Research seminar: Kimberly Nicholas, 'From Population to A Child: Personalizing Future Generations and Climate Change'

21th March 2018, 10.00 - 12.00, Institute for Futures Studies.

Kimberly Nicholas, Associate Professor of Sustainability Science at Lund University in Sweden.

Based on questions from high school students, Seth Wynes and I set out to identify which personal choices by  an individual in an industrialized country make the biggest reduction in personal contributions to climate change. We reviewed 39 life-cycle analyses from 11 countries and found that four actions were consistently high impact: eating a plant-based diet (an average of 0.8t CO2-e saved per year), avoiding flying (1.6t per roundtrip 8 hour flight), living car-free (2.4t per year), and by far the largest action, having one fewer child (58.6t per year). We found that these four actions were almost never mentioned in government recommendations for personal climate action in the EU, US, Canada, and Australia, or in high school science textbooks in Canada; both sources focused instead on lower-impact actions, such as recycling.

The response on traditional and social media to quantifying the climate impact of having a child in an industrialized country illustrated many ethical dilemmas at the heart of tackling sustainable development, including political, economic, and intergenerational responsibility, responsible consumption and production, and gender equality. Media narratives representing children or future generations in the context of climate change varied widely. Children were framed as both victims and perpetrators of climate change; as a moral imperative for adults to both change their lifestyles and to create more people who would solve the climate problem in the future; and as both a marginalized group excluded from political voice and as active agents effectively advocating for their own interests. In this talk I will reflect on these varying perspectives, their implications for tackling climate change, and on my personal experience of communicating research in the public eye.