STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Researchers identified a provocative way to fight climate change.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Many people want to know what they can do about a vast global problem - maybe switch to an electric car, maybe eat less meat, maybe hang up clothes to dry.
INSKEEP: Well, Kimberly Nicholas of the University of Lund in Sweden wanted to help people make smart choices. And she found many of those efforts we just mentioned make only a slight difference in a family's carbon footprint, as it's called. People make a bigger impact with one thing that they choose to do - or not do.
KIMBERLY NICHOLAS: The single biggest impact that we found was from having a child. The reason for that is because that measure accounts for all the choices that that child would make in their life - and their descendants.
INSKEEP: What did you think and feel when you reached that conclusion?
NICHOLAS: Well, I think - I knew this would be a sensitive topic to bring up. Certainly, it's not my place, as a scientist, to dictate choices for other people. But it is my place to do the analysis and report it fairly. You know, something really important we found is that most government recommendations weren't really talking about what made the biggest difference. And they weren't quantifying how big of a difference it made.
INSKEEP: May I ask a personal question?
NICHOLAS: You may.
INSKEEP: You have kids?
NICHOLAS: I don't. It's a choice I'm thinking about right now and discussing with my fiance.
INSKEEP: Oh, congratulations. You're getting married. That's great.
NICHOLAS: Thank you. Yeah, maybe some people are learning that now. But yes, it is great news. And he is wonderful. And of course, having a child is one of the most personal decisions people can make. And there are many, many factors that go into it for everyone, including us. For us, because we care so much about climate change, it is a factor we're considering. But it's not the only one.
INSKEEP: I'm thinking about the implications here, though, because if a few individuals make a choice to have no children or fewer children than they otherwise would, that's going to make no effective difference. This is something that millions or billions of people would have to decide, I would think, in order to make a significant difference. Do you think that some governments somewhere should be pressing their citizens in some way?
NICHOLAS: No, I really don't think that that's the way to interpret our study. And I think that the decision to become a parent or to have a child is a really personal decision. And I think the way people relate to it in terms of climate change depends on their view about climate change. If they don't believe or they don't know the science, I think it makes them angry because they feel like their rights are being taken away. I think if they do know the science and are overwhelmed by it, they feel guilt or despair.
And I think if they know the science, recognize how serious the risk is and how urgent it is that we reduce emissions but they want a child and they want to raise that child in a safe planet, then having a child in that case is a vote of hope. It's a vote that the world is going to be a better place and that we can actually tackle this challenge. I think making that decision means a big responsibility.
INSKEEP: I can imagine people hearing about your study and being darkly suspicious and thinking, oh, here's somebody who's trying to set the stage intellectually for a one-child policy, like they had in China once upon a time or some kind of forced, government family planning.
NICHOLAS: No (laughter). That's certainly not my secret ambition. You know, I worry about people accusing me of that, but it's not the case. I felt that it's something we really have to look at because we know that how many people there on Earth affects the climate. And if people want to know what they can do to reduce their climate emissions, then we have to look at that question, too.
INSKEEP: You just want us to be conscious of what we're doing, it sounds like.
NICHOLAS: I do. I think there's a huge information gap. I know - I mean, as a scientist, I think in data and numbers and ratios. And I know that it's not information that changes hearts and minds, but information is necessary to start conversations.
INSKEEP: And our conversation with researcher Kimberly Nicholas came via Skype.
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