In September my partner and I expect to be grandparents for the first time. We are of course over the moon at the thought of having a little one to cuddle, frolic with and maybe spoil a little.
Like our daughter and son-in-law, we’re also thinking about the unprecedented challenges of raising a child in a world of planetary emergency that may last their lifetimes.
Newborns today will face a level of existential threat unimaginable to their parents when they were young.
No region of the world will be spared. Globally, tens of millions of people have already been displaced by extreme droughts, floods, wildfires and associated calamities, and climate scientists warn of hundreds of millions more.
The resulting human turmoil is sure to beget food scarcities, hunger, political instability, possibly even war. How bad things will get is of course impossible to forecast. So much depends on the next decade, the amount of time climate scientists say remains to avoid the worst of the climate crisis.
Many young people, fearing an impending climate apocalypse, are thinking twice about bringing children into such a fraught and uncertain world.
In a 2020 academic study published in the Journal Climate Change, researchers surveyed more than 600 people aged 27 to 45 who considered climate change a factor in their choice to have kids.
More than 96 per cent were either “very” or “extremely concerned” about the “well-being of their existing, expected or hypothetical children in a climate-changed world.
“I feel like I can’t in good conscience bring a child into this world and force them to try and survive what may be apocalyptic conditions,” wrote a 27-year-old respondent. Her sentiments were apparently common among those interviewed.
Our daughter hasn’t chosen parenthood lightly either. As coordinator of a sustainability program at an Ontario university, she is acutely aware of the challenges that lie ahead.
“I work with researchers who are working with youth to measure their emotions and the findings coming back are very, very high and often bordering on despair,” she said.
She’s run the gamut of emotions herself: “I’ve had the grief, I’ve had the anxiety, the anger and fear.”
But for her, she said, despair isn’t an option. “The more time I spend learning about climate change and seeing what can be done about it, by people working together, seeing little successes, that’s something worth fighting for.”
She’s begun researching how she and her husband can equip their child to weather any direct physical impacts of climate change and the emotional turmoil that news of climate disasters could trigger.
As well as positive thinking and compassion, children will need to be taught resilience to maintain good mental health and manage their responses to the bad news that’s certain, said Tracey Wiese, a nurse practitioner who specializes in family practice and psychiatric mental health.
Wiese and other psychologists define resilience as the process of being able to adapt well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress.
Among the more foundational ways of fostering resilience are supportive relationships with one or more caregivers and the modelling by parents of positive and appropriate responses to stress.
Psychologist Susan Clayton believes connecting kids to the outdoors may be the most important thing parents can do to help their kids both cope and prosper.
Research shows time spent in nature away from computers, iPhones and gaming consoles, especially at an early age, can reduce childhood stress and anxiety while strengthening confidence, imagination and physical health – all characteristics “that can help tomorrow’s adults adapt to a changing world,” Clayton said.
My experience as a parent supports Clayton’s belief. We got both our children outdoors whenever we could – weekend visits to conservation areas, enrolment in summer camps, family camping trips.
Now in their 30s, they are grateful for the early exposure. Our daughter says it instilled in her a reverence for the natural world, a lack of which she believes lies at the root of humanity’s wanton despoliation of the planet.
Experience of nature’s multitude of wonders and its capacity to recreate itself also gives her hope, she said.
“I’m not naive,” she said of her decision to become a parent. “I have a sense of the challenges in store for my child, and at times I feel some guilt. But I think the upcoming generation has the potential to do something truly great.
“That’s not to let living generations like yours off the hook,” she added. “Because the clock is ticking.”
Gary W. Kenny is retired from a career in international human rights and development and is a writer residing in rural Grey County.