The problem of climate change raises some important philosophical questions, to which I propose a radical solution. Basically, what I suggest is introducing policies to discourage having children, from the consideration that, simply put, non-existing people cannot affect the climate. The idea that being alive is a priori something positive (or negative) must be bracketed, so that the issue may properly be analyzed, especially in the context of the question of a possibly inhabitable world. I do not presume my solution to be complete or to aspire to present an account that will be universally accepted, but even a provoked reflection on the issue would serve the purpose of this short inquiry, since it may aid in reconsidering present ideas and policies.
I do not intend to discuss the issue to what extent human behavior significantly negatively influences the climate, as this is a scientific rather than a philosophical matter. From a philosophical perspective an interesting issue to inquire, presuming that such an influence, leading to climate change, is apparent, is rather what measures one is willing to accept to combat it.
Solving the problem of climate change (in the long run) may be realized by halting the procreation of human beings. Animals would still exist; the absence of human beings is something positive for them, unless someone were to invent something which reverses the effects of climate change (such as habitat destruction) and improves their lives. Whether the propagation of the human species as such is something positive or not is exceedingly difficult to answer. To be sure, certain religions consider procreating to be a human duty, but one need not accept any of those as true, and may prefer an alternative worldview, which does not include such a duty. Perhaps human beings are not even fit to tackle this issue, arguably being unable to judge it objectively. Supposing, then, that the procreation of people will continue, how is the problem to be solved?
An alternative to piecemeal approaches
Measures aimed at reducing greenhouse gases by nudging individuals (and corporations) may have a positive effect, but if their behavior is not climate neutral, this merely means that their climate footprint is not as great as it would otherwise have been, and not that they do not contribute to climate change. Consequently, as long as the number of people increases, the problem is, in these circumstances, not solved but merely – at best – mitigated. An increase in the population is also a problem as long as one cannot exclusively make use of renewable energy.
Significantly reducing the size of the global population appears to provide a solution to both problems. People who do not exist cannot, after all, contribute to climate change. One option is to let (only) those who create the problem pay for its solution. One could determine the expected annual emission of greenhouse gases per person, assuming an average life expectancy, and calculate the costs involved in compensating them by, e.g., installing (extra) solar panels. Those (expected) costs could then be paid by the parents of each new person annually over the first eighteen years of that person’s life by dividing the total costs by eighteen. Should the child die before reaching the age of eighteen, part of the sum already paid could be reimbursed.
It would probably be impossible to realize precision and there are also several practical difficulties (what should be done, for example, if a child has been born whose parents cannot afford to pay the compensation?), but what I have wanted to address is just the general principle. The child itself would not have to compensate; it would only have to do so in case it should itself – in time – procreate. Child benefits should, in addition, be canceled, contrary to recent developments in, inter alia, the U.S.A., Italy and Hungary. A transition period could exist once the policy has been adopted, since it would be undesirable to confront those who are already pregnant with costs they could not reasonably have expected.
In case this is deemed to attest to too harsh a stance, it is important to consider the basic issue of whether it is justified to introduce measures to reduce the number of people in an already overpopulated world, especially if climate change leads to additional suffering. One need not agree with Benatar, but his perspective must at least be taken seriously: “It is curious that while good people go to great lengths to spare their children from suffering, few of them seem to notice that the one (and only) guaranteed way to prevent all the suffering of their children is not to bring those children into existence in the first place.” (David Benatar, Better never to have been (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006, p. 6)).
Benatar argues, from the consideration that never coming into existence is not bad but coming into existence is something bad, that non-existence is preferable to existence (e.g., Benatar 2006, p. 44, 58), which raises the question why new people should be created at all. Those who question whether this planet will be habitable for future generations presuppose that such generations will exist. They will not, however, simply drop from the sky but will be the product of individuals’ decisions to produce them, which those individuals are under no obligation to do; in the case of a non-intentional conception, the pregnancy could be terminated prematurely. If they are not brought into existence, they may be said to be deprived of what life has to offer, but life must not be presupposed to be something positive. Whether this is the case merits an inquiry of its own, but I do point out that a solution to the problem of climate change in spite of an increased population (if this is possible) does not eo ipso equate a positive outcome, since it merely means that something negative is removed. After all, solving the problem is not a means to an end, but a means to a means, the latter means being a means to a happy life, which does not automatically ensue from a solution to the problem. So the question whether one should (continue to) reproduce is not answered from such a perspective. There is a practical reason to continue to do so, namely, the given that the benefits for the elderly must be paid by the labor force, but this implies that new people are created as means, at least partly. Perhaps more troubling, a (type of) pyramid scheme is thus created: by the time those people have themselves become old, a new labor force must have been brought into existence, a process that must presumably continue.
