In 2018, after a grim Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, my daughter Grace decided not to have children. For my daughter Sophia, it was a climate ecology college course that pushed her over the edge. “We spent the first half of the semester on all the horrible things that will happen if we reach 2 degrees Celsius warming,” she said, “and the second half was about how the planet is definitely going to warm more than that.”
When I gave birth to these girls twenty-some years ago, concern about climate change was a whisper. Now it is a scream. My daughters not only say, “I am not going to have children,” they say, “Why did you even have us?” I work for an energy policy organization, and I see the data. The latest IPCC report includes a new section on the specific risks pregnant people and fetuses face, underscoring socioeconomic and racial disparities. I imagine the devastating heat waves, the wars over water, the future a hellscape akin to Mad Max movies.
And yet, there is hope in the air.
Over the past year, even as the U.S. birth rate fell to record lows, a dozen babies have been born to my colleagues and heroes in the Minnesota climate movement. I set out to ask a few of these new moms: what gives you the faith to bring a child into the world when the future looks so bleak?
“I get that people are scared, and it is scary,” Ph.D. scientist Margaret Cherne-Hendrick says. Cherne-Hendrick is strategy lead of energy transition at Fresh Energy and new parent of daughter Thea. She believes we can turn the tide on climate change, and to forgo parenthood would be giving up on the future. “It is time to lean into the work and not step back,” she says. “We have to keep pushing, and it will be a multi- generational effort.”
Mine was not the first question Cherne-Hendrick has fielded about the connection between her career and parenthood. A doctor chose a post-birth check-up to ask her how she could justify bringing a child into the world given her area of work. It is a terrible thing to ask someone in a hospital bed, Cherne- Hendrick says, but her answer is clear.
For Nicole Rom, who recently left Climate Generation after 15 years as executive director, motherhood was a hard-fought goal. Without a partner as her fortieth birthday neared, she decided to become a single mother and underwent years of fertility treatments. “I really wanted to experience pregnancy and motherhood. It is such a beautiful aspect of life,” says Rom, who gave birth to her daughter Auden last year.
While there are days when she contemplates Auden’s future as an 80-year-old in 2100, Rom is persistent in her optimism. She has witnessed decades of dialogue about overpopulation, but she is unapologetic about adding another human to the planet. Rom says we can choose to live in a way that reduces our carbon impact, and “it is the bigger systems that we need to work against and try to change.”
When I asked Janiece Watts about her decision to have her son Rossie, born this spring, she described her younger self in a way that reminded me of my daughters. “There was definitely a point in time when I felt, how can I raise a kid knowing that there is so much harm and hurt they may experience through climate change and social injustice?”
While many women have always known they wanted to have children, it took Watts some time to overcome her concerns. Building her career in energy and environmental justice has made her more optimistic, which led to her decision to have a child. She knows about the issues and knows she is doing her part. “And,” she adds, “I know we will raise an environmentally conscious kid.”
The climate leaders I spoke with do not pretend that the future will be without challenges. Professionally, they are spurring policy change and organizing around environmental justice. At home, they are preparing to raise their children in a society grappling with grief and change. Rom is ordering picture books to help Auden learn about climate change before she hears it on the news. Cherne-Hendrick’s daughter will soon be playing in a toy electric car.
As I talked to individual leaders, I discovered a national female-centered climate movement that combines clear-eyed realism with heart-centered collective action. The organization Science Moms demystifies climate data and supports parents eager to engage. “All We Can Save,” a bestselling collection of writings by women leaders in the environmental movement, confronts staggering losses while illuminating a diversity of solutions.
My daughters have heard the alarms sounding on climate change, and they are afraid. But what I have learned makes me think they might someday be open to holding multiple truths — to know the future is dire yet feel enough optimism to, if they want, welcome a child into the world.