When I was a kid, I don’t remember having “the talk” – that is, the talk about climate change and the role that humans are playing in causing it. My parents have a good excuse for that, seeing as climate change wasn’t really on society’s radar back in the 90s. However, today’s parents can and should be having discussions about climate change with their kids, because it seems that kids who talk about climate change with their families are more likely to engage in climate positive actions (Figure 1).
Climate change is obviously a huge topic, and takes different forms – there’s sea level rise, extreme drought or rain events, increasing temperatures, ocean acidification, and strengthening hurricanes. No matter where you live or what you do for a living, one of those aspects is bound to affect your life. However, many people don’t think about climate change as an immediate threat (or even a real one) and therefore don’t take the small actions that could help to mitigate it.
Understanding what motivates adults to combat climate change in their own way is not easy, and to be sure, there are many barriers to adopting climate positive behaviors like recycling, taking public transport, or conserving energy. Telling adults about the facts of climate change does not increase positive behaviors or overcome their skepticism, and since adults tend to believe those who share their same views, shouting facts that contradict their existing opinions is often ineffective. Plus, adults tend to view climate change as the future’s problem – not their own – and believe that “going green” will negatively affect their quality of life.
In contrast, preteens and teenagers have a more flexible view of the world, since this is the time in their lives where they are developing their worldview. Previous work has shown that teaching teens about climate change increases their acceptance of climate change, even if their initial worldview is skeptical about it. However, there hasn’t been much work into the best way to teach teens about global warming. Preliminary work has suggested that who the teen is talking to and how often they talk to them about climate change is important to behavior. Adolescents talk to their parents, to their friends, to informal educators, to their teachers – surely, one of these groups of people can persuade preteens and teens to adopt positive climate behaviors, if they talk about it enough.
This study’s authors survey 1371 middle school students in North Carolina to try to answer that question. They asked the students about their climate change behaviors, including how often they recycle, how often they turn out the lights when leaving the room, and how often they walk or bike places rather than drive there. They also asked the students how much they knew about climate change, and how concerned they were about it. The survey also included questions about who they talk to about climate change, and how often that happens.
The researchers also collected information about the student demographics. They recorded whether the surveys came from an urban or rural school, a male or female student, a white or non-white student, and the age of the student. They also recorded whether or not the school received Title 1 funding, which is a good indicator of socioeconomic status of students.
Results and Importance
The researchers found that the average student, out of the nearly 1400 surveyed, were moderately informed about climate change (scoring 14.3/21) and were moderately concerned about it (scoring 9.6/17). In terms of behavior, the average student “sometimes” recycles, “rarely” walks or bikes instead of drives somewhere, and “often” turns out the lights at home. Students were mostly discussing climate change with their teachers (85.5% have talked about climate change in a classroom), but some students discussed with their families (60.01%). Fewer students were talking about climate change with their friends (42.5%).
In terms of demographics, positive climate change behavior was far lower in rural schools than in urban schools. Within urban schools, those schools that were wealthier (eg, did not receive Title 1 funding) had more students taking positive climate actions (Figure 2).
The strongest predictor of positive climate change behavior was how concerned a particular student was about the risks of climate change. Empirically, that makes sense – the more worried about climate change a student was, the more likely they were to take small actions against it, like recycling.
Students who were talking with their families about climate change were also more likely to take actions than those who were talking with their friends or teachers. This suggests that teachers should encourage assignments that increase peer and family involvement – for example, students could interview their families about climate change, or do group projects with their peers about it. Both would help to increase discussion with family and friends, rather than teachers, and hopefully increase positive climate behaviors.
Informal education is also an avenue to increase communication about climate change with family and friends. Interacting with staff at an aquarium or zoo usually happens in a family or friend group, which can promote discussion among teens. Informal education can also happen on social media or while watching TV, and while those aren’t traditional avenues for climate change education, they could be used to at the very least stimulate discussions.
One of the barriers to implementing such solutions is the urban/rural divide. Ideologically, rural students are much more likely to have conservative views, which often are associated with doubt or denial about climate change. While the authors acknowledge that changing this ideology will be difficult, previous work has shown that focusing on the local effects of climate change will resonate more. Climate skeptics are more likely to engage in positive climate behaviors once they’re convinced that it will help their local area.
Interestingly, students in urban areas shared the same levels of concern about climate change, which indicated to the authors that there are other barriers for these students to implement positive climate actions. Students in lower income urban areas are likely worried about crime and safety, which may stop teens from biking/walking instead of driving. Additionally, these families may not have access to recycling facilities.
Ultimately, this research is important because these kids are literally the future – they will be the ones to both live with the effects of climate change and make climate policy down the road. Plus, previous work has shown that environmental education programs that target kids also influence parents to alter their attitudes about environmental topics like recycling or conservation. Understanding what teens know about climate change and how they shape their behavior as a result could have a domino effect, changing hearts and minds in a way that education alone cannot.
Engage: Talk to your family (your parents, kids, nieces/nephews, brothers/sisters) about climate change. Have an open mind. Listen as well as speak.
Hi and welcome to oceanbites! I recently finished my master’s degree at URI, focusing on lobsters and how they respond metabolically to ocean acidification projections. I did my undergrad at Boston University and majored in English and Marine Sciences – a weird combination, but a scientist also has to be a good writer! When I’m not researching, I’m cooking or going for a run or kicking butt at trivia competitions. Check me out on Twitter @glassysquid for more ocean and climate change related conversation!