We are in unprecedented territory when it comes to climate change. How young people choose to tackle this problem will be a major factor that sets the world on its future path
By Maria Ojala @iaojala
In the autumn of 2018, Greta Thunberg, a 15-year-old Swedish girl, had had enough of the adult world’s ignorance. The general election was coming up, and in order to bring attention to climate change and put pressure on political parties to take the issue seriously, Greta started a one-girl school strike, sitting in front of the Swedish parliament. A couple of months later, media across the world reported on her climate activism. By then, similar protests had spread to Finland, the Netherlands and Australia, among other countries. At the same time, university students (for example, in France) started campaigns demanding that employers run their organisations in a climate-friendly way.
These examples seem to support a popular story about young people and climate change: that this age group is more interested and engaged regarding this issue than older generations. But is it true? Are young people more enlightened and active regarding climate change? Are they the ones the world should turn to in search of hope? The answers to these questions are complex.
Surveys conducted in different countries show that many young people are worried about climate change and rank the problem as the most important societal issue. However, young people’s lifestyles are often no more sustainable than those of older age groups. The gap between concern, on the one hand, and engagement on the other seems to be particularly wide among the young. One factor that could explain this gap is that many young people have a rather pessimistic view of climate change and the future on a global scale. Consequently, many lack a sense of empowerment and agency regarding this threat. This seems to affirm another widespread story about young people and climate change: that the younger generation, and especially children, are more vulnerable to having their personal wellbeing negatively impacted because of this problem.
While the younger generations may have a lot in common, they are not a homogeneous group. This applies to their thoughts about and approaches to climate change. Just like adults, young people relate to this issue in diverse ways. My research concentrates on young people living in Sweden, a country that, like many other European nations, is both spatially and temporally remote from the worst consequences of climate change. At the same time, young Swedish people are part of a western lifestyle that is often seen as responsible for this problem. What is new about the climate threat, compared to other existential societal threats such as nuclear war, is that ‘everyone’ is said to be part of the problem. How people, including young people, behave in their everyday life, how often they fly and what foods they consume will, at an aggregated level, have an impact on the situation. Subsequently, the climate threat is not foremost related to self-focused worry but rather to concern about the wellbeing of others (for example, future generations, people living in economically deprived countries and the natural world). It is a worry mixed up with guilt. In this context I have investigated how children, adolescents and young adults cope with climate change.
Some young people, including those as young as 11, de-emphasise the seriousness of climate change. They deny the existence of the problem or use a kind of ‘here and now’ thinking; not saying that the problem does not exist, but perceiving it as one that does not concern them, instead viewing it as an issue that only affects people in faraway countries and future generations. This response — de-emphasising — could be due to the fact that they do not value environmental issues that highly, and therefore do not consider climate change to be a serious threat. It could be because some embrace worldviews, values and lifestyles that are threatened by the societal changes that adapting to the reality of climate change would imply. Or they may have parents who are climate change sceptics. Others may have a hard time dealing with negative emotions, and in order to avoid feeling worried they cope by, in different ways, de-emphasising the threat. The youngest age groups may not have the cognitive maturity to truly understand the problem. These strategies are mostly used by boys and are related to a sense of not being able to influence the climate change problem.
Emotion-focused strategies are a second key way of coping. These are where the young are worried but try to get rid of or alleviate these emotions. They distance themselves from negative emotions through distraction, busying themselves with other activities, or through avoidance, evading hearing about climate change by, for instance, not listening when teachers talk about the topic. Less common is to seek social support; for example, talking with parents and friends about their worries. This is in line with tendencies among adults, where many worry about the climate but few talk about their emotions. This attitude could lead to a spiral of silence, with people thinking that nobody cares because so few give voice to their worries, which makes people even more reluctant to talk about their own emotions.
Young people who use problem-focused strategies search for information about what they can do. They talk to others, make plans and take concrete steps. For example, they may stop eating meat, or encourage others to care about climate issues. These strategies are more common among girls and are linked to a feeling that the individual can have a positive influence on the problem. However, in two studies, these ways of coping were associated with low wellbeing. This is perhaps because these strategies are first and foremost about what the individual can do, not about collective engagement, and thus put a heavy burden on a young person’s shoulders. Problem-focused strategies are often adaptive ways of coping with stress, but when stressors are relatively uncontrollable, as societal problems often are for the individual, problem-focused coping can create more distress.
