Johns Hopkins bioethicist on the morality of having children in the age of global warming

Travis Rieder's work centers on a study suggesting that reducing global fertility could help fight climate change

"How old are you going to be in 2036?" asks Travis Rieder during a speaking engagement at James Madison University. "Are you thinking about having kids? How old are your kids going to be in 2036?"

As Jennifer Ludden reports in a recent segment for NPR's All Things Considered, Rieder, a faculty member Johns Hopkins University's Berman Institute of Bioethics, has proposed a controversial remedy for the effects of global warming: population control.

"Here's what's happening when I have a kid: I'm creating a being who's doing the much greater proportion of the contribution to the harm, and she's not going to suffer for it—the other kid is."
Travis Rieder, Berman Institute of Bioethics

Dangerous climate change will be happening by the year 2050, Ludden reports, when an additional 2.5 billion people are expected to have joined the global population. And whereas developed countries such as the U.S. are responsible for a greater proportion of climate change, poorer countries will likely bear the brunt of global warming's effects. And that's not fair, argues Rieder.

"Here's what's happening when I have a kid," he says. "I'm creating a being who's doing the much greater proportion of the contribution to the harm, and she's not going to suffer for it—the other kid is."

But he and his wife do have a daughter.

"When I write online, I get some nasty comments, and a lot of the things that people say is, 'He obviously doesn't have any children, the way he talks about it,'" Rieder tells NPR. "I think it's important that I exactly know the value [of having children]. She's the greatest thing we've ever done with our lives."

Rieder's work centers on a study concluding that reducing global fertility by half a child per woman could have a substantial impact on global warming, and he tells Ludden that he believes in a moral imperative for population control. He suggests governments should encourage family planning to cut down on family size. The U.S. government, for example, should rescind tax credits for new parents and instead impose a carbon tax on dependents, he says. And in poorer countries, governments could pay women to refill their birth control prescriptions.

Rieder tells Ludden that while he does not expect people to embrace his ideas, reducing fertility would be far easier than other strategies for combating climate change, such as geo-engineering or economic engineering. "We know exactly how to make fewer babies," he says.

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