The Climate Change Battle Needs Youth Voices


Participants of the 2018 Western New York Youth Climate Action Summit gather around a banner they created by stamping their footprint and signing their name, pledging that “The oceans are rising, and so are we!

“Climate change is a real and serious problem facing global society in the coming decades and centuries. Climate change in recent decades is primarily caused by human activities, especially related to energy use. Humans can take actions to reduce climate change and its impacts.” (Duggan-Haas, 2017).

As an Earth Science educator in New York State, I have felt it a part of my duties to include the topic of climate change in multiple facets of my teaching routine throughout the school year. Naturally, Earth Science topics lend themselves well to an investigation of climate change. Inevitably the discussion of climate change — depleting resources, noxious gases filling our atmosphere, ecological devastation, monster storms, and generally an altered picture of the world as we know it — naturally raises some concerns. Brows furrow, smiles turn to stiff frowns, and here or there a hand goes up… “just what are we supposed to do about it?” sounds more like a desperate demand than a question.

Years ago my answer consisted of suggesting the students make future plans to vote for a politician that values the same things they do, consider an electric vehicle when purchasing a new car, and having less offspring. Although these are probably some of the most impactful things we can do as individuals in order to combat climate change, they don’t really apply to a 14-year old. They can’t vote for at least four more years, they are only dreaming about driving and it’s likely their first car will be a pre-electric hand-me-down, and most of them are probably taking precautions to limit the number of humans they put on the planet… at the moment, anyway. These choices are a quarter of a lifetime away for our students.

Other recommendations I often hear fellow educators pose to their students have nearly-negligible impacts when it comes to reducing the human carbon footprint. Personal choices such as upgrading household light bulbs to CFLs or LEDs, recycling more, and taking shorter showers are extremely low on the scale of effectiveness (Smith, 2017). I would never suggest to ignore these simple habit alterations, but youth can accomplish much more than just this.

What I have realized through some time working a little more intensively with youth around climate justice and climate action planning, is that students can do way more than make plans in their calendars for years from now or simply alter their personal habits. Youth have historically been hinge factors in many policy decisions. And recently we have seen powerful civic engagement from youth such as the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students after the tragic high school shooting in February. These young people have proven that a pre-existing stagnating battle can be reignited by passionate young voices. In the climate change arena, we need youth to take action now. Educators need to help them see how.

According to Graham and Weingarten (2018) that although civics education is lacking in most public education curriculums, teachers need to empower youth to be active members of their community. “When a person lacks a sense of his or her own power as a citizen…he or she is more likely to give up on democracy and turn to a ‘strongman’ to solve his or her problems” (Graham & Weingarten, 2018). Many times students give up in general, expecting that an adult, the government, or some paranormal force will just solve the problem for us. Giving up on the power of the people is a recipe for the collapse of democracy. “Research both here and abroad confirms that those students who understand democracy best — and who participate most actively in civic life as adults — are those whose teachers know their material and dare to run classes that involve students in civic work and in discussions of controversial subjects” (Graham & Weingarten, 2018). Be that teacher.

The following is a list of reasons supporting the argument that it is valuable to engage youth in climate change conversations and civic action:

Young people have good ideas and are naturally innovative. Typically, biases form as people get older. Depending on the age and environment, youth tend to be less entrenched in a position or side, and so are less influenced by such biases. Creativity has yet to be stifled by life’s harsh experiences, so youth are also less reserved and more confident with their brainstorming.

Young people are consumers — driving businesses and economic decisions of corporations (the largest force that will ultimately steer our climate future).

Parents listen to their kids. Parents get excited when their kids are inspired by something and are often enthusiastically supportive. In essence, parents can learn through their children’s experiences.

Teens have yet to choose their careers. They have not yet become embedded in an occupation and can still make educational decisions to lead to an innovative or green career. “Society needs citizens who understand the climate system and know how to apply that knowledge in their careers and in their engagement as active members of their communities” (USGCRP, 2009).

Student engagement and knowledge lead to critical thinking, confidence, judgment, and empowerment” (Weingarten, 2018). Relevant and authentic project-based learning helps students practice twenty-first century skills as they also make a difference in their communities.

You, too, may have encountered the furrowed-brow look from your students or your own children. The next part of this article is a letter to these young people who wish to do something more to help create a sustainable future — how to actively engage in the fight against climate change and towards a more sustainable future. I ask that you pass this next piece on to your students.

