Director discovers power in action while making documentary about what to expect when you’re expecting the climate crisis
This article was written by Victoria Lean and was published in the Toronto Star on November 26, 2022.
VICTORIA LEAN VICTORIA LEAN IS A TORONTO-BASED WRITER, PRODUCER AND DIRECTOR. HER DOCUMENTARY “THE CLIMATE BABY DILEMMA” IS STREAMING ON CBC GEM.
Being young today means never knowing a time when the world wasn’t warming.
Along with temperature, climate anxiety is on the rise. A global survey found that more than half of people aged 16 to 25 believe that humanity is doomed. And I sympathize with that feeling.
I was born in the 1980s, with environmental scientists for parents, and so oil spills and ozone hole depletion were dinner table conversations. How humanity is trashing the planet — and what we can do about it — drives my work now as a filmmaker but is also on my mind when thinking about starting a family of my own.
Nothing ties you to the future like a child in your life, or a child you want to have. Despite knowing climate facts for years, it really hit home when I found an interactive tool that plotted key family milestones alongside the dramatic rise in global temperature. If I had a child now, they could face up to seven times more extreme weather events compared to my mother’s generation.
Deciding whether to have kids is a personal process that involves many factors. For me, grim forecasts for the planet add in some more. Recently, I wrote, directed and produced a docuseries about existential risks, called “We’re All Gonna Die (Even Jay Baruchel)” on CRAVE. While thinking through nuclear war, pandemics and climate change (among other apocalyptic scenarios), I was wondering how all this existential dread was permeating the most personal of existential decisions. To work through an existential double whammy, I made “The Climate Baby Dilemma” for CBC, a documentary about what to expect when you’re expecting … the climate crisis.
One would think I’d have even more dread now, but quite the opposite. I’ve realized that these are complex global problems, but problems — even the toughest ones — are meant to be solved, and solutions do exist. It’s technically possible to limit temperature rise from reaching catastrophic levels. Every action matters because preventing every additional amount of warming matters.
What I learned, emotionally, making this film was far more beautiful and hopeful than I expected, but it was also more deeply heartbreaking than I could have imagined. Over three years, I followed the groundbreaking researcher Dr. Britt Wray, as she wrestles with the question of whether or not to have a child, all while writing her book, “Generation Dread,” about the psychological impacts of the environmental crisis. Wray’s own work and multiple surveys have since confirmed that the concern about having kids in the climate crisis is widespread — 39 per cent of people aged 16 to 25 in 10 countries express that the climate makes them hesitant to have children, and another survey of just gen Z respondents in the U.S. put it as high as 78 per cent.
Their reasons are diverse, but generally people express more concern about the world a child would be inheriting, than the additional carbon footprint a child would add. In the film, I also met student activists like Emma Lim, who helped organize the 2019 youth climate protests in Canada. At the time, she also launched a pledge called No Future, No Children. For her and the thousands of youth who signed, forgoing parenthood is both an expression of their fear and a plea for action. To be clear, no one featured in the film is interested in telling others to have kids or not, and this is not about population control. It is an urgent indicator of how young people are feeling.
In nine years, unless emissions are brought down, the planet will exhaust its 1.5 C carbon budget. Coincidentally, within nine years, I’ll also have to make a definitive call on biological children or not. But I’ve realized that a specific answer to this question about kids in the climate crisis isn’t what ultimately matters. There’s no right or wrong answer here. It’s the very fact of the question that my generation (and younger) is presented with, and how we go about making sense of it with those we love. This reproductive decision — for those fortunate to be able to make one that’s in line with their wishes — is also just one in a long line of questions that the climate crisis presents us for the rest of our lives.
While many are increasingly connecting kids and the climate crisis, it’s mostly done in private. Parents, nonparents and the undecided can feel alone, isolated and helpless in their anxiety. But I’ve learned that there’s so much power in talking with others about it. By giving shape to something so personal, I hope the film encourages more people to have these conversations. It not only helps manage the emotions, but it personalizes the stakes of the crisis and plugs us into what will keep children safer: advancing justice-oriented approaches to climate action and the transition off fossil fuels.
At one moment in the film, Sarain Fox, an Anishinaabe mother and activist, articulates how bringing kids into an extremely insecure and uncertain future is only actually new for those of us “who have had the privilege to live outside of genocide.” Indigenous as well as Black and racialized families have been raising children under the horrific shadow of racism and colonialism for hundreds of years, while finding ways to resist and build resilience and joy.
Fox highlights how the pain many now feel about the future can serve as “a kind of window into so many demographics who live with that same fear every day because of the world they live in.” Channelling this pain about the future toward solidarity and building deep and profound systemic change is fundamental — and frankly, true climate resilience requires it.
Throughout the documentary, Wray and others find ways to reframe their anxiety and grief toward transformative action. For many, the best antidote to feeling powerless is activism — and that can take many forms, including the decision to not have a child, focus on climate work and help to build more resilient communities. Like Payton Mitchell, who sees her activism as a form of family, and an expression of love for the people and places she cares deeply about.
On the heels of COP27, I’m thinking about where the process began 30 years ago.
At the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, 154 states signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. There, a 12-year-old Severn Suzuki gave an impassioned speech that ended with: “You grown-ups say you love us. But I challenge you, please make your actions reflect your words.”
In the film, Suzuki, who is now an activist and mother of two, shares that the meaning of those words have only deepened for her and if we can embody the love we have for our kids as a society, then of course we can deal with these challenges. Making the film has connected me more intentionally and deeply to that sense of love for the next generation, and it has also introduced new set of questions involving what’s now required to truly demonstrate that love to them.
We are still learning about the true toll of the climate crisis. But the future is not doomed — it is still unwritten. Regardless of the level of climate devastation ahead, I’ve learned that we must now to find new tools as parents, as aunties and uncles, as godparents and community members to support the youth in our lives. It also means preparing for the day when a child looks you in the eye and asks if you did everything you possibly could.