The upshot of what I have proposed is that climate change can be solved in the long run without taking costly measures, even if transitional measures will be needed which do bring costs with them. It may be argued, however, that ‘costly’ is taken too narrowly, and that more than costs in the financial sense should be taken into consideration. I will try not to limit myself to such a restrictive perspective in responding to some objections that may be raised against what I have argued.
There are a number of practical issues that are not interesting here, given that this is an inquiry into the (non-)desirability of procreation in the context of climate change. Such practical issues might include the difficulty of calculating the added negative effects of each new individual and the unlikelihood that many citizens will support politicians who propose adopting policies that discourage having children. I will accordingly forgo discussing such issues here, instead raising some other objections relating directly to the investigation at hand which I have considered myself, not thereby claiming that they are exhaustive.
First, the proposed measures will not solve anything in the short run. A significant drop in the number of people may have a positive effect in the long run, but as for now the behavior of the people who already exist is the problem. I admittedly do not have an easy solution ready to this problem. That does not take away anything, though, from the importance of the issues raised here.
Second, only wealthy people will be able to afford children. This is correct, but there is no right to have a child one cannot afford. Importantly, the right to have a child is a negative right, in that one should principally have the freedom to decide to procreate, but this presupposes that one is responsible for the consequences of having children. Such a viewpoint apparently does not conflict with the position taken by the United Nations, since the right of couples is acknowledged “[…] to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children […].” (emphasis added). Additionally, the right to procreate does not entail the right to have as many children as one wants (Sarah Conly, “The Right to Procreation: Merits and Limits” (American Philosophical Quarterly 42 (2) (2005): 105-115, p. 105, 106)).
One may also question whether someone may be said to have a right to procreate at all, so in any circumstances (given that the being to be created cannot have a say in the matter); this issue is related to a position such as Benatar’s, outlined above. In addition, one may argue that ‘human dignity’ entails the right – regardless of the circumstances – to have children. Such an appeal is not compelling, though. It is unclear what, if anything, ‘dignity’ means (e.g. Jasper Doomen, “Beyond Dignity” (Archiv für Begriffsgeschichte 57 (2016): 57-72, p. 58-66), and the acceptance of the idea as a directive does not yield anything until the wanting clarity is provided. Even if it should be granted that it has a meaning, it must still become what meaning this could be. One may then indeed invoke a sense of ‘human dignity’ to defend people’s right to procreate, but one may alternatively appeal to the same idea to argue that (too many) children should not be created in a world that already faces great challenges, since the outcome of giving people much leeway here could conflict with the ‘human dignity’ of those facing such a world. Whether either of these positions (or perhaps another one, based on another conception of ‘dignity’) is compelling depends on the sense of ‘dignity’ one is willing to accept. Given that none of the senses can be verified (or falsified), it is not surprising that they all continue to be defended, from diverse perspectives.
Third, the situation in developing countries differs substantially from that in developed countries, as is illustrated in Niger, where women on average have more than 7 children, with negative consequences for development progress. Importantly, given the circumstances, Niger’s population is particularly vulnerable to climate change. If a consideration for people to have children is that they cannot provide for themselves at an advanced age, while benefits are either lacking or insufficient, developed countries could collectively fund a pension scheme. This may be low-cost if it is tailored to the living standard in the countries in question and given the life expectancy. Such a pension scheme should be predicated on the countries’ efforts in reducing the birth rate. Niger itself appears, incidentally, aware of the need to take steps.
There is no obligation to bequeath this earth, in whatever state, to next generations, for such generations will only exist if they are actually created, and there is no obligation to create them in the first place, either. If one refrains from doing so, and thus lets the human species reach its end, the only beings towards which an obligation may be said to exist to take measures to prevent climate change once the human species will have ceased to exist are animals, and possibly plants, presuming that there would be such an obligation in the first place, an issue I have not explored here, since many answers to this question are compatible with my outlook. In any event, most animals (and plants) would presumably benefit from the absence of human beings. If the people who presently exist do decide to preserve the human species by procreating, they need to ensure that the number of people is not greater than this planet can endure. It is better to prevent problems than to find creative solutions necessitated by their introduction.