Fri. Apr 19th, 2024

Awareness of the climate crisis has generally been strongest in developed countries, but “climate anxiety” is now also leading some couples in other parts of the world to decide against having children.

Julia Borges’ worries about climate change intensified during the first months of the pandemic, when she and others were in isolation, alone with their thoughts.

“I started to picture my city and my university under water,” says the 23-year-old agriculture and engineering student from Recife, on Brazil’s north-eastern coast.

“I started to have anxiety crises, to the point of thinking about giving up on my own life, because I didn’t know how to deal with it all.”

Taking a course in climate leadership was little help – it only increased her feeling of responsibility for what was happening. She soon came to the conclusion that it wouldn’t be right to have a child.

“I cannot see myself as responsible for the life of another human being, for generating a new life that would become another burden to a planet that is so overloaded already,” Julia says.

In 2022 a team from Nottingham University asked adults in 11 countries whether anxiety or distress about climate change had made them think they should not have children, or had made them regret having them. The proportion saying that they did have such thoughts – sometimes, often or always – ranged from 27% in Japan to 74% in India. The study is due to be published next year.

An earlier study published in the Lancet, based on a 2021 survey of 10,000 people aged 16 to 25, found that more than 40% of respondents in Australia, Brazil, India and the Philippines said climate change made them hesitant about having children. In France, Portugal, the UK and the US the figure was between 30% and 40%. In Nigeria it was 23%.

And an analysis of 13 earlier studies carried out between 2012 and 2022, which was published this month by researchers from University College London, found that concerns about climate change were typically associated with a desire for fewer children.

Chart showing how climate anxiety has made people in 11 countries to question having children
This was usually because participants were concerned about the effect climate change might have on their children’s lives, or because they felt, like Julia, that more children would only add to pressure on the planet’s resources. However, in two studies in Zambia and Ethiopia researchers say the dominant view was that “smaller families are better positioned to support themselves during adverse environmental conditions”.

In 2019 the singer Miley Cyrus said she wouldn’t have children because of the state of the planet, and US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked on Instagram if it would be right to bring children into a world blighted by climate change. The same debate now seems to be happening in countries that are on the front line of the climate crisis.

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Julia’s concern about climate change only increased when in May 2022, Recife was hit by a storm that caused floods and landslides, leading to more than 120 deaths in the region.

“Just three days before those massive rains, I had given a lecture to children from a local NGO, on the topic of climate crisis. Right on the spot, as that was later the area most affected by the flooding,” she says. “That really affected me, in the sense of how can we think about children in the future if the children of the present are already in danger?”

Floods inundated parts of Recife in May 2022

Floods in Recife in May 2022 caused deadly landslides in parts of the city
Two other women in countries far from Brazil have also been strongly influenced by serious weather events they attribute to climate change.

Shristi Singh Shrestha, a Nepali animal rights campaigner, paid a visit this year to her family’s village, and was horrified to find people going hungry because of drought.

All their crops had dried up and they had failed to find water even after digging a 200ft well. Meanwhile, in a neighbouring district, a village had been swept away by floods.

Shristi Shrestha

Shristi Shrestha had sleepless nights after a visit to her family’s drought-hit village
Shristi, 40, had been concerned about climate change long before this. Eight years ago, she used to look at her sleeping newborn daughter and worry about the world she would inherit.

“Understanding how this world works, how climate change is changing lives for the worst, for animals and children – this realisation made me cry everyday. It was pretty horrible to me,” she says.

She vowed then not to have another child.

This new tragedy in the village – which led to young girls being married off by parents who couldn’t feed them – caused her to have sleepless nights, wracked by climate anxiety.

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What is climate anxiety?
By psychotherapist Caroline Hickman, University of Bath

Climate anxiety, or eco-anxiety, is the healthy distress that we feel when we look at what is happening in our changing world. We are facing personal and planetary threats from our rapidly changing climate. And it causes us to feel anxious and afraid for our own and our children’s futures.

It is not just anxiety, but also sadness, depression, grief, despair, anger, frustration, and confusion. We often have moments of hope or optimism, but this can be hard to hold on to as we are heading rapidly in the wrong direction and not taking sufficient steps to slow down the climate crisis.

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For 24-year-old Ayomide Olude, who works for a sustainability NGO in Nigeria, the experience of filming a documentary in a coastal fishing community last year strengthened her determination never to have a child.

Residents of Folu, 100km east of Lagos, showed her a pier that had been used in the past to have fun by the sea, almost all of which was already under water.

“During storm surges the flood water now reaches quite deep into the village, so people are now leaving their houses,” Ayomide says. “This was where there was a real-estate boom in the past but now you see abandoned houses and some parts of the village are already under water.”

Fishermen told her their job was now unsafe, because storms had become so intense.

Ayomide says she often hears young Nigerians discuss their anxieties in a “climate café” she runs in Ogun state, north of Lagos, a setting where people are encouraged to share what they know and feel about climate change. The experience in Folu sharpened her own concerns.

Ayomide Olude

Ayomide Olude says social pressure to have children is intense
Like Julia in Brazil, she faces pressure from society and her family to have children, but says nothing will persuade her to change her mind.

“In a society where women barely have the power to decide, and where there are religious beliefs that one should have kids, it takes considerable strength and determination to say this in public,” she says.

“My parents are upset, and we don’t talk about it much. I try not to think about it although I feel sad for them.”

Shristi, for her part, has to cope with relatives continually asking when she will have a second child.

But all three women say their partners support their decision.

University of Bath psychotherapist Caroline Hickman, the lead author of the 2021 Lancet study, argues that climate anxiety is a healthy response to the climate crisis.

She advises anyone experiencing it to make contact with others who feel the same way, and to collaborate with them on practical steps to address the crisis.

“These difficulties are not going away, so we need to learn how to face them.”

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Tips for coping
Be part of a community of like-minded people so you have people to share feelings and thoughts with.
Learn to regulate your emotions so you do not get overwhelmed (feeling too much) or shut down (feeling too little). Mindfulness and meditation can be helpful, but so is anything that helps to build emotional resilience.

Then there is a possibility to “re-frame” eco-anxiety into eco-care, eco-courage, eco-connection. We should not try to get rid of it, we only feel eco-anxiety because we care. We should feel proud that we care!
Caroline Hickman, University of Bath

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Julia has taken this path. She has helped map areas vulnerable to flooding and landslides, and works for a local NGO that educates people about the climate and the environment.

“What helped me release some of that anxiety was to become an agent of change and transformation in my community,” she says.

Nonetheless, her worries remain.

“I can still feel that despair, but I’ve been working on it with my therapist – and it helps to talk about it.”

By Joy

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