An alternative response?
Is there any other way to cope with climate change that promotes both engagement and wellbeing? I believe that there is, but a shift from focusing on how young people regulate climate worry to how they promote hope is needed. First, it is necessary to acknowledge that, although not common, hope can sometimes be based on denying the seriousness of climate change. Some young people who de-emphasise the climate threat say that they feel hopeful because (according to them) the problem is not that serious. However, the most common sources of climate hope are not related to denial, but based on meaning-focused coping strategies. Susan Folkman, an American professor who has undertaken influential studies on coping, found that when a person confronted a problem that could not be solved immediately (or perhaps not at all), but that still demanded active involvement (such as dealing with a chronic disease), problem-focused coping was not enough but needed to be complemented by something else: meaning-focused coping.
Folkman’s research focused on the micro-level, not on coping with societal problems. There are, however, some similarities here with climate change. Even if a person is very active, climate change cannot be solved at once, only in the distant future and after collective global action. Therefore, people also need strategies that promote constructive hope. Hope can help them confront the problem and bear the burden of taking on climate change without becoming overwhelmed.
In empirical studies I have found that young people use two main meaning-focused strategies when confronting climate change. One is positive re-appraisal, which is about being able to acknowledge the seriousness of the climate problem, but also being able to switch perspective and see positive trends, no matter how small. These could be that knowledge about climate change has increased in society, or that when the negative consequences become more visible in the west we will finally take this problem seriously. Another common complementary meaning-focused strategy is trust. While young people’s trust in many institutions may have declined, some still trust particular societal actors, such as scientists and environmental organisations, and sometimes even politicians. To have faith that other, more powerful, actors will also do their part can help young people to feel that their own engagement matters. Research shows that, more broadly, meaning-focused coping is associated with engagement and wellbeing.
“Collective engagement on environmental issues is related to hope and wellbeing, perhaps because feelings of efficacy increase when a community is involved”
Meaning-focused coping therefore seems to be a constructive way to deal with climate change, but it is also a demanding and abstract strategy. A more concrete way to find climate hope would be to look at prefigurative politics. In prefigurative politics, people and movements bypass the status quo to bring about societal change by creating alternative social relations and practices locally instead of confronting power structures directly. In this approach, individuals try to disrupt unsustainable norms and routines by finding cracks in the system. An individual or movement invokes hope within themselves but can also be a role model for others, thereby slowly eroding the current, unsustainable order. In this way, they are trying to prefigure a more sustainable future.
Research shows that collective engagement on environmental issues is related to hope and wellbeing, perhaps because feelings of efficacy increase when a community is involved and people can support one another. In their recent study of youth activism on climate change, O’Brien, Selboe and Hayward present three ways that young people are collectively engaged. The first, dutiful dissent, is characterised by young people’s involvement in established practices, institutions and decision-making processes to express their dissatisfaction and to promote climate-friendly alternatives. The second, disruptive dissent, is about challenging existing norms, rules and institutions, drawing attention to the underlying structural, cultural and economic drivers of climate change. The third, dangerous dissent, a form of engagement similar to prefigurative politics, goes one step further. It challenges the current order by initiating, developing and actualising alternatives that inspire transformation. For O’Brien et al, this is the most ‘dangerous’ form of engagement, since it not only disrupts but also gives alternatives to the current societal order and thereby challenges power relations and the status quo in a way that is “off the radar from those threatened by alternatives”.
Whether collective action in relation to climate change has become more common among young people recently remains unclear. Studies conducted just a couple of years ago, such as a Swedish study by Ballantyne, Wibeck and Neset from 2016 and a British study by Hibberd and Nguyen from 2013, indicate that, although many young people express worry about climate change in surveys, in everyday life they are rather indifferent and disengaged regarding the issue. Seen from this perspective, the call for a broader collective engagement seems somewhat idealistic.
