China’s would-be parents and their climate concerns

Worries about climate change are affecting the family planning decisions of young Chinese
<p>Zhengzhou, a city of 13 million, saw almost as much rainfall over three days in July 2021 as it does in an average year (Image: Aly Song / Alamy)</p>

Zhengzhou, a city of 13 million, saw almost as much rainfall over three days in July 2021 as it does in an average year (Image: Aly Song / Alamy)

“If I have a child whom I love, yet at the same time the world keeps getting worse… I don’t know if I’d regret bringing the child into this world.”

– Zi Xuan, 26, unsure whether to have children

“The health of my parents’ generation was affected by industrial pollution and environmental damage. I chose to leave my hometown but… climate change is a global issue. When the nest is upset, no egg is left intact.”

– Chen Feng, 40, father of one

“[Climate change] will only make [raising children] harder. Reproductive choice depends on economics and security, but these are also affected by climate change.”

– Wang Qiang, 38, would like to have children

In recent years, the concept of reproductive climate concerns has gradually ignited public debate and attracted academic attention around the world. They fall under the umbrella of “eco-reproductive concerns”, along with issues such as ecosystem collapse, pollution, health and justice.

Reproductive climate concerns are being widely discussed not just in developed nations like the US, UK and Australia, but increasingly among young people in developing countries such as India, the Philippines and Brazil.

In 2021, a survey of over 10,000 young people in ten countries was conducted by universities and research institutes, including Bath and Stanford universities. The results show that the climate crisis is causing serious mental distress to young people, with 41% hesitant to have children.

We have also observed reproductive climate concerns gradually emerging among the younger Chinese. At the end of 2020, we used an online questionnaire to survey 173 people in China who were concerned or alarmed about climate change. Most of the respondents were urban residents and women between 21 and 35, the majority of whom had at least a bachelor’s degree, and one-fifth of whom were already parents.

Although the survey was targeted only at climate-concerned or -alarmed citizens, the study is the first to explore the multiple associations and influences between climate change and reproductive choice among young Chinese, and shed light on their perception, thoughts, and actions around climate change.

Multiple reproductive concerns about climate change

In January 2023, the China Meteorological Administration said that the climate in China during 2022 was clearly anomalous, with numerous extreme weather events. The temperature in summer reached a record high, but there were also frequent autumnal cold snaps. While total overall precipitation decreased nationally, torrential rainstorms were still common, leading to disastrous flooding in southern and north-eastern China. In summer 2021, the country had witnessed heavy rainstorms in Henan, while in 2022 a continuous heatwave swept over most of China, alongside extensive, historic drought in the Yangtze River Basin.

Climate change is and will increasingly exacerbate air pollution, disease outbreaks, drought, flooding, and the melting of glaciers, among other consequences. Reproductive climate concerns are based on people’s perceptions of and expectations for the future. Nearly 30% of respondents to our survey reported being “very concerned” or “extremely concerned” with the climate impacts their children or potential children might witness or experience. One-third (34.1%) said climate change was a “major factor” affecting their reproductive choices, while two-thirds (61.8%) said it was a “minor factor”. Only 3.4% said that climate change had “no impact at all” on their reproductive choices. Participants were more concerned about the potential future impacts of climate change on their children than about the impact of having children on the environment.

The objects of young Chinese people’s reproductive climate concerns can be put into three main categories: degradation of future living environments; threat to physical and mental health; and indirect social, political and economic consequences.

Firstly, they worry that ecological and climatic changes will render the world increasingly unhabitable for their children. One 23-year-old graduate student said: “Extreme weather will become even more common, and [I] don’t want my children living in a world of heatwaves, or bitter cold, or days without the sun.” While a respondent from Shanghai said: “There must be a way to mitigate the carbon footprint of giving birth and raising a child, and this should be constantly explored. But in the future my children will have to face huge climate crises and environmental changes, and I worry if they’ll be able to adapt to such a society, or avoid diseases caused by pollution.”

People walk on the exposed banks due to low water levels caused by drought, along the Yangtze River.
The exposed bed of the Yangtze River in Wuhan during the record-breaking summer heatwave in 2022, (Image: Ren Yong / Alamy)

Regarding the effects of climate change on physical and mental health, many respondents mentioned the personal impact of pollution on themselves and their parents. Chen Feng, 40, from Chengdu said: “Actually, the health of my parents’ generation was affected by industrial pollution and environmental damage. I chose to leave my hometown but, while local environmental problems can be avoided by relocating, climate change is a global issue. When the nest is upset, no egg is left intact.”

For many respondents, environmental pollution is either a current problem or a recent memory. So the ecological or environmental degradation that might accompany climate change fills them with fear and anxiety for their children’s prospects. When considering the world his own potential child would live in, Zhang Yong, a civil servant from Guangdong, is worried about “the impact of rising temperatures on the ecological environment, as well as ecological imbalance and a succession of novel diseases.”

Some respondents also worried that climate change could create or worsen social and political crises. Zilong, a 31-year-old consultant and father, wrote: “The indirect impacts of climate change, such as on biodiversity or food security, could well trigger inter-state conflicts. My child’s generation is likely to be affected.” A university student from Beijing believes that in a future of climate change “international, geopolitical conflicts will become increasingly intense, with diseases and resource scarcity caused by the environmental crisis possibly becoming the core of conflicts.”

