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Could climate change result in fewer unwanted pregnancies?

by SuperiorInvest

AND studies published this year in the Journal of Population Economics suggests that climate change may result in lower human conception rates. However, it is not due to less sex, and it does not necessarily mean that fewer children are born. Instead, society may see fewer unplanned pregnancies as human fertility declines. Whether this is good or bad news is in the eye of the beholder.

The authors of the study, Tamás Hajdu and Gábor Hajdu from Hungary, used random temperature changes to examine the effects of heat shocks on conception rates, including tracking the delayed effects of these shocks over time. Human conception cases are counted in the study based on three outcomes: the number of live births, the number of abortions, and the number of clinically identified fetal losses (i.e. abortions).

The study uses data from Hungary, so the authors caution that their results may not generalize everywhere. That said, Hungary is a modern European nation with a climate not dissimilar to most of Europe and parts of the US, so the findings could have important implications.

First, the authors predict an overall decline in conception rates as the planet warms due to climate change. At first, one imagines less cold winter nights cozying up by the fireplace. According to previous research, however, the authors suggest that temperature is not associated with sexual activity. Rather, heat worsens sperm quality and reduces sperm production, and may also have implications for female reproduction. The heat will tend to reduce the overall probability of pregnancy by reducing fertility.

A drop in conception rates after periods of high temperatures is observed in the study. However, the authors also observe the potential for shifts in pregnancy, with a corresponding increase in some conceptions in colder periods, which may lead to greater seasonal differences in the future.

In other words, the authors find a decrease in conception in the first five weeks after heat shock, but an increase in pregnancies with live births 6 to 25 weeks after the shock. For those trying to conceive, pregnancy may take a little longer when excessive heat is present. But this “rebound” effect is not present in miscarriages or fetal losses.

Why not? The authors speculate that aborted fetuses will not be “compensated” by conception later because many of these pregnancies are unwanted. Similarly, fetal losses are more likely in unplanned pregnancies, so one would not necessarily expect a rebound effect there either.

Overall, the data reflect something surprising: fewer conceptions that lead to miscarriages and fetal losses—but not live births. So the cumulative effect is that conception rates fall with warmer temperatures, but that doesn’t necessarily mean fewer babies are born. At least this story is consistent with the data.

Climate change has many negative impacts and the reduction of human fertility is likely to be one of them. Additionally, higher temperatures may have implications for fetal development, and this also deserves more careful study. However, one unintended benefit of global warming could be a form of “climate change contraception” in the form of fewer unwanted pregnancies. While this is by no means good news, it is not bad either. Like most things in life, we often have no choice but to take the good with the bad.

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