Commentary: Faced with a climate emergency, young Singaporeans are rightly thinking twice about having kids
Polls showing youths are thinking twice about having children should create positive momentum for change – for countries and individuals, says Ng Chia Wee.
SINGAPORE: In his remarks at the opening day of the COP26 Summit, US President Joe Biden proclaimed that “this is a decisive decade” to flight climate change.
Whether the world seizes the opportunity to act, or condemns future generations to suffer, will be determined in the coming years.
Besides the climate emergency, for my generation of youth, this decade will also be decisive for much more personal reasons. This will be the decade when we choose what to study, where we begin our career, whom we spend our lives with and – the most personal of all – whether we want to have children.
And this last choice is unexpectedly intertwined with the climate emergency.
According to a recently published survey of 10,000 young people aged between 16 and 25, almost four in 10 respondents were hesitant to have children because of the climate crisis.
This is the largest scientific study yet on climate anxiety in young people, led by researchers from Bath University and funded by campaigning organisation Avaaz. Respondents hailed from 10 countries, including Australia, Brazil, India, the Philippines, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Nearly six in 10 were very or extremely worried about climate change, with three-quarters agreeing “the future is frightening”. More than half also felt they would have fewer opportunities than their parents, while half said their climate anxiety was affecting their daily lives and functioning.
Looking at the results, I could not help but wonder how Singapore’s youth would have responded.
The results from the TODAY Youth Survey 2021, released on Nov 10, provided a clue.
According to the survey of 1,066 respondents aged 18 to 34, 22 per cent of respondents said climate change was a concern for them when thinking about having children.
This is certainly less than the proportion revealed by the study led by Bath University researchers. However, for a small state like Singapore which has a far lower population than many countries, and which can only count on its human resources, even a figure of 22 per cent should warrant some concern.
Furthermore, this figure is likely to increase as the climate crisis worsens. The COVID-19 pandemic, a different crisis which unleashed major disruptions, has already prompted some to delay parenthood. 2020 saw 31,816 citizen births, a number 3.1 per cent lower compared to the year before, and the lowest since 2013.
When the climate crisis becomes similarly disruptive, and its effects more keenly felt here, it is very likely that parenthood concerns stemming from it will rise.
As a sign of their rising prominence, such concerns had already taken centre stage earlier in this year in the Singapore Repertory Theatre production Lungs, starring Oon Shu An and Joshua Lim. It told the story of a couple deciding whether to have children, while stuck in an existential crisis, which Oon feels “a lot of people” will relate to.
The central question posed by Lungs, as captured by Ben Chin in a Popspoken article, is simply this: “Is bringing a child into the world right now, a world that’s struggling with environmental crises, political unrest and general instability the responsible thing to do?”
What is the responsible thing to do?
On the one hand, every couple must have the right to have children if they wish to. It is a privilege to give life, and for some, raising children brings incomparable joy.
Societal, cultural and religious influences are present too, and these should not be ignored. For ageing societies like Singapore, an even lower birth rate will also exacerbate economic pressures stemming from a shrinking workforce.
At the same time, it is perfectly reasonable to question if it is morally acceptable to bring a child into this world knowing that he or she will face increasingly severe climate disruptions in his or her lifetime.
As 29-year-old Sherilynn Loh had previously told CNA: “There’s the pandemic, there’s changes in air quality due to global warming, temperatures rising … And we don’t know what that’s going to look like 20 years from now.”
Her sentiment echoes that of Chloe Abigail, who voiced her concern in an episode of the online talkshow ZULA ChickChats.
“With the way the environment is going towards in terms of climate change … what kind of world are we leaving behind for our children?” she asked.
The answer to that question continues to hang in the balance, with what was supposed to be our “last best chance” to avoid future climate catastrophes – COP26 – failing to reach its goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
EASING THE DILEMMA
With the outlook uncertain, the best we can do for now is to make it a little less pessimistic.
Governments will play a heavy role in this; unsurprisingly, the study led by Bath University researchers also linked youth climate distress with perceived government inaction.
As COP26 was underway, environmental and climate youth organisations in Singapore issued an urgent call for national leaders to “boldly accelerate climate action” and for youths to “be recognised as equal partners”.
The Government should heed this call to give youths greater confidence their children will see a less devastating world.
Why do young activists feel this passionately about climate change? They tell us on CNA's The Climate Conversations podcast:
At the same time, youth themselves must do more too. True, around 60 per cent of our national emissions are industrial, but that should not excuse individuals from also holding themselves to higher standards.
According to the inaugural OCBC Climate Index released earlier this year, based on an online survey of 2,000 Singaporeans aged 18 to 65, 43 per cent of Gen Z respondents used air conditioning at home for more than seven hours a day – the highest proportion amongst all age groups. Separately, 77 per cent of millennial respondents drove a medium or large vehicle.
Instead of feeling paralysed by the climate-driven moral dilemma of having kids, those who have children could commit themselves to far greener standards in their everyday lives.
Cut down on air travel and private transport, consume less red meat, give up the air-con in favour of fans and natural ventilation, stop indulging in unnecessary flash sale purchases, and pay for eco-friendly products even if they cost more.
While such actions may only slightly tilt the scales against a deteriorating world, they can grant us the assurance we are doing the best we can for those we brought into that world, and the confidence that our lives are ones where words match deeds.
We can take comfort in the knowledge that we are upholding our responsibility to set good examples for our children, and are contributing to a virtuous cycle of environmental consciousness when they start to model our behaviour.
However we decide to ease the moral dilemma, the clock will continue to tick – for the world to tackle the climate emergency, and for us to decide if we want to have kids. For us young people, and the lives we may create, this will be a decisive decade indeed.
Ng Chia Wee will begin his final year of undergraduate education at the National University of Singapore’s Philosophy, Politics and Economics Programme next January, and is part of the social mobility non-profit organisation Access.