“Kids” These Days

October 12, 2019

At this point, climate change is an irrefutable fact of life, one which many people are familiar with on various levels. A majority of people are unaware of the magnitude of the disaster happening right now all around us. This is admittedly discouraging, but let’s focus on the positives. Earlier this year1.4 million “kids” across 123 countries organized and participated in youth climate strikes and walk outs earlier this year and this event has been followed by the amazing world-wide demonstrations on September 20[1]Did you know that there’s a group of youths suing the United States Government right now for its negligence and ongoing destruction of the planet in the lawsuit Juliana v. The United States? Young people have the most to lose in the fight to address climate change, and they (we) are, thankfully, rallying. It is impossible to change our society’s behaviors without the support of the youth, and while certain complexities arise when it comes to youth engagement, there is reason to hope.

 

The ongoing court case of Juliana v. The United States is one such youth led movement fighting for climate protection. In this case, the arena is the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and the stakes are high: 

 

[The youths] so lack confidence that they will inherit a healthy planet that they are suing the United States government for failing to adequately protect the Earth from the effects of climate change. They are among a group of 21 youths who claim the federal government’s promotion of fossil fuel production and its indifference to the risks posed by greenhouse gas emissions…violates, the court papers argue, their fundamental constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property.[2]

 

This lawsuit, which is supported by environmental heavyweights,is garnering a lot of attention as it makes its way through the circuit courts. As of August 2019, the case is still being argued. Whether or not it successfully forces a policy change, it has made the courts directly confront climate change. It also highlights the interest that future generations have in maintaining a healthy environment. 

         

Some students have taken to the courts as a way to advocate for the environment; many more have taken to the internet. I cannot overstate the importance of the internet as a tool for change in today’s modern era, and young people understand this more than anyone. Social media is a decisive force in the current media landscape and is at the heart of modern activism (think of the Parkland survivors’ use of online platforms). Zero Hour, a youth-led “environmentally focused, creatively minded and technologically savvy nationwide coalition[3]” has used social media platforms to organize marches and protests. Core members of the group have met with lawmakers concerning sustainable policy development. The young people active in this movement are eager to dispel myths surrounding the alleged laziness of their generation: “They are trying to prove the adults wrong, to show that people their age are taking heed of what they see as the greatest crisis threatening their generation.[4]” At the end of the day, this sentiment is at the heart of youth activism: recognizing that change is necessary, and then doing something about it. 

         

One recent and highly visible demonstration of youth climate activism occurred this September. On September 20th, 4 million people walked out of school and work to participate in the world’s largest ever international climate strike, demanding stronger climate policies in the age of modern environmental crisis.[5]The symbolic face of the fight against climate change has become 16 year old Greta Thunberg, who started weekly school strikes over a year ago in her home country of Sweden. Now, she is up for the Nobel Peace Prize and has inspired millions of other young people across the world to demand their governments take affirmative action now. 

 

This worldwide protest was an incredible demonstration of the power of youth involvement. However, it is sad that the level of turnout and participation seen in September is atypical, and this type of momentum is usually short-lived. The fact of the matter is, there exist some large obstacles to youth activism in general, and environmentalism has historically shown itself to be particularly challenging topic to engage people with. Why? One answer is relatively simple: climate change is a depressing topic. If those involved have any grasp on the severity of climate change, talking about it stirs up feelings of guilt, hopelessness, and disempowerment. None of these emotions tend to spur action. Nonetheless, taking action and finding hope are often the only cures to feeling helpless and hopeless, and this is true across all age groups.

         

Inspiring youth activism isn’t always straightforward. Even among youths who participate in environmentalism, motivation fades over time, and tends to be only highly concentrated around focusing events.[6]A certain amount of big picture thinking is required for activism, something youths don’t automatically have. According to one comprehensive global study of youth environmental activism, a certain type of motivation is needed to spur action:

         

“In the context of promoting transformative social change…it has been found that people who are motivated to act because of their concern for harm, fairness, and social justice and those with a more progressive political orientation seem to be more likely to favor stronger responses and engage in collective environmental action compared to those who are mostly driven by their own self interests.”[7]

         

This is encouraging in one sense because it means that we are relying upon human kindness and decency to effect change, two things I do genuinely believe in. On the other hand, this type of motivation is problematic. How can you make someone want to do the right thing for the right reasons? And is that motivation even enough? 

I ran a small survey (of around 60 participants) of my college student peers and found that all participants report being very scared about climate change and think that addressing it should be a priority for lawmakers. Despite this, far less than half report actually participating in environmental engagement, with many not even being aware of the opportunities for activism in their communities.[8]

 

This discrepancy highlights the importance of GOMI’s Community Based Stewardship (CBS) methodology, since it promotes hands-on-action. Students familiar with CBS understand how climate change is relevant to their immediate communities. Dr. Pam Morgan, in another article featured in this journal, advocates for an interdisciplinary approach to climate education, with a heavy emphasis on the local lens: “Ultimately, by connecting with issues at the local level, students will come to understand the problems and potential solutions, even at larger scales.[9]” The importance of making the connection between global issues and local ones cannot be overstated; it may very well be one of the keys to solving our ongoing climate crisis.

