Should we reconsider having children due to fears about the climate crisis?

Record-breaking heat, rising sea levels, increasingly extreme weather and more are fueled by the human-made climate crisis.

It doesn’t feel like a great time to be raising children, or having them in the first place. But maybe it still is, if we can counter fear with knowledge and hope.

I chatted with Bill Weir, CNN’s Chief Climate Correspondent and host of the CNN Original Series “The Wonder List with Bill Weir,” about these topics, and about his new book, “Life As We Know It (Can Be): Stories of People, Climate, and Hope in a Changing World,” written as an open letter to his own kids.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

David Allan: Are you fundamentally an optimistic or pessimistic person by nature?

Bill Weir: It depends on the day. I find that covering this beat, my mood is directly proportional to what I’m focused on. Some days it is a firehose of peer-reviewed dread and just more signs of how many ways humanity is wrecking the planet.

But the days when I focus on the problem solvers, the dreamers, the doers, the folks who know that there’s a better future, (those days) heal the soul.

When I actually sat down to write this book, we were in a very dark place nationally. And I found enough positive stories, I saw enough momentum going the right way, that most days I wake up now with more wonder than worry.

The fight has just begun, and so much can be saved. And so much is worth saving. That’s the ethic I’m trying to pass down to my kids: to be clear-eyed about the challenges, but full of courage and hope for the solutions.

Allan: On one hand, you wrote “The United States of America I knew and loved is gone … eaten from the inside by metastasized lies fed to furious people in forgotten places.” On the other hand, you intentionally had a child in the last few years. What would you say to someone who feels conflicted about having a baby right now?

Weir: I would say we need all the good help we can get. And if you believe that your child is going to be a net positive for humanity, go for it. I think our basic purpose in life is to procreate. Nature wants replication and hopefully improvement for the next generation.

It’s a very first-world problem to think about whether or not you have children. It’s tough for people, and I totally understand the psychology around this sort of thing, because we haven’t really come to grips with the mental stress of climate change. We haven’t processed through the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) as they pertain to the climate to realize what we’ve lost. And we have to reach acceptance to what we need to build in order to survive and thrive.

There are family counselors who deal with parents who are in the grips of this grief. They still want to expand their family (but) are so worried about what the future might bring. I think that’s a valid concern, and there was a time when I completely understood where those folks were coming from. But I’m so glad my little boy is here. He gives me inspiration that I otherwise might not have. He gives me perspective. I think that I’m a believer that humans can be a net positive for the planet. And most people want to be, and it really comes down to the stories we tell ourselves.

Allan: Young people are worried about the climate. Some 84% of 10,000 people ages 16 to 25 years old across 10 countries were either moderately or extremely worried about climate change, according to a 2021 survey published in the Lancet Planet Health. More than 50% in the study said they felt sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless and guilty about it. And more than 45% said their feelings on the topic negatively affect their daily life and functioning. You cite a similar study in your book. What would you say to these teens and young adults? Or what do you say, because your daughter is in that age range, right?

Weir: She’s 20. Well, I say “sorry” to begin with. We’re sorry our intended and unintended consequences have scrambled their futures. They can’t take for granted the things that I took for granted – air, water, temperature, how you build shelter, how you grow food – they don’t have the luxury of ignoring those things.

My dad used to say to me, anytime I had problems, “Good thing you’re tough.” And so I feel like we have to raise a generation of resilient children and model for them what that looks like. We have to be constantly vigilant about unexpected, unnatural disasters. And we have to talk to each other in communities about these sorts of things.

I think a big reason for these spikes in climate anxiety in these polls are the result of us not talking about it. The result of adults not having honest conversations about what we’re losing, what’s worth saving, the decisions we have to make, because there are no easy decisions anymore. We have to do brutal math on what is worth saving and what is worth letting go. I think it’s only through these conversations we get through the five stages of climate grief and reach the end of that, which is acceptance.

Allan: I love this detail about the birth of your son, River, that he was conceived in a lighthouse during the pandemic. It’s the perfect metaphor, a beacon of light, of hope in the darkness. To carry that metaphor just a bit further, another feature of lighthouses is that they are built to withstand the worst of nature, and are often isolated to the point that they need to be self-sufficient. Are self-sufficiency and fortitude virtues you think parents need to put greater emphasis on now?

Weir: Yes, absolutely. My dad was a bit of a misanthrope who loved to be alone. And he raised me with that sense of John Muir romanticism about living in a cabin in the woods. But John Muir was using an ax that was made in a factory somewhere, by other people who didn’t have the luxury of going off the grid. We need everybody. We need all hands on deck together these days.

In terms of teaching resilience and independence, as a personality trait, I think that is vital. But I want my kids to be plugged into their communities, to be civically engaged, too. To know their power as citizens and conscious consumers. To be the kind of neighbor who makes everyone around them stronger, come what may.

Allan: I have two children myself, ages 12 and 16. And when I talk to them about the climate crisis, I find myself trying to spin it a bit, to counteract the doom with optimism of reversing the course that we’re on, of government action, scientific breakthroughs, stories of people making change. How do we find that balance in daily conversation with our kids of being honest, but not hopeless?

Weir: I’m trying to strike that balance all the time. The best advice I ever got for leading a climate beat in this part of my life came from Mr. Rogers, who famously said anytime he saw a scary event on television his mother told him to “look for the helpers;” there are always helpers rushing into the scene. And this book is dedicated to the helpers, not just the first responders that I meet in these disaster zones, but the countless folks living lives of quiet service and moving us in a more positive direction.

The helpers lift me up – the idea that the same frontal lobes that built the problem as we exploded as a species, can solve them once we come together. There’s so much that can be done. There’s so much that can be saved.

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