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Questioning reproduction in the face of extinction is not fatalism, it is realism

While it is incredibly sad to see young people today questioning their decision to have a family in the face of an uncertain future, it is neither unjustified nor a result of pressure from so-called ‘climate fatalists’

The taboo subject of weighing up one’s family planning decisions amid evidence of the escalating climate and biodiversity crises is fortunately opening up in the media as of late. These emerging conversations highlight the concerning statistics surrounding the growing hesitancy for young people to have children due to environmental concerns.

While it is incredibly sad to see young people today questioning their decision to have a family in the face of an uncertain future, it is neither unjustified nor a result of pressure from so-called “climate fatalists”. In my experience of teaching students at third-level, this hesitancy comes from their engagement with scientific and societal evidence relating to where we are in terms of rising emissions, temperatures and extinction of species, and where we are headed for if our social systems are not urgently and dramatically transformed.

The environmental footprint of a child born today in a country such as Ireland can be up to 40 times the footprint of a child born in countries such as Sudan

This year, as part of their module assessment, I asked 250 students to reflect on how they see the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss impacting their future. Many identified the need for adaptation in light of their future vulnerability to more extreme and frequent weather events, to food and water shortages, to war, and the fallout of mass migration. Many also, to my surprise, noted their reluctance to have biological children for fear of what their future could look like.

This month saw a report published by Ian Fry, UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change, stating that 59.1 million people were internally displaced in 2021 across the world. Most of these people, he reported, were displaced by climate-related events. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, an annual average of 21.5 million people have been forcibly displaced by weather-related events, such as floods, storms, wildfires and extreme temperatures, since 2008. These numbers are expected to surge in coming decades with forecasts from international think-tank the Institute for Economics and Peace predicting that 1.2 billion people could be displaced globally by 2050 due to climate change and natural disasters.

Will we have to ration energy - and how would we do it?

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The current energy crisis shows little sign of easing, and the worst may be to come. Some have warned that, with Russian gas supplies in doubt, Europe could face energy rationing this coming winter. Jack Horgan-Jones looked into the issue and he tells Conor Pope how likely it is to happen here in Ireland and what plans there are to deal with it if it does.

The latest IPCC report published in April this year delivered a “now or never” warning that, despite ambitious international agreements, greenhouse gases continue to rise and the use of fossil fuels must now be urgently and dramatically reduced. Any further delay, it stated, will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of time to secure a liveable future. Following the release of the report, former UN high commissioner for human rights Mary Robinson shared in an interview her take on the latest warning — “anybody under 30 will live through, if they are able to survive, a catastrophic world”. The report stated that it was unlikely global warming could be restricted to 1.5 degrees, the threshold beyond which climate change is forecast to dangerously escalate.

When it comes to talking about potential climate breakdown and ecosystem collapse, a simple dichotomy of fatalists and optimists is a convenient yet false one

Concerns about having children are not solely limited to their future safety and survival but also extend to, for many, considerations around social and climate justice. The environmental footprint of a child born today in a country such as Ireland can be up to 40 times the footprint of a child born in countries such as Sudan, Bangladesh, Yemen or India. These countries emit a fraction of carbon per capita compared with Ireland yet are already witnessing increasingly regular and devastating climate-related events.

This year, Ireland’s Earth Overshoot Day was April 21st, nearly a week ahead of last year. This means that if all the people in the world lived how Irish people do in terms of the consumption of the Earth’s resources, April 21st is the day humanity would run out of nature’s resource budget for the entire year of 2022. The global overshoot date fell on July 29th last year, further demonstrating that Irish people consume more and live less sustainably per capita than the world average and this trend has been moving steadily in the wrong direction. Despite the best intentions of parents who raise their kids to enjoy plant-based diets, slow travel, second-hand toys and clothes, this gap remains and continues to widen as long as we measure our societal progress using GDP.

When it comes to talking about potential climate breakdown and ecosystem collapse, a simple dichotomy of fatalists and optimists is a convenient yet false one. In reality, a more nuanced outlook is taken by the majority of environmental activists whereby we choose to face reality, prevent the worst and build resilience for what we know is likely to come. While this position does not require shaming around reproduction or a loss of optimism that transformations are possible, it does require space to be open and honest about our fears for the future without judgment.

Only then, can we acknowledge what must be done to bend the curve on climate change and biodiversity loss while reducing inequality. Only then, can we begin informed and mature conversations about what aspects of our lifestyles, and the systems which reinforce them, we must let go of to secure a liveable future. Such conversations are essential if we wish to reimagine and build a better, fairer and more resilient world so that those alive and born today have some chance to survive, perhaps even thrive.

Sarah-Jane Cullinane is an assistant professor at Trinity Business School