         

The fact that youth engagement is hard to achieve doesn’t make it any less necessary. Young people have a unique power when it comes to influencing adults and policymakers. When young students (especially high-school and before) talk to their parents about social behavior, they inadvertently put pressure upon the parents to comply with positive constructed behaviors to maintain their child’s respect[10]. This can be true for a range of issues, climate change included. In addition to being instruments of social pressure, young people can serve as valuable messengers to otherwise inaccessible audiences: “For many parents, the only way they receive up-to-date environmental information may be when their children share with them what they are learning in school. Consequently, many social advocacy campaigns have targeted the youth as a proxy to reach adults and broader audiences.[11]” I was pleased to see this effect held true among my collegiate peers, who reported that they had talked to their parents about climate issues, and felt that the interactions they had were positive and respectful. These are the types of interactions that can encourage both individual behavioral change, such as not using plastic bags or water bottles, and broader, organizational change, such as might come from the school climate strikes or climate lawsuits.

 

Youth engagement is critical to any overall successful environmental activism but achieving this is not always straightforward. School programs and workshops promoting climate awareness and activism have been somewhat successful. School involvement can provide foundational knowledge of key issues to students, can spur direct action (much youth-led environmentalism is facilitated by educators, who encouraged such events as the climate strike in March), and can cause a chain reaction that extends beyond the students themselves. One study on teen activism and school programs finds that even unprompted, teenagers are inclined to discuss sustainable behaviors with their parents, and moreover, “those conversations did influence parent behaviors, especially when their teens discussed specific solutions or made requests to address air pollution.[12]” This sentiment was echoed in my own survey, in which one participant reported “I bring it up all the time and I've influenced them to change their individual choices (e.g., recycling, eating less meat, etc.)[13]”.

These examples are encouraging. They are also not yet the norm. I’m not saying that the youth don’t care. Quite the opposite: much of the existing literature of the day shows that young people are concerned and more and more of them are taking action. Almost every day, I see headlines from major news outlets about the severity of climate change; I hear my peers talking about it in almost every class; CNN hosted its first ever climate change town hall for Democratic presidential primary candidates. While change is slow, the cultural norms and attitudes about the environment are shifting. It is becoming harder for politicians and corporations to ignore the issue, and I think eventually, climate denialism will become a career killer for any would-be elected official. The youth are at the very heart of this cultural change. It is our own future that we are fighting for, and while it might not be an easy fight, protecting our planet and our people is absolutely worth it.

 

 

References:

 

[1]Barclay, Eliza, and Amaria, Kainaz. “Kids in 123 Countries Went on Strike to Protect the Climate.” Vox Magazine, Mar 17 2019, https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2019/3/15/18267156.Accessed Apr 2 2019

 

 

[2]Parker, Laura. “Biggest Case on the Planet’ Pits Kids vs. Climate Change”.National Geographic.Nov 9 2018 Accessed Apr 2 2019

 

[3]Yoon Hendricks, Alexandra. “Meet the Teenagers Leading a Climate Change Movement”. New York Times, June 2018 Accessed Apr 2 2019

 

[4]Yoon Hendricks, Alexandra. “Meet the Teenagers Leading a Climate Change Movement”. New York Times, June 2018 Accessed Apr 2 2019

 

[5]Barclay, Eliza, and Amaria, Kainaz. “Kids in 123 Countries Went on Strike to Protect the Climate.” Accessed Apr 2 2019

 

 

[6]Riemer et al. “The Youth Leading Environmental Change Project: A Mixed-Method Longitudinal Study across Six Countries.” Ecopsychology Journal. Sep 2016Accessed Apr 2 2019

 

[7]Riemer et al. “The Youth Leading Environmental Change Project: A Mixed-Method Longitudinal Study across Six Countries.”Ecopsychology Journal. Sep 2016 Accessed Apr 2 2019

 

[8]Ameen, Rachel. “Climate Change Survey.” Syracuse University, March 2019

 

[9]Morgan, Pamela.  “Perspectives on Teaching and Learning in a Time of Climate Change.” Gulf of Maine Institute Journal Fall 2019

 

 

[10]McCann,Roslynn et al.“The Inconvenient Youth Revisited: Teens, Parents, and Clean Air Conversations and Action.” Journal of Record, Vol 11, no 6, Dec 2018 Accessed Apr 2 2019

 

[11]McCann,Roslynn et al.“The Inconvenient Youth Revisited: Teens, Parents, and Clean Air Conversations and Action.” Journal of Record, Vol 11, no 6, Dec 2018 Accessed Apr 2 2019

 

[12]McCann,Roslynn et al.“The Inconvenient Youth Revisited: Teens, Parents, and Clean Air Conversations and Action.” Journal of Record, Vol 11, no 6, Dec 2018 Accessed Apr 2 2019

 

[13]Ameen, Rachel. “Climate Change Survey.” Syracuse University, Mar 2019

 

 

Rachel Ameen is a native of Newburyport and is an avid nature lover and dog enthusiast. She is a senior at Syracuse University and will graduate in Spring 2020 with dual degrees in Political Science and Environment, Sustainability & and Policy. She served as the Gulf of Maine Institute’s summer intern in 2019 and is a recent initiate to the Board of Directors as a youth representative. She plans to pursue a master’s degree in environmental policy or a related field, and has performed much of her undergraduate research on youth environmental activism. 

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