If they work hard, if they behave

Here’s a piece I chipped in to Village magazine during the summer on the hopes and fears that prospective new parents must navigate when considering taking on the awesome responsibility of bringing a new life into our climate-wracked, overheating world.

IN THE 2020s, as the darkening penumbra of climate collapse draws ever closer, it takes a remarkable leap of faith to decide to bring a new life into the world. After all, a child born this year or next will still be in their 20s by 2050, and, all other things being equal, expect to be alive to see in the 22nd century.

A new study of 5,000 parents in India, Mexico, Singapore, the United States and the UK found that more than half report that concerns about climate change are affecting their decision as to whether to have more children.

The research found surprisingly high levels of concern among these parents about climate change, with 91% reporting at least some degree of concern. Unsurprisingly, the single aspect causing most alarm is rising temperatures, while water shortages, extreme weather events and sea level rise were also cited as sources of concern.

In a letter to investors in 2021, investment giant Morgan Stanley described how the “movement to not have children owing to fears over climate change is growing and impacting fertility rates quicker than any preceding trend in the field of fertility decline.” People are, you might say, voting with their foetuses.

“Every child had a pretty good shot, to get at least as far as their old man got”, went the lyrics to Billy Joel’s ‘Allentown’, a dirge to the US rust belt and the despair of the abandoned working classes.

Choosing to become a parent is an act of faith in the future, broadly underpinned by the universal myth of progress, the belief that, despite setbacks and difficulties along the way, the future remains bright, and there for our children to inherit, “if they work hard, if they behave”, as Joel wrote.

In many respects, the promise of the future has indeed delivered. Who in 1980 could ever have imagined that one day we’d all have mobile phones, let alone the internet, on-demand video or digital music libraries that put millions of songs, all on an advanced computer that fits in your pocket.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, as the author and futurologist Arthur C. Clarke memorably put it. I am just about old enough to remember the absolute magic of seeing colour television for the first time. For other generations, the arrival of radio, the phonograph, the telephone, telegraph and the automobile were all in their own way miraculous.

A century and more of breath-taking technological progress has delivered the glittering baubles of modernity, but it has turned out to be the ultimate Faustian bargain, and now the devil, in the form of incipient climate and ecological collapse, is at our doorstep to demand his pound of flesh.

It’s a little over 20 years since I first became a parent. At the time, I was blissfully unaware of the dire condition of the biosphere. It was quite possible in the Ireland of the 1990s and into the early 2000s to not encounter anything on TV or in the papers around climate change, unless you were already aware of it and actively looking out for it.

Once my first child was born, I was now in a very real sense connected to the mid-to-late 21st century, an unknown country that previously had never cost me a thought. The future had arrived, and that rudimentary awareness in turn set me on the path that has come to dominate my life in ways that the 2002 version of me would have scarcely imagined.

As I write, there is a massive sea surface temperature anomaly covering the 40 million square kilometres of the North Atlantic, with temperatures to a depth of 20 metres a mind-boggling 1.3C above the 1982-2011 mean. Off the west and north-west coast of Ireland for much of June, what has been described as one of the most severe marine heatwaves anywhere on Earth has been occurring.

NOAA’s Marine Heatwave Watch has categorized this event as a Category 4 (extreme) marine heatwave. This provides the fuel for devastating storm systems and extreme flooding events, as witnessed in parts of Ireland with torrential downpours and so-called once-in-500-year flooding events.

The amount of energy required to heat a molecule of water is 10,000 times greater than the energy required to heat the same amount of air. To put this in context, last year, the world’s oceans heated up an amount equal to the energy of five of Hiroshima-sized bombs detonating underwater every second for 24 hours a day, every day. That’s the energy equivalent of around 160 million Hiroshimas accumulating in the oceans last year. The climate bomb is primed.

The bubble of climate complacency that has existed for many in the ‘developed’ world was popped with recent confirmation from the World Meteorological Organisation that Europe is now the fastest-warming continent. Yes, that’s where we live.

The summer of 2022 was Europe’s hottest in at least 500 years, and worse, much worse is to come. This is, quite literally, one hell of a world we are leaving for our children and theirs to inherit.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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