In the face of climate anxiety, women grapple with whether to have children

In the face of climate anxiety, women grapple with whether to have children
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That’s the question Leah Payne put to world leaders in June, posting a public letter on her website and Instagram account.

“I don’t want my child or children or grandchildren to die from climate change .”

Women like Payne from coast to coast are grappling with the dilemma of whether to have children amid a climate crisis — their anxieties fuelled by what they call government inaction on reducing carbon emissions, leading to environmental disasters like intense wildfires, melting glaciers and extreme weather events around the world.

While Payne is writing to world leaders, one student is committing to a birth strike. Another mother is rallying parents to attend city council meetings to voice their concerns.

Their circumstances are unique, but all of the women said climate policy will decide who they vote for in the upcoming Oct. 21 federal election.

According to a national poll conducted in June by market research firm Forum Research, the environment has become Canadians’ top concern going into the election. When respondents were asked to identify the most important issue from a list of options, 26 per cent of participants chose the environment, ahead of the economy at 25 per cent and health care at 16 per cent.

Extreme weather has made headlines across the country this past year, from flooding in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick to intense wildfires in Alberta and British Columbia.

“It can be anything from depression to increasing anxiety disorders,” said Korol, a psychologist at the Vancouver Anxiety Centre who’s also a professor at the University of British Columbia.

“It can be post-traumatic stress disorder. Or, for those with obsessions or compulsions, they can take a turn obsessing about recycling or not burning fossil fuels.”

Mental-health researchers have been documenting how people feel when the world they’ve known changes gradually — or suddenly — from climate change. There are several names for the phenomenon, such as eco grief or climate anxiety.

Indeed, Korol said many of her clients have walked through the door due to family strife caused by polarized political debates about climate change.

“Families are arguing about this,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons people feel so hopeless.”

The writer

Payne, a freelance writer and editor who lives with her husband and toddler son in B.C.’s Lower Mainland, said she was moved to write her letter after reading the 2018 report on global warming by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — a United Nations body created to assess and inform policy based on the science of climate change.

The panel detailed how Earth’s ecosystems would be in better shape if world leaders could limit future human-caused warming to just 0.5 C. The world has already warmed 1 C since pre-industrial times.

The report, written by more than 90 scientists, predicts that global warming will likely reach 1.5 C in the next 11 to 33 years if it continues at the current rate. Some of the consequences of a warmer planet highlighted in the report include threats to the Arctic, coral reefs and Indigenous Peoples as well as increases in starvation, disease and species extinction.

“When we hear these very frightening and very real publications and statistics and predictions from scientists, you have to think … am I actually going to bring another life into this world, and what is this world going to look like?” said Payne.

She jumped into the zero-waste movement in January, making climate-conscious decisions such as buying more second-hand items, eating a plant-based diet and taking public transportation.

Payne said she had a glimpse of the climate crisis in the summers of 2017 and 2018, when she witnessed two of B.C.’s worst wildfire seasons ever.

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“I was afraid to walk outside with my newborn and subject his tiny lungs to the forest fire smog,” Payne wrote in her public letter.

She said she expected a response from local and federal politicians of the four major political parties to whom she sent the letter but, so far, no one has returned her call to action.

The striker

In Montreal, 18-year-old Emma Lim is grappling with the same anxieties as Payne. Lim, who always envisioned having two children, has decided not to have any until governments at all levels “take serious climate action” so she can feel hopeful again for the future instead of being terrified.

“We need to stop and reduce our (carbon) emissions or we’re going to be seeing these unprecedented rises in global temperatures that we are just not prepared to deal with. (Climate) affects everything else; we can’t have a good economy if we have these massive climate-change effects,” she said.

Going on a “birth strike” is her last resort, said Lim.

She has been skipping school every Friday since January to take her pleas for climate change action to the city hall in London, Ont., where she lived before heading off to McGill University to study biomedical science.

In Canada, “we’re not even on track to meet our 2015 Paris Agreement goals . We’re 79 megatonnes of greenhouse gases away, and that’s rising,” she said.

Come October, Lim will become a first-time voter and said climate will be the deciding issue for her.

She added that she will be voting for “anything but (Conservative Party Leader Andrew) Scheer” and for declaring a climate emergency one day and approving the multi-billion-dollar expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline the next.

The founder

Elaine Su almost didn’t have a child. Before having her son last summer, she and her partner debated extensively whether to do the “selfish” thing and populate the Earth with more people.

After a parent shared the same anxieties on social-media, Su co-founded Babies for Climate Action with 50 members. The group meets at least once a month and organizes climate advocacy events and activities for families in their local community of New Westminster, B.C.

“The idea is not that we should sit idly by while somebody else fixes the problem; it’s that we should all be doing everything we can to fix the problems. And I also think it’s important to recognize that a lot of the work on climate change ... falls on the women in our communities. Women are doing the buying for their families … women are the ones who do the meal planning, the cooking, the shopping, the planning,” said the teacher and librarian at a Burnaby elementary school.
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