The Effects of Global Warming on Fertility and Motherhood
As the devastating bushfires continue to ravage Australia, the urgent issue of global warming is once again at the forefront of the news and public conversation. Climate change should be a talking point amongst the presidential candidates in the 2020 election, as this is a problem that affects not only Americans but every person living on the planet. Often, when the topic of global warming comes up, it can skew towards asking what the impact of devastating climate change will mean for future generations. But could global warming prevent future generations from even existing?
A 2018 study out of UCLA found that the ongoing effects of climate change (including warming temperatures) are having a negative effect on fertility, as well as birth rates. According to the research conducted by environmental economist Alan Barreca, the pattern of low birth rates as a result of rising temps “is likely due to heat’s effect on male fertility: Studies show that sperm production falls in hot weather.”
Barreca also projected that climate change will cause more births to happen between the spring and summer months, which will have an effect on prenatal health.
The report notes, “Women who give birth in August or September will be exposed to considerably more hot weather during their third trimester, and studies have suggested that hot weather during the third trimester of a pregnancy negatively affects fetal health, as measured by birth weight.”
“Climate Anxiety” and the Concerns of Bringing Life into the World
So what, exactly, does this mean for the future of humanity? And how are women taking this research into consideration? “Now, perhaps more than ever, women of child-bearing age are smartly thinking about what it means to bring a child into our world,” says child and adolescent psychiatrist, Dr. Jillan Sackett of the Climate Psychiatry Alliance.
The statistics are there to prove it, points out psychiatrist and founding member of the Climate Psychiatry Alliance, Dr. Elizabeth Haase. “The number of people who are anxious about climate change has increased dramatically in the last five years.”
In fact, a recent survey from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication uncovered that nearly six in ten Americans (58 percent of the population) are “alarmed” about the effects of global warming, with those numbers tripling from 2014.
“People are able to visualize the impacts on the planet clearly now, where before it was too abstract, too distant in time and space for many to imagine,” Dr. Haase says, adding that seeing things like the harrowing images of species and ecosystems being destroyed right before our very eyes can have a major impact.
These images, she says, “help people experience more viscerally that the childhood world that they experienced has been changed and their children’s future will not be the same as their own.” Because you want to give a child the gift of life, Haase says a major part of that is protecting their ability to enjoy it. “If you cannot provide a healthy planet for your child, then you cannot take care of them.”
Asking the Big Questions in the Midst of an Environmental Crisis
There’s another aspect of global warming and the consideration of getting pregnant in the midst of the crisis, explains Dr. Susan Clayton, a professor of Psychology and Environmental Studies at the College of Wooster. “The guilt about contributing to the overconsumption of environmental resources by having children.”
These considerations are actually quite important, Dr. Sackett says. “The question of having a child cannot be simply what the woman wants…or what her instincts tell her, but has to be leveled with, ‘What kind of future will my potential child have?’”
Sackett says while the world has always been something of an “uncertain” place, during this particular and potentially irreversible crisis, when it comes to making the decision to have a baby, you should be “fully equipped with the reality of the state of our world and the suffering that is likely coming for us all.”
Some people have already seriously taken this factor into consideration, as younger generations have signed the No Future, No Children pledge, which states that they will not have children until world governments make the changes necessary to provide a safe future.
Having a Baby During the Climate Change Crisis
Of course, even with the ever-evolving landscape of the planet, women will continue to have children, whether by choice and/or other determining factors. (As the UCLA study points out, “In regions with higher poverty rates and less access to education and birth control—and without equal rights for women—birth rates tend to be higher.”)
“Children will continue to be born, so don’t let the responsibility for saving the planet fall on your own decision to have them, or not to have them,” says Dr. Clayton.
The common thread of fear and concern, particularly with those who have children or those who may have children in the future, may actually unite and, hopefully, make positive changes. Dr. Haase says that you can, and should, align yourself with communities fighting for change and work towards a “collective action [that] can transform our reality.”
It’s important to keep the certainty and uncertainty in your thought process, Dr. Haase says, adding “Attending to the science but also realizing that all systems are in flux.”
How You, and Your Children, Can Help Make a Difference
Keep in mind the decision to have, or not have, children isn’t the only factor here. “How to raise children (and how many to have) is also important,” says Dr. Clayton.
“If you want to have children, think about ways to minimize their environmental footprint. Try to raise children who are sensitive to environmental concerns, teaching them to restrict their environmental resources, and involving them in efforts to protect the planet,” she says.
Dr. Haase echoes this sentiment, noting that families can participate in planet-nurturing skills such as gardening and soil cultivation.
For those who are already parents, these concerns are just as prevalent. Dr. Sackett, a mother of three herself, says, “I think about the small fortunes they have now, from running hot water to air conditioning to food from a store all packaged and ready…how ‘lucky’ we all are in this moment.”
She wonders how her children, and all the other children in the world, will be able to survive without what they’ve known. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers or solutions here. “People will continue to have to grapple with the complexities of climate change,” says Dr. Haase, “They will alternate between hope and hopelessness.”
Author Bio Aly Semigran is a Philadelphia-based writer whose work has been featured in Well + Good, Amy Poehler's Smart Girls, Bustle, Refinery29, InStyle, and more. In addition to writing about women's health, she spends her free time with her dog at the park, going to the movies, swimming (weather permitting), and reading everything she can get her hands on.