Why Youth Need More Support in Learning About and Combatting Climate Change
As featured in an article for the Youth and Media Project at Harvard University
As backwards as it may sound, the people most damaged by climate change are sometimes the least informed. While research shows that most young people are highly worried about climate change — as the recent FridaysForFuture movement demonstrates — recent studies also caution that youth often feel misinformed and disenfranchised in this issue they care so much about.
One reason young people are struggling to navigate the issue and advocate for it, is that youth are often unable to access academic resources and reviewed papers from confusing information ecosystems. A study conducted by the The Washington Post and the Kaiser Foundation found that 46% of young people worldwide report learning little to nothing about climate change in school. A different study conducted by Plan International found that about 20% of youth rated their climate change education as poor or very poor. This lack of formal and high quality climate change education often leaves young people like me scared and hopeless in their fight for high quality climate information.
It’s no surprise to me that youth are making the digital environment their medium of choice and as such are likely getting information about climate change from social media and online resources. I personally encounter countless posts about global warming daily. The problem for me is that most commonly circulated online content is written by people with social influence rather than subject expertise. Often their posts reduce the complicated and tangled issue of climate change to simple and eye-catching, yet incorrect or incomplete graphics. I also find many such posts to be biased and written from the perspectives of actors that benefit from the climate crisis. I have come across numerous posts that posit propaganda from companies invested in preventing the realization that human activities cause global warming as fact. All these incorrect and biased sources shoved into the personal feeds of young people like myself add to the confusion and despair in understanding global warming.
Research reflects my experience as a young person of young people’s struggles (this is not to say that adults aren’t struggling as well). Earlier this year researchers surveyed young people across the world and found that 82% of youth across 77 different countries don’t know how their government is tackling the climate emergency and lack knowledge about key topics and environmental accords. This is despite 98% of them caring deeply about global warming. Again I believe this is because youth are not fully able to access and engage in meaningful ways with the climate crisis information ecosystem. An astounding 34% of surveyed surveyed recently described feeling that climate change is such an immense problem there is nothing they can do to help reduce its effects.
Thankfully I think there are multiple ways that decision makers can help and support youth. First is better education. In the United States, for instance, fewer than half of teachers are actually talking about climate change in school! Educating youth certainly won’t alleviate the climate crisis, however educating the worldwide population of young people who aren’t nearly as entrenched in their beliefs could finally create the generation necessary to tackle the climate crisis. And implementing systems for environmental science in lower education is possible. For example, Washington State recently had tremendous success with its professional environmental science education model called ClimeTime. Within its first year the system prepared and encouraged over 1 in 10 state teachers to integrate climate science and the climate crisis into their class.
I believe another effective route for ensuring that youth at scale have sound knowledge about climate change is through the internet. Internet leaders and climate experts could help change the online information ecosystem by providing youth with higher quality information about climate change. One idea would be to provide youth with access to information centers curated by climatology and environmental science experts. These centers could provide young people with accurate, relevant, and actionable information. Such an information hub could adopt an approach similar to our information system surrounding vaccines, where informational posts recommending vaccines are boosted and posts criticizing vaccines are deemphasized or removed. This approach could foster wider understanding and respect for global warming.
Young people like me are willing and excited to play their part — we simply hope adults around us will support us along the way. We need all hands on deck if we want to secure the future of life on earth. Humanity is fighting for its life and everything counts.
Thanks to Youth and Media for helping me with this research!