The birth rate in the United States has been falling for years, and it fell by 4% last year alone. It’s now the lowest it’s been since 1979. There has been a lot of speculation around why this is happening, and much of the focus has centered around the many economic reasons Americans may be choosing to delay having children, have fewer children or not have children at all.
Though the economics of this situation are clearly important, there may also be psychological reasons Americans are having fewer children. Psychologists have been studying what is referred to as “climate anxiety” for years now. It’s a kind of anxiety that is caused by a fear of the effects of climate change. Some psychologists believe climate change fears could be contributing to declining birth rates.
Susan Clayton, a professor of psychology and environmental studies at the College of Wooster in Ohio, says that climate anxiety can be quite debilitating.
“Some people are having nightmares, they find themselves crying, they say they have difficulty concentrating,” Clayton tells The News Station. “They’re having a powerful emotional response that might impair their ability to function.”
Climate change fears may be causing many people to reconsider having children, Clayton says. Many worry about how the effects of climate change could impact a future child. Others worry that having a child would have a negative impact on the environment or contribute to overpopulation.
Sabrina Helm, an associate professor in family and consumer sciences at the University of Arizona, published a study in the journal Population and Environment in March that focused on how climate change concerns are impacting family planning. Many of the young people she interviewed for her research felt “helpless and hopeless” when it comes to the topic of climate change, and that influenced how they were thinking about childbearing decisions.
“The climate change anxiety expressed among our study participants was fairly pronounced,” Helm tells The News Station. “The whole range of anxiety is there—all the way to suicidal ideation.”
Though some of the participants remained hopeful humans will be able to solve the climate change problem, many of the young people she interviewed felt they shouldn’t have kids or should have only one or two because of how unpredictable the future looks or because having kids might contribute to climate change.
“I found it interesting how many people said they still want to have children but not more than two,” Helm says. “Many felt, ‘As long as we only replace ourselves, that’s sort of OK. We can do that. That’s sort of my right.’”
Sarah Baillie, a population and sustainability organizer at the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, says she understands climate change very well and chose not to have kids partially because she didn’t want to contribute to increasing carbon emissions.
“Human population growth is kind of the underlying driver behind pretty much all of our environmental issues,” Baillie tells The News Station. “The more people there are, the more land, water, resources they need to survive.”
She would never tell someone not to have kids or how many kids is acceptable, Baillie says, but she feels not having kids is an important way she can help fight climate change in her own life. Her and her partner are both biologists, so she says climate change is something they think about a lot. She’s met many people through her work who are debating if they should have children or how many they should have because of climate change.
The U.S. needs to improve its mental health infrastructure, and mental and physical health specialists need to become more aware of how climate change fears might be impacting their patients, Clayton says. A lot of people are feeling anxiety and stress because they’re worried about climate change, and they might need help dealing with it.
“We’re not providing people with the skills of emotional resilience that they need,” Clayton says.
Whether couples are choosing not to have children or have fewer children because they’re worried about what the future might hold for those children or because they’re worried about the environmental impact of having children, it’s clear climate change is weighing on many people when they’re making family planning decisions. The economics of having children is daunting enough, and fear of an unpredictable and possibly dismal future further complicates these major life decisions.