The United States saw its slowest population growth ever in 2021. Meanwhile, global birth rates continue to drop, declining by 1.15% from 2022 to 2023. Both of these trends present a significant challenge to expanding economic opportunity while addressing threats like climate change. As more potential parents opt to go childless due to fears of climate change, it’s important to clearly communicate that having fewer kids would hurt — not help — the climate.
There are many factors behind the declining birth rate, including the rising cost of living and changing societal norms, but climate anxiety has become increasingly prevalent. One survey of adult parents across the world showed that 53 percent considered climate change in their decision to have more kids. Another survey of young people worldwide found that nearly 4 in 10 were “hesitant to have children” due to fears of climate change.
These concerns stem from an oft-cited analysis from 2008 which claims that having just one child in the U.S. would add 9,441 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the planet. These fears are understandable but misguided. The decision to have fewer children will actually handicap sustainability efforts in the future. Young people need to know that it’s not only okay to have children in a changing climate — it’s necessary to address it.
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While some thinkers like Thomas Malthus, the patron saint of degrowth, argue that a population decline is a good thing for the environment, quite the opposite is true. A robust and growing population breeds innovation, which is necessary for a cleaner and more prosperous society. Our ability to generate new ideas hinges on the number of people researching them. If the population decreases, so too does research and development and our pool of innovative thinkers. Unless we continue to have children, we could end up with an “Empty Planet” scenario: a situation in which total knowledge and living standards deteriorate due to a falling global population.
Throughout history Malthusian thinking — which posits that, if left unchecked, population growth would outstrip food supply and cause famine, war, and other disasters — has been proven wrong. Thanks to innovation, the world is supporting the largest population in history with abundant food supplies. We’ve already reached peak agricultural land usage, as gains in crop productivity have enabled billions to forgo subsistence farming and move to cities. Roughly 56 percent of humanity lives in cities, a number that is projected to increase to 68 percent by 2050 and 85 percent by 2100. As this happens, more land will be freed up to revert back to nature.
The world will need a healthy workforce to build the infrastructure and facilities necessary to lower emissions and ensure domestic energy security. Yet the U.S. labor force grows older every year: Between 2000 and 2022, the median age in the U.S. increased by 3.4 years, while the share of working-age people (ages 15–64) in the U.S. population decreased from 67.3 percent in 2007 to 64.9 percent in 2021. And we’re only getting started.
A study published by the Centre for Economic Policy Research argues that the greatest consequence of population decline is that it will raise the “dependency ratio” — the proportion of the population not in the labor force relative to the working population. As the dependency ratio rises and the labor force shrinks, the study predicts that there will be a shift away from efficient labor-based production towards more resource-intensive methods
Using 65 years and above to define old-age dependency, and under 15 to define youth dependency, the current dependency ratio in the U.S. is 54 percent, with youth dependency at 28 percent and old-age dependency at 26 percent. Right now, for every 100 working-age adults in the U.S, there are roughly 54 dependents supported by them. The Census Bureau forecasts that the dependency ratio will rise to 76 percent by 2060, with youth dependency at 35 percent and old-age dependency at 41 percent. Just over half of the population in 2060 — 57 percent — will provide for everyone else.
If we think our economy is in a perilous position now as we recover from COVID-19 and global supply shocks, try to imagine weathering a pandemic or conflict when retirees are supported by less than a quarter of the population. Try to imagine organizing climate action when Social Security becomes insolvent and welfare programs dry up because the workforce is too small to support them.
We will face the resource scarcity problem Malthus warned of, but it won’t be caused by overpopulation: A rising dependency ratio will make technological solutions far more costly to produce. While higher education costs combined with a dwindling labor force will increase the price of educated labor and decrease the number of minds we need to develop innovative technologies.
In addition to passing policies that make it easier to have and raise children, political leaders should convey the relationship between a declining birth rate and our ability to combat climate change. Young Americans may not want to have children for personal reasons, but if their decision to go childless is driven by fears of climate change, society and our leaders should urge them to strongly reconsider.
Benjamin Khoshbin is a Contributor for Young Voices, where he writes on energy and environmental issues. He is also a Senior Account Executive at ROKK Solutions, a bipartisan public affairs firm in Washington, D.C.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are Benjamin’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of ROKK Solutions or its clients.