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The United Nations says there will be 2 and a half billion more people on the planet by 2050. Each will likely create more carbon emissions, and scientists say those emissions could reach a dangerous tipping point by mid-century. To avoid a disaster, one man is proposing a radical idea. As NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports, he aims to convince people to have fewer children.
JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Travis Rieder is not a climate scientist. He's a philosopher with the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins, and his arguments are moral. When we meet, he's in a tweedy jacket and sneakers, speaking to several dozen students at James Madison University.
TRAVIS RIEDER: How old are you going to be in 2036? Are you thinking about having kids? How old are your kids going to be in 2036?
LUDDEN: Dangerous climate change will be happening by then, he says, and the world's poorest nations will suffer most even though rich countries like the U.S. create far more carbon emissions per capita.
T. RIEDER: So 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. And that seems unfair.
LUDDEN: What about that big climate deal in Paris. Rieder tell students it doesn't cut emissions nearly enough to avoid a catastrophic tipping point. But this might. He cites a study that finds reducing global fertility by just half a child per woman could have a huge impact if it happens soon.
T. RIEDER: Thank you all for your attention.
GARRETT WILSON: It was kind of terrifying.
LUDDEN: Student Garrett Wilson says before this, he never would have connected climate and kids. Valerie Smith has thought about that. She's even argued with her mom over it.
VALERIE SMITH: We always have people asking, well, why wouldn't you have kids? And I think it's a great point that he makes, saying, well, no, like, you don't have to explain yourself. The people who are choosing to have children - like, maybe they're the ones that need to explain their reasons.
LUDDEN: The people choosing to have children...
SINEM RIEDER: And the itsy bitsy spider...
SADIYA RIEDER: Went up the spout again.
S. RIEDER: Yay.
LUDDEN: That's right. It includes Rieder. At home in Maryland, his 2-year-old daughter Sinem stands at the knee of his wife, Sadiya.
S. RIEDER: I have been one of those women who actually craved to have a baby...
S. RIEDER: ...To go through a pregnancy and everything. That mattered to me a lot.
LUDDEN: In fact Sadiya wanted a big family, so Rieder caved, sort of. He decided, you can't deny someone the hard-wired human fulfillment of creating a child, but he also convinced Sadiya that the moral bar for a second one is higher. They are one and done.
T. RIEDER: When I write online, I get some nasty comments, and a lot of the things that people say is, well, he obviously doesn't have any children the way he talks about it. So look; I think it's important that I exactly know the value. She's the most amazing thing we've ever done with our lives.
LUDDEN: So how do you convince millions of people around the world to forgo that? Rieder has a plan. Along with colleagues at Georgetown University Colin Hickey and Jake Earl, for poor nations, they propose paying women to refill their birth control and something with proven success...
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LUDDEN: ...Soap operas, like this Indian one with plotlines on family planning. For richer nations, Rieder says the U.S. and others should do away with tax credits for new parents and actually impose penalties like a carbon tax on kids. And he knows that sounds crazy.
T. RIEDER: But children, in a cold way of looking at it, are an externality. We as parents, we as family members, we get the good, and the world, the community pays the cost.
REBECCA KUKLA: What that will actually translate into is it becoming much easier for wealthy people to have children than for other people to have children.
LUDDEN: Rebecca Kukla is a bioethicist at Georgetown University. She also worries that poor and minority women who have more children would be stigmatized. Of course Travis Rieder does not expect the U.S. or other countries to embrace his ideas. He'd be happy to simply change people's assumptions about having kids. But still, compared to so many ideas for addressing climate change, he says this would be easy.
T. RIEDER: It's not a feat of geoengineering or econo-engineering. We know exactly how to make fewer babies.
LUDDEN: And he says it's something people can start doing today. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.
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