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    Wednesday, November 20, 2019-2:17:28A.M.

     

     

     

     

     

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OPINION | A hostile climate for children

AS if the world didn’t already have enough problems, now we’re all supposed to hate babies.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently couldn’t quite bring herself to tell an attendee at a town hall that no, we should not “eat the babies” to rein in climate change. The faux constituent was a prankster (and it’s a mercy no one actually believes this), but the prank worked because Malthusianism is in fashion again on the climate-obsessed left. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez played to type by passing up a chance to pooh-pooh even the most extreme version of it.

Who can blame her, when barely a month earlier presidential candidate Bernie Sanders mostly got a pass in respectable circles for suggesting at a climate-change town hall that better birth control in poorer countries should be “a key feature of a plan to address climate catastrophe,” in the words of the entirely genuine audience member who asked a leading question.

Barely a month before that, Britain’s Prince Harry announced he would limit his output to two children in the name of environmentalism — a view heartily endorsed by Jane Goodall, whom he was interviewing for British Vogue (don’t ask).

Someone might ask Japan how this all works out.

Western politicians and royal second sons talk the talk about having fewer children. The Japanese have walked the walk straight out of the empty maternity ward for four decades. This week brings news that in Japan the number of live births this year could fall below 900,000, after births in the first seven months of 2019 fell nearly 6 percent compared with the same period last year.

Who knows if this is doing any good for the environment, even if you adopt the view that what matters to the planet above all is restricting carbon emissions. Yes, emissions are down in no-baby Japan — to the lowest point in eight years as of the last fiscal year. An aging population brings some carbon-reduction benefits, such as the moderation in the rate of car purchases Tokyo notes in its periodic submissions to the U.N.’s climate panel.

Yet in other respects the picture is more mixed. One reason Japan’s baby count keeps falling is that fewer young Japanese men and women are getting married. This means that the number of households — relevant to climate discussions since one needs to heat and light each home — keeps rising.

The number of members of each household keeps falling as babyless Japanese singletons strike out on their own. Without dipping into an argument about causation, it’s notable that a supposedly pro-environment decline in babies is correlated with other social trends that aren’t as friendly to the atmosphere.

And on down the line, where for every factor you can think of that might cause a declining population to put a dent in Japan’s carbon emissions you can just as easily find another means by which a falling population tends to push emissions upward. Would Japan emit less carbon if it manufactured and shipped fewer diapers? Sure, but childless people tend to take more vacations with all the emissions those entail. If Japan’s emissions are declining right now, in both total and per capita terms, it’s less due to fewer babies and more because Tokyo keeps throwing money at renewables. Oh, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe champions nuclear power.

The problem, though, is that this discussion misses the bigger question climate activists never engage when they talk about population: Is their less carbon-intensive dream world a place we actually want to live in, if the price of achieving it is to have fewer children?

Japan’s experience suggests not. Its population decline seems to be both effect and cause of various economic and social miseries. The precise reasons for Japan’s long-running birth dearth are debated among demographers and economists, but an important factor is that a decline in the economic prospects of young Japanese men has frozen the marriage market. Japanese women, who are growing more professionally successful, may find they can’t take time out of their careers to have children.

Again taking care not to assume causation when correlation will do, it’s notable that these trends over time can take on a self-reinforcing quality. Chronic economic decline in a country with too few children won’t make men’s job prospects any better. Women who have been goaded into the workforce in part to compensate for today’s shortage of working-age people will find it harder (or perhaps just less desirable) to take time off to start their own families.

And all of this is wrecking Japan’s family-oriented culture, as more people grow old without children or grandchildren to care for them. How does one balance these economic and social costs against carbon emissions in the grand political, economic and moral scales?

A humane environmentalism would be more alert to and interested in that sort of question. It might be less easily ridiculed and more politically successful as a result.