Taken together, respondents show concern that climate change will directly or indirectly affect every facet of both natural and social environments, becoming a factor that cannot be overlooked when raising children.

Some respondents said that, in the face of multiple health, ecological and social crises, it would be difficult to bring children into the world responsibly. Zi Xuan, 26, said: “If I have a child whom I love, yet at the same time the world keeps getting worse… I don’t know if I’d regret bringing that child into this world.”

Ziyu, 27, works in impact investment and said: “Children may complete your life, but that’s your life. What about your children’s? Perhaps we should reconsider having children, if our legacy to them is one of conflict, disasters, disease, and manifold unknown threats and risks to society. Especially if someone like myself, who cares about climate change and even works in the field, cannot lead by example and contribute to reducing emissions. Then how much hope is there for the world?”

Picturing 2050

Climate change scenarios over the next few decades are closely linked to national plans for emissions reduction and adaptation measures, but the prevailing global situation is grim. Current worldwide government plans to reduce emissions will lead to average global temperatures rising by 2.4C to 2.6C, far above the “safe” limit of 1.5C agreed in Paris seven years ago, according to estimates by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The survey asked an open-ended question to gauge respondents’ expectations for the future: “What do you think the world will be like in 2050?” Out of 138 valid responses collected in 2020, 28.3% were positive, 22.5% mixed or neutral, and 49.3% predominantly negative.

Many of the positive replies mentioned technological development, policy changes, and increased public environmental awareness. A disease control and quarantine worker from Yunnan wrote that “with the swiftly developing economy, everything can be automated. Society is highly cultured, with everyone possessing at least basic awareness of environmental protection. There are more built environments than natural ones.” Mixed or neutral replies contained both positive and negative elements. A 31-year-old consultant from Shenzhen said that “less developed cities have pollution and waste problems, while developed cities are already transitioning to clean energy as they enter a phase of green growth.”

Among the negative descriptions, Chen Yanping, a 38-year-old consultant from Shanghai, describes his cyberpunk vision of the future: “Science and technology is pretty advanced but the wealth gap is increasing. Problems caused by aging populations are even more pressing, all while global governance is unstable and there’s rapacious plundering of natural resources. Pollution is serious, artificial protection measures are widespread, mass extinctions events are growing.”

Emma, a 27-year-old investor, described the potential social upheaval that could occur in a crisis: “Climate change ought to be the main global concern in 2050. I think the world’s population will have already decreased a lot by then, and economies will be severely affected by the growing number of people fleeing disasters and climate change. I always imagine the world will already be burning by then, and there’ll be a huge change in society and lifestyle. People’s attention will be forced away from mobile phones and social media and onto real society.”

What actions can an individual take?

Climate change is not the principal factor influencing young Chinese people’s reproductive choices. Over half the respondents cited childcare time, resources, and family income in determining whether and how many children to have. Only 22% cited environmental pollution, and 15.6% cited climate change.

However, climate change’s impact on social, economic and health factors might indirectly influence reproductive considerations. A 35-year-old human resources manager in Shanghai commented: “I feel that instead of saying ‘choice’, we can go one step further and ask whether climate change fundamentally impacts fertility. Living in Shanghai, I have an irregular work schedule, insufficient exercise, and too much pressure which, alongside environmental problems and late marriage, can all lead to fertility problems.”

In other words, between climate change and reproductive choice, there are multiple interconnected factors which influence each other, and these are likely to grow over time. Yun Xi, a 28-year-old sustainable development consultant said: “I’d say environmental factors certainly affect me. My current attitude [to having children] is to ‘wait and see’, though I have an uneasy feeling that either our generation or the next will see the whole world get cancer. I don’t want to leave such a planet for my children, nor leave so many children for the planet.”

At the same time, reproductive choice itself might influence people’s actions towards environmental issues and climate change. “When you have a baby, you definitely think about the next generation. I hope that through the efforts of this generation, we’ll be able to at least maintain things as they are now, and not let them deteriorate,” wrote a 29-year-old entrepreneur.

Despite the fact that climate change figures in the reproductive concerns of many, very few respondents believed that having fewer or no children is effective in tackling climate change. The majority believed that, compared with actions on an individual level, those of countries and corporations have a greater impact on climate, and thus they should be bearing responsibility for tackling climate change. As stated by a 22-year-old university student: “For a child born into a moderate family, the environmental burden of childrearing is negligible when compared with big business or macro policies.” When asked who should bear the greatest responsibility for addressing climate change, over 60% of respondents ranked “government” first, and over 40% ranked “business” second. Only 15% and 12% ranked “individuals” first and second respectively.

Of the three climate actions considered most effective at the individual level, almost half of respondents chose recycling and reducing waste. Fewer than one-third chose purchasing products with a smaller carbon footprint, or making dietary adjustments, while around one-fifth chose promoting sustainable development through their own efforts, or by using energy-efficient appliances. By comparison, only 3.4% selected having a smaller family.

While government and business are widely believed to bear most of the responsibility for addressing climate change, young people have not given up on individual initiative. In the face of huge uncertainties brought about by climate change, and the resultant reproductive concerns, they are seeking change through their lifestyles, consumption habits, and even their careers. They are exploring what it means to live sustainably, and what different futures could be possible. In the Anthropocene, how top-down systemic change and bottom-up individual action can work in tandem to mitigate and adapt to climate change is an important subject to which our responses will directly impact the next generation’s survival and wellbeing.

Note: The names of study participants are pseudonyms