Dear Concerned Youth:

If you are anything like some of my students, you have heard about climate change and some of the devastating effects it is having around the world, and are worried about what may come if you don’t start doing something about it right now. You know that there are choices adults can make and you have been politely waiting for them to do the right thing for the planet, for the community, and most of all for you — as you are the future! What I’m telling you now is that you do not have to wait any longer. You can take action to combat climate change, and you can start today. Check out the following list to see if any of these ideas might spark some inspiration for you and get started immediately! Please keep in mind, this is an extensive list in order to give you a wide range of options, but do not feel like you need to do it all. Choose one thing that you will do this year, and if you get two things done, you are well on your way to becoming a climate activist!

Individual actions count. Many people believe the problem is so big, there is nothing they can do as a single person to possibly make a difference. This is a fallacy — each individual added together makes a crowd, a town, or a country: “The actions of individuals are where everything begins.” And “…the only thing that does matter is what people do. Every step that we take — as an individual, as a community, or as a nation — to reduce our climate impact is a step that makes the problem a little smaller, a little less difficult” (Moore, 2017). The list below includes some things you can do personally, some habits you can change and choices you can make, to begin to chip away at climate change challenges and reduce your carbon footprint. This list does not incorporate every sustainable habit, but according to research, it includes some of the most impactful personal choices you can make (Smith, 2017).

BE A RESPONSIBLE CONSUMER. The economy is driven by the consumer, and choices you make about your purchases will drive what and how much is produced.

Buy local. The less it has to travel, the less resulting emissions in the transportation of the good or product. Easy.

Buy reused items. So many material items can be easily and effectively reused — clothing, bicycles, cars, coffee mugs, jewelry, and furniture! Listen to Macklemore’s number one hit from 2013, and check out your local consignment or thrift shop.

Buy reusable items. Packaging is out of control, and on top of the plastic pieces that we discard into our oceans and water sources, it takes energy to make the stuff. Make an effort to buy things without packaging and reuse containers like pre-weighed bulk food containers, refillable coffee mugs, glass water bottles, and canvas/mesh shopping bags.

Buy less, in general. Double-check with yourself when you are about to make a purchase to see if you do in fact really need or really love the item. If you can’t answer “yes”, then the truth is you don’t. Put it back on the shelf, and slowly back away.

EAT LESS MEAT. What you eat actually has more impact than where it comes from. Although this is complicated and research is always continuing, it is true that red meat in particular has a much higher environmental impact than a plant-based diet. To put it simply, you want to try to eat as low down on the food chain as often as you can — filling your plate with more veggies, fruits, grains, and beans (Albeck-Ripka, 2018).

CHOOSE TRANSPORTATION WISELY. When you have the option of getting from one place to another, you likely know the best choice is to walk or bike. If mass transit is available, make some friends on the local subway or bus. If driving is a must, attempt to strategically carpool in order to save on fuel.

Collective actions have a domino effect. Collaborate with your family, friends, and community to have an even greater impact. Many young people are overwhelmed about taking the leap into cooperative efforts that on the outside appear to be mainly adult groups. I assure you that a youth voice is important and welcomed. Grab a friend or parent to join you if you feel uncomfortable at first. Networking, conversations, and collaboration bring people together to achieve a common goal. The idea is that there is strength in numbers.

TALK ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE. Half the battle is starting the conversation.

Teach younger family members sustainable habits. Use the above list to provide an example to younger siblings, cousins, or even students in your school. You are a natural role model to younger children, and they will follow your lead. It is also easier to develop good habits at a younger age.

Teach your parents. Again, using the individual habits list, talk with your parents about routines that they have, that could be altered slightly with a shift in mindset. You could also offer to make dinner once a week that has less meat in the menu, or do more laundry if you are willing to hang-dry the clothes. I can’t imagine a parent that would argue with these offers!

Supplement small-talk with climate change snippets. Small talk with neighbors, grocery store cashiers, hair dressers, or anyone you meet in passing, almost always begins with a quick mention of the weather (“heck of a summer it’s been, I never remember it being this hot!” or “it will be nicer when this rain clears up, I’ve never seen my yard under so much water!” or “the amount of thunderstorms we’ve been getting is incredible, and each one is bigger than the last!”) Little do people know, but these “crazy” weather situations may be due to a changing climate. Arid regions are getting drier and humid regions are seeing heavier precipitation. It’s a great segue into a polite conversation that may sound something like “well, I’d expect we see more weather like this each year as our climate shifts. I wonder if we should consider rain barrels to capture all of that water…” This plants a seed and allows the other party to consider climate change without it being aggressive. The conversation could stop there, or the other person might be interested in more of your knowledge about the subject — be prepared to elaborate.

