Image Credit: YACC
“Last night, my son wasn’t even sure if he wanted to come to this workshop. He said, ‘Mom, what’s the point? I can’t do anything. I’m just a kid and these problems are too big.’”
I have goosebumps hearing this from the mother of an 11-year old boy during the parent roundtable session of a Youth Action on Climate Change (YACC) workshop.
But nine months after launching the initiative, I am well aware that this young boy is not alone in his feeling of defeat. This is the norm, not the exception when it comes to young peoples’ feelings about climate change.
Today’s youth are the first generation to have lived their entire lives under the threat of catastrophic climate change and they are one of the most vulnerable groups to the impacts. The effects of climate change threaten the most basic rights of young people, including their health, access to food and water, education – even their survival.
Ultimately, many young people feel as though climate change is leaving them without a future. An Australian study of 10-14 year olds, found that 50% of children were deeply concerned about climate change, while 25% were concerned that the world would end in their lifetime.
Can you imagine growing up thinking that the planet is going to die before you do?
We have a climate emergency on our hands alright, and it’s the way that we teach young people about climate change. We are communicating the climate crisis in a way that supports an entire generation of hopeless activists who believe they’ve lost the fight before they’ve even begun.
We need to change the way that we talk to young people about climate change.
There is a need now more than ever, to educate youth about the possibilities of a drastically changing climate. While the statistics are daunting and the numbers terrifying, youth deserve to know what they’re up against. I’m certainly not arguing whether or not the facts have a place in climate discussions and I’m not suggesting we sugar-coat the harsh realities of climate change. What I am suggesting is that we do more than just teach youth to be scared.
There is a scene in the movie Tomorrowland, where the main character Casey finds herself in classroom after classroom, learning about the devastating effects that climate change is having all around the world. In each class she eagerly raises her hand, waiting to be called on by a teacher, but is continuously ignored. When she is finally called on she asks “so what can we do about it?”.
This is the question at the forefront of every young person’s mind when we talk about climate change. Don’t just tell young people that the glaciers are melting, teach them how to stop it. Don’t just tell youth that fossil fuels are bad for the atmosphere, teach them about renewable energy sources. Don’t just tell your students that eating meat is bad, give them alternatives to industrial agriculture. We spend far too much time talking about climate change impacts and not nearly enough talking about climate change solutions.
A Yale Climate Change Communication study, found that humans don’t respond well to negative information – go figure, nobody likes to lose. We need to feel like we can make positive change, because if it feels like nothing can be done, it’s unlikely we’ll be motivated to act. The feelings of this 11-year old boy in Waterloo are echoed among youth around the world: if they see a problem as too big, they stop believing that anything can be done to solve it.
Studies suggest that the best way to motivate young people to do something is to follow up the scary facts that we teach them with a solution, in order to focus young minds on action. Surveys conducted of young Norwegians in 2014 showed that young people wanted to learn more about how they could contribute to reducing the dramatic consequences of climate change and focus more on the positives.
Young people need to feel as though they are “doing something” about climate change; it’s why millions around the world have mobilized in front of parliament buildings and in city streets every Friday for almost a year.
Since August 2018, students around the world have been walking out of school and striking in protest of the governments’ inaction on climate change. The #FridaysForFuture strikes started by Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg, have provided youth one pathway in which they feel like they can be effective in fighting the climate crisis.
These strikes have been effective in terms of capturing global attention and raising awareness of the youth-climate movement. But, personally, I think they’re exceptionally underestimating the potential of young people.
The strikes revolve around the idea of youth asking decision makers to make change for them; the narrative doesn’t leave any space for young people to actively be part of the solution.
In a 2018 study, adult decision-makers referred to a need to reach a global climate agreement for, but not with young people, expressing well-meaning sentiments, but failing to acknowledge that youth could play an active role too.
At the University of Guelph, we recognized the active role that youth could play in addressing the climate crisis, which is why we founded Youth Action on Climate Change (YACC). Social movement activities like protests have a short shelf life and we wanted to ensure that youth-generated momentum wasn’t lost. As a result, we created a different pathway in which youth can feel like they’re being effective in fighting the climate crisis; we developed a space in which youth can collaborate with other like-minded young people and play an active role in building climate solutions.
The program takes a solutions-focussed approach that answers the inevitable “what now?”.
Our goal is to empower youth to design, build, and engage with their own climate solutions, instead of just relying on adult decision makers to save them who, let’s face it, don’t have a great track record. Now, less than a year into its existence, YACC has helped youth in Guelph and Waterloo region launch entirely youth-led projects focussed on developing community-based solutions around active transportation, energy transitions, and sustainable food systems.
At our Guelph launch event, we brought together almost 100 young people to talk about climate issues in the community, which ended up being the foundation for what is now an entirely youth-led research project on cycling infrastructure in the city. Youth as young as 14-years old are executing their own survey and participatory mapping project to highlight barriers to youth bike-ridership in the community and make recommendations to council that will make Guelph a more “bikeable” city.
The program quickly caught the attention of youth in Waterloo. Last month we launched YACC in Waterloo Region, bringing together about thirty young people to discuss their climate concerns and solutions. Beginning in September, these young people in will be leading projects to make the region's food systems more sustainable and help businesses in the community transition to renewable energy.
When we first started YACC, we were surprised to learn that there were few existing initiatives like it, in which young people could play an active role in solutions-building.
Research shows that schools, communities, and governments rarely engage with young people’s ideas, experiences, and understandings of climate change. This lack of support is leaving youth to cope with the overwhelming threat and responsibility of climate change on their own and adds to these existing feelings of hopelessness in the climate movement.
Through YACC, we have started to change this in order to more actively engage with young people on climate issues and support them in building solutions, but we can’t do it alone. We need schools, communities, and governments all around the world to recognize that youth participation in the climate movement is not tokenistic and start properly engaging them in solutions-building.
We need to start talking to youth about climate solutions as co-creators, not as victims or beneficiaries of our decision-making. Youth have a valuable, active role to play in shaping our world’s climate solutions and until we properly engage them, we’ll never be able to solve this planet’s climate crisis.
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