Of biological clocks and climate change

A kangaroo rushes past a burning house in Lake Conjola, NSW, on 31 December, 2019, during bushfires in which climate change played a role, according to climate scientists. Photo: Matthew Abbott/The New York Times via Redux Pictures.

As climate targets continue to be ignored and the climate crisis intensifies, biological clocks are winding down, writes Clare Hennessy.

There have been climate clocks circulating for some time now, and if you haven’t been living under a Gina Rinehart-shaped rock (like a certain someone), you probably know the much trotted out figure from the Paris Agreement: We have to limit global, human-induced warming to 1.5 degrees before things spiral beyond our control.

The latest report from the IPCC spells out, in no uncertain terms, that we are on track to exceed this global warming by 2030. The facts fill me with dissociative fear and not just because it’s week seven of Sydney’s lockdown, and my future is already looking grim considering the way Sydney’s creative industries have been left for dead. 

I always felt that the next ten years would be the time that I could start a family, if I wanted to. 

I’m lucky. Australia protects my right to family planning and because of the access I have to healthcare, I know that if I decided to have a healthy baby, when I’m ready, it would probably be possible. That’s a choice many uterus’ having folk don’t have in other countries. 

However, in other ways, my being Australian is not so lucky. We are coming last in climate solutions and are no longer allowed to sit with the cool kids (pun intended). We have not divested from dirty power and the lack of transparency as to why is alarming.

I told my brother that I probably won’t have kids, as a result. With the global population at the mercy of inequitable distribution of resources like food and shelter, the fact is that while I may have a small family, the carbon footprint of that family in a first world country is going to be huge, and be part of what affects the people who live in places with the lowest footprint.

“It’s unfair to sign children up for a life of hell, just to satisfy a narcissistic need to breed.”

And it’s not just me. It’s felt by many child-considering people. Timothy says: “I’m not even sure the world will remain fully habitable during my lifetime, so how can I in any way justify bringing a life into this world?”

New mothers are also worried. Shirley, freshly thirty with a young bub, says: “To be honest, it’s really daunting … [We’re] wondering how it’s going to be for him when he’s my age. What got me really freaked out was the David Attenborough show, Life on Our Planet. At the end they do graphics and go decade by decade, showing what they predict the earth to be like.”

I’m not game enough to watch it, but I can only imagine.

One of my friends, Tash, thinks bringing children into our future is selfish.

“It’s unfair to sign them up for a life of hell, just to satisfy a narcissistic need to breed. I didn’t choose to deal with climate change, so why should someone else?”

While the pessimism might seem unnecessarily bleak, I understand where she’s coming from: childbearing itself may not be inherently problematic, but people are feeling so terrified and depressed about their own existence that the thought of bringing others along is unthinkable. 

The problem is not the babies themselves: the reproductive crisis speaks to a general and intergenerational feeling of powerlessness due to a dire lack of proactive leadership. 

I can change my footprint and I can try to influence others – I can even fantasise about building a bunker to shove my family and friends into – but the reality is that there are actually about 100 people responsible for 70 per cent of emissions. There’s a handful of people across the globe who are in a position to actually make decisions that allow billions of us to transition to a more sustainable quality of life.

If those leaders aren’t advocating for a just transition to clean jobs, a shift away from global, mass production towards localised goods and services, and if they’re ignoring the impact of the factory farming of the meat and dairy industry, they’re simply dead weight. 

It would be lovely to say that our generation is going to fix it, but if our generation is not already in a position with significant bureaucratic or systemic change, it’s hardly much help for the kind of deep systemic change we need.

Put simply: we don’t have time to wait. 

David Attenborough tells the BBC “this is the last chance to address climate change”. Video: BBC/YouTube.

We have the technology to make clean energy. We can regulate and improve biodegradable materials. We are finding new ways to clean up existing waste. Australia has a rep for being at the forefront of scientific innovation (shame about the CSIRO funding cuts by the Morrison Government) and a wealth of Indigenous knowledge and practices in sustainable land management that have been tried and tested for well over 60,000 years.

We are a global gathering of angry and frightened people who need leaders (no, I don’t mean Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos-style Star Wars billionaire ‘leadership’). Our elected leaders have a responsibility to protect our rights, including the right to a healthy and sustainable environment.

And this, if the leaders we have are willing to listen, is what they are saying: 

“No, [I won’t have children] … It’s just not fair. That said, my friend just had a baby and we want them to have the best life and future at all costs”

“The world has been suffering as long as we’ve known it and every generation has had its thing. There’s no right, or wrong: there are just facts you have to consider.”

“I’m going to freeze my eggs so I have time to see what happens.”

“It’s probably worth shifting gears and thinking of children as a privilege, not necessarily a right.”

“I would feel better about having babies if our government was at least taking action to try and halt these environmental changes.”

“It’s really unfair that our generation has to think like this, but I like to focus on the possibilities rather than the losses.”

“I personally think the situation means a return to non-normative families and child raising practises. I’ve decided I’ll be adopting, if I do have kids.”

“If I have my kid when I’m 30 in 2028, they’ll be 22 in 2050, and that’s a pretty dire world they’ve got to deal with.”

While the ‘right’ decision may not be clear, the proof is in the pudding: we are stressed out, and our generation is ready for change. We are ready to look at the ways that our current systems of power (like colonialism, patriarchy and other forms of dominance) are driving the climate crisis. 

It’s time our leaders do, too. 

As for me? I haven’t made my decision yet. My brother did make an arresting point, though – that it is precisely the people who feel this anxiety who would, arguably, be among the best positioned to help build a climate conscious future.

It’s a good point. And I want there to be a future generation, although it’s not the only reason the planet is worth saving. 

But for the time being? I’m holding off my decision and telling my grandparents that unless they vote these cowardly, greedy idiots out, they’re not getting any grandkids.