Watch climate change documentaries (such as Chasing Ice, Chasing Coral, or An Inconvenient Sequel) in order to further inform yourself of the issues. Share the message with your friends, neighbors, and classmates by hosting a film-viewing at your school with a question-and-answer session after. Chasing Ice has a great website that includes discussion prompts just for this purpose.


Join an organization. Find the nearest environmental organization to you. It may be a town conservation committee or it may be the regional Sierra Club chapter. Sign up for emails from them, attend their meetings and presentations, find out how you can volunteer in their next campaign.

Contact your local leaders. In New York State we have a program for towns and communities to commit to reducing greenhouse gases and becoming more climate resilient called “Climate Smart Communities”. If you are a resident of a town that is not listed as a Climate Smart Community6 you can call or write to your elected officials to encourage them to get started on the process. Check out your community (state, province, city) websites to see if there is something similar in your region. Other reasons to call an elected official might be just to let them know that climate change issues are important to you and you hope that they are looking into ways to build a resilient, low-emissions future. Encourage friends and family to call, too (remember, strength in numbers!).

Gather groups of young people to peacefully protest. For example, meet outside of a board meeting at a local college and demand fossil fuel divestment (ie. you won’t go there unless they go 100% fossil fuel free!), or march to city hall to plea for reconsideration of the construction of a big polluting factory in the neighborhood.

Have a party. Invite friends over to make signs for the next climate march8, write postcards to elected officials, or plan a rally. Who says you can’t have fun while saving the world?


Run a competition in your neighborhood or school. Some ideas for climate-oriented contests may be: Who can walk/bike the most miles this week to work/store?; Who can use the least electricity this month?; Who can build the most efficient bicycle from recycled items?

Approach your school board or superintendent about any number of activities, policies, or improvements you would like to see implemented in your school. Usually at this point, you will have a plan about what you want to do. Be as prepared with details as possible when you ask to speak to the board or administrator. Some school initiative ideas might be:

· Energy savings — a campaign to turn off computers at the end of the day/when not in use, turn off lights or have motion-detected lights

· Food systems — farm-to-school, school garden, composting food waste

· Recycling programs and educating students on proper recycling techniques9 for local waste management. Offer to host an assembly for the staff and students about disposal guidelines in your school.

· Adding solar panels, wind turbines, or green roofing to the school campus.

· Becoming a LEED-certified building during any school upgrades. Currently in New York State, the State University of New York college system is committed to reducing energy consumption by 30% by 2020 (SUNY, 2018). Campuses that are undergoing construction attempt to adhere to LEED-certification standards. Why not urge your school to do the same?

PREREGISTER TO VOTE10. Different states/provinces have different ages and policies for which they allow you to sign up ahead of time to vote, to be sure you don’t miss the next election. Democracy depends on politically engaged citizens, and that starts with using your right to vote. You can also volunteer with a local voter registration campaign — you don’t have to be 18 to do this!

Students, youth, future of our Earth and humanity; make your choice and make it happen!

In the spirit of a more sustainable future,

Kelli Grabowski

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Kelli Grabowski teaches Earth science and 8th grade science at Hamburg Central School District and is a New York State Master Teacher Fellow in the Western New York Region. She works to foster a love for Earth and an understanding that all of Earth’s systems are connected by creating relevant and cooperative learning experiences for her students. Kelli is dedicated to creating a space for youth to have a seat at the table in the fight against climate change.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS The author gratefully acknowledges the support of Dr. Julie Henry from the State University of New York at Buffalo State College and the New York State Master Teacher Program in the preparation of this manuscript.


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Chasing Ice, LLC. Chasing Ice, 2018. 1415 Arapahoe Ave., Boulder, CO 80302.

Climate Smart Communities. The Official Website of New York State, 2018.

Anderson, L. (February, 2018). A Student’s Guide to Walkouts and Protests. Offspring. Lifehacker.

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10Preregistration for Young Voters. National Conference of State Legislatures, March 2018.

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