Over 10 years ago, Richard Eckersley, an independent sustainability researcher, warned that the complexity and seriousness of global threats like climate change could lead to two less optimal reactions. The first he called apocalyptic nihilism, which is where feelings of powerlessness take over and the individual ceases to care, instead living for the day. The second is apocalyptic fundamentalism, where people try to return to more certain times, politics is framed as a contest between good and bad, and extremism rules. Could there be a risk that some kinds of climate activism among young people will lead to extremism and political polarisation? Some political scientists and sociologists have warned about the risk of ‘eco-dictatorship’. And of course, collective engagement in the form of disruptive dissent can also be aimed at climate-friendly policies, as the recent protests by the gilets jaunes in France show. Eckersley instead put forth the argument for apocalyptic activism, which is about the desire to create something new by facing difficulties and uncertainties in a determined but non-extremist way. Here, constructive hope is in focus.
How then can the adult world support young people in order to promote constructive hope and empowerment? More research is needed to give evidence-based suggestions. Studies, however, show that young people who use more constructive coping strategies and are more active feel that the adult world takes their emotions regarding societal issues seriously and talk about climate change in a more solution-oriented and hopeful manner. Conversely, young people who deny the seriousness of climate change and who feel that they cannot influence the future believe that teachers and parents do not take their emotions about such issues seriously, and would not listen if they wanted to give voice to them. They also think that adults mainly talk about the future in a ‘gloom and doom’ way. These results, together with studies about general worry, indicate that adults need to listen to young people, to not be afraid of young people’s worries and to help them express their emotions articulately. Talking about climate change in a supportive and solution-oriented way is vital. The importance of trust implies that a good way to support young people is to let them come into contact, for instance in school, with adults who work in different ways with climate change, such as scientists, politicians and business people. In this way, the common cynical view of the adult world can be challenged.
It is also important to help young people find ways to influence the climate dilemma both as consumers and citizens, and in everyday life and collective political engagement. In recent years, researchers in psychology and economy have focused on behaviour change through nudging; policies that seek to influence our behaviour in positive ways. Some researchers have, however, started to argue that this is not enough and that there is a need to support people so that they are able to face more profound change. A form of transformative learning that focuses on developing competences to deal with complexity, uncertainty and ambivalence, and strong emotions of worry, sadness and anger, is a major new area of research.
It is not children, but young adults and late adolescents, who feel most disempowered and pessimistic regarding climate change. This is perhaps because they are more likely than children to understand the complexity and seriousness of the problem. At the same time, they are also starting to take responsibility for their own lives and households and are realising the difficulty of living up to their ideals in everyday life. This is a critical age period.
American developmental psychologist Anne Colby, in a book about education for democracy, argues that there is a tendency to overestimate young adults’ ability to deal with uncertainty and complexity in relation to societal problems, meaning that there is a risk of feelings of helplessness and hopelessness increasing. Senior high school and higher education can play an important role in supporting the young. It is important to help them develop a more nuanced understanding of the complexity and dilemmas that adulthood brings, and to face ambivalence without giving in to inaction. Educators can, for instance, challenge tendencies towards black-and-white thinking by presenting alternative, more constructive, ways of dealing with ambivalence. Here, teachers need to be supportive.
“We need to create more spaces where together, young and old, we can deliberate about the kinds of lives we want to live”
To take one example, there is no need to argue that just because not everyone in the world is environmentally engaged, individual action is meaningless, as many do. Some young people believe that someone needs to take the first step, at least so there is somebody to serve as a role model for others, or that it is a moral duty to behave in a certain way regardless of what others do. Different ways of thinking around ambivalence can be compared and discussed critically. Positive reappraisal as part of a meaning-focused coping strategy can also be encouraged by looking at the situation from different points of view. As the Swedish physician and scholar Hans Rosling pointed out, it is surprisingly hard even for adults to realise that things can be gravely serious while also containing the possibility of progress. But for those who are able to manage this complexity, it can become a dialectical process that drives climate engagement.
Although action is important, without thinking and critical discussion it can, in the worst case, lead to extremism and polarisation. It is, therefore, important to give room to facing up to and talking about the existential and justice-related dimensions of climate change; for example, the disparity of impacts already occurring across the globe. We need to create more spaces where together, young and old, we can deliberate about the kinds of lives we want to live and what kind of global future we are envisioning. How do we work towards this future while taking into account the implications of unequal impact and the ability to adapt? It is only then that we can go beyond piecemeal behaviour change and prepare in a more profound way for the societal transformation that climate change will bring.
Maria Ojala is an associate professor in psychology at Örebro University in Sweden. Her work focuses on young people and the ways they react to and communicate about climate change.
This article first appeared in the RSA Journal — Issue 4 2018–19