

  • is going to have children, and they might not care about the environment, and they might

  • just be consumers. So in some ways, maybe you have more control over the future. By

  • having children. That could be true. And I think that's where it is really hard to predict.

  • Because sometimes parents really want their children to go a certain way, and they give

  • exactly the opposite. We don’t know what the hypothetical child would turn out to be

  • like.

  • Well, I'm afraid I can't help you there Philine although if I had to guess I'd say they'd

  • be in good hands. But like she said, it is hard to predict, like so many of the issues

  • raised in this episode. It’s not the complexity of the climate that's hard to predict. We've

  • got giant computers to crunch those numbers. It's people. If the US and Chinese leaders

  • don't make bold commitments at COP 26, let's face it, we're all stuffed, and it's the same

  • for Philine's unborn child. Could it go on to solve world hunger or set up a coal mine?

  • We don't know. But actually, those are questions about individuals. When it comes to people

  • more broadly, we can make predictions. What is demography and why is it important?

  • Okay, good question. Demography is an empirical science, databased science. We basically deal

  • with two aspects of a population. One aspect is what we call population dynamics, which

  • is a change, a main factor driver of the change direct driver of birth, death, and migration.

  • The other thing we have is what you call population statics, not statistics, that's statics. That

  • means in one point in time, what the size of a population means how many people are

  • there, and structure of a population, age and sex slash gender.

  • This is Professor Noriko Tsuya, a demographer from Keio University in Tokyo, Japan.

  • And my research has been focusing on especially fertility and family change in Japan and other

  • Asian countries and also other developed countries.

  • The reason I wanted to get in touch with Noriko is because for the past few decades, Japanese

  • women have been opting to have fewer and fewer children. In demography speak that is their

  • fertility rates been going down. And this has now caught up with them, meaning their

  • overall population is in decline.

  • Yes, it is declining, ever since 1975. We started having really population decline in

  • about 2010. More people are dying than people born. And we have very limited number of international

  • immigration. So we are set to keep losing more population. And meanwhile ageing.

  • Of course, everyone alive is technically ageing, but that's not what Noriko means here. She

  • means the population is ageing.

  • Ageing is an issue relative issue, proportion of elderly in total population is increasing.

  • Japan is probably the most aged society one of the most ageing society in the world, but

  • also absolute size started shrinking. And I'm afraid that is going to accelerate before

  • it settles.

  • Why would the government be unhappy about an ageing population?

  • Well, how can you maintain, for example, public pension system, almost everybody expects to

  • depend on it. And you have to support it somehow. And we have national health insurance scheme.

  • That's also very difficult because as you age, people get sicker, less healthy, and

  • they need more expensive health care. We have ageing workforce. And we used to have we still

  • have what you call seniority wage system. So as workforce get older, it's very difficult

  • to maintain profitability in the context of economic globalisation.

  • So with this smaller workforce, looking after a larger elderly section of society is basically

  • damaging the economy and society as a whole. It is. I mean, shall we say, heavier burden

  • to carry.

  • I told Noriko about Philine’s question to see if she thought there any progress But

  • the situation in Japan.

  • it's interesting that she's from Austria, because German speaking countries including

  • Austria, has low fertility alongside Italy and Spain and Portugal, Southern Europe. So

  • my recommendation is you have to make the woman and men want