16/10/2018 4:46 PM IST | Updated 31/01/2019 4:14 PM IST

Climate Change: A Scientist Explains Why It’s Not Radical To Say People Should Have Fewer Children

Everybody has a role to play in tackling global warming, says Seth Wynes, who co-wrote a paper last year on what individuals can do in the fight against climate change.

Jaimie Tuchman via Getty Images
The effects of global warming are already clearly visible in the world—extreme weather patterns, rising sea levels and melting arctic ice caps are all examples.

On 8 October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a special report that noted that the effects of global warming are already clearly visible in the world—extreme weather patterns, rising sea levels and melting arctic ice caps are all examples.

The report, which received global attention, said that "limiting global warming to 1.5º C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society".

It also said that only a dozen years remain for "global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5º C". Beyond that, the risks of droughts, floods, forest fires and other extreme weather events would significantly worsen.

Reading such reports can usually leave one with a sense of dejection—after all, how much can one person do? And then there are reports about government administrations around the world failing to limit greenhouse gas emissions and the repercussions of powerful nations like the US withdrawing from the Paris Agreement.

But there is hope—a study released last year had shown that individual action can, indeed, help combat climate change.

In July 2017, Seth Wynes of the University of British Columbia and Kimberly Nicholas of Sweden's Lund University published a paper which recommended certain actions that individuals could take to mitigate the impact of climate change—having fewer children was the most impactful. The others were simpler, like living without a car, avoiding air travel and eating a plant-based diet.

At the time of its publication, the paper was seen as being radical for emphasising seemingly simple steps that individuals could take at a personal or household level.

The University of British Columbia
Seth Wynes

More than a year on, this writer spoke to Wynes, co-author of the paper, about whether his views have changed since the time the paper was published.

What made you suggest individual-level actions to combat climate change?

I worked as a high school science teacher before I started this research and so I had many opportunities to speak with students about climate change. Students want to know how their learning impacts their lives, and my students also wanted to know what they could do about climate change. Unfortunately, I didn't have a very clear list of the most important actions they could take, so part of this research was driven by that question. If we're going to be talking to students about how they can participate in solving this problem, it was important to me that we provide information that is based on sound evidence.

When the paper was published, it caused quite a stir, both for suggesting that people should have fewer children and also for its individual-driven recommendations to deal with climate change. Do you think the suggestions you put forth were radical?

I don't think most of these suggestions are very radical in the scientific community. Climate researchers already understood that personal transportation—both flying and driving cars—as well as meat consumption contribute substantially to climate change. In terms of choices regarding family size, scientists also understand that population is a driver of climate change, but not all scientists think that it should be addressed either because it's too controversial or because it takes us away from focusing on changing levels of consumption.

We think government documents titled, "Top 10 Things You Can Do to Help" should actually contain the top ten things an individual can do for the climate.

I think a lot of the greater controversy comes from people assuming that our paper says things that it doesn't say. We don't demand policy change, but we do suggest that education should line up with science. We think government documents titled, "Top 10 Things You Can Do to Help" should actually contain the top ten things an individual can do for the climate. So in that way, it wasn't terribly radical.

I'm glad you clarified the 'we don't demand policy change' part. This adds context to the fact that your paper merely offers suggestions to those who are willing to make some changes in their personal lives. And this is what distinguishes the tone of the paper from the Chinese Communist Party's one-child policy. Any further thoughts on this?

I think you've summed it up. Our results are not policy prescriptive. As we noted in a reply to a recent comment on our paper: "This relates to a final suggestion from Laycock and Lam, who recommend that communicators recognize the extent to which they understand family planning to be a human right. We do not by any means wish for our results to be used as justification to infringe on anyone's rights to family planning (a right specified in the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by all nations, as we noted in our reply to van Busshuysen and Branstedt (Wynes and Nicholas 2018))".

Now, a year on, have the thoughts you expressed in the paper undergone any changes?

Great question. I've learned a lot since writing the paper, but if anything, I have just seen more evidence build up regarding the importance of addressing these high-impact actions. I think that any changes I would make would be to how we communicate over these issues. I would emphasize even more clearly that in terms of choices regarding family size, I believe that the climate impact of choosing to have an additional child is just one of many things that parents might choose to think about when making this decision. We wanted this information to be available and to be comparable to other actions. What is more important than addressing population is to find ways to live healthy, fulfilling lives that result in low levels of carbon so that our children can enjoy the planet the same way that we have.

The UN Climate Conference is coming up this December. One of its most important tasks at the conference will be "to work out and adopt a package of decisions ensuring the full implementation of the Paris Agreement". But the United States recently pulled out of the Paris Agreement and this has far-reaching repercussions. What are your views on globally-structured efforts at combating climate change and how they seem rather delicate, considering how dynamic the world of policy is today?

International climate negotiations are complicated to understand and I would not want to speak beyond my own expertise. Because climate change is such a difficult and far-reaching problem, I believe it will require decisive action from nations, institutions and individual members of society if humanity is to avoid dangerous levels of planetary warming. Everyone has a role to play.

I think a large percentage of the global population would agree with your statement that international climate negotiations are too complex to understand; no wonder most of us feel a need to work at the community or household levels to do our bit for the environment. What's next for you on your agenda to allow individuals to act on climate change by providing simple, high-impact suggestions?

There's a growing field of research on ways to "nudge" people into more sustainable behaviours. Examples of this include giving households better information on their own energy usage compared to their neighbours, or finding ways to increase recycling rates by making public recycling more visible, accessible and straightforward to use. But we know less about nudging people in domains like diet or air travel—which is something I'd like to explore.