Cover image: Empowering all young people to engage with the climate crisis

Empowering all young people to engage with the climate crisis

Carley Sefton, CEO of the Learning through Landscapes Trust

For 30 years, the work of Learning through Landscapes (LtL) has promoted the importance of outdoor learning in school grounds connected to nature. Educational practice and the wider world have changed a lot in that time, and especially in the last year: we now live in a world trying to understand the impact of a pandemic, without losing focus on the climate crisis we all face.

The Fridays for Future school strikes have shown the power of young voices in addressing the climate crisis, and I often hear that “the future is in safe hands”. In some ways this is true. In a recent UN poll, 89% of young people who took part said that they feel they can make a difference to climate change. This is inspiring, but does it represent the feelings of young people from all cultural and economic backgrounds?

I worry that not every voice is getting an equal platform.

Many of the children and young people we work with who live in areas of deprivation do not feel engaged in the climate debate. Our My School, My Planet project supported pupils from disadvantaged ethnic groups and low-income families across the UK, and gave them the option to study climate change, biodiversity or soils. Only 7 out of 49 of schools chose to study climate change. Why was this number so low?

My School, My Planet activities at Whinhill Primary School, Inverclyde
My School, My Planet activities at Whinhill Primary School, Inverclyde

We learned a lot from listening to the experiences of three amazing young black activists who ran a podcast during the project: Louis VIDominique Palmer and Anita Okunde. All three told us what it’s like to develop a passion for the natural environment while lacking role models that they could identify with. It was a real eye-opener for me.

How can we expect all young people to engage with nature and climate activism when so many don’t see themselves reflected in the natural environment sector?

Dealing with this lack of ethnic and cultural diversity in the natural environment sector is a huge challenge, but I’m determined that we can make a positive difference. At LtL we are currently working with the amazing team at the cultural consultancy Louder Than Words to make sure that our work is culturally and ethnically inclusive. We want to be a key part of introducing a new, more diverse workforce to the sector, as well as prioritising the development of pioneering projects which address engagement.

It’s also crucial that differences in economic backgrounds are represented and considered in this work. The Child Poverty Action Group estimates that 4.3 million children live in poverty in the UK – an average of 9 children in every class of 30. 

Growing up in poverty reduces consumer choices, including a lot of the ones we associate with tackling climate change. Purchasing electric cars and passing on long-haul flights are not in the financial reach of many families. Even reducing your plastic use can be a difficult action if you are relying on food bank support.

A young person recently asked me: “we don’t fly and we can’t afford a Tesla, so what can I do to help?”

Many of the young activists we currently see in the media are from middle-class backgrounds, allowing them greater freedom to make decisions to become more ‘environmentally friendly”. Greta Thunberg’s amazing work has given a face and voice to youth climate activism, but some young people still struggle to see space for them and for the role they can play. Worse, some may even believe they don’t have a role at all.

The challenge we face as educators is: how do we make sure all children and young people we work with feel engaged with climate activism and understand the power that their voice can hold? We need young scientists, entrepreneurs and a whole green workforce to make an impact on our future, and the education system needs to empower young people to discover the role they can play.

My five top tips for empowering young people to engage with climate change:

  1. Make it relevant: climate change is a challenging subject, so break it down to make it accessible. For example, you can use a heat gun on a sunny day to explore the different temperatures between natural and man-made surfaces. This is a great way to see your school grounds as a micro-climate.
  2. Make it inclusive: not all children and young people can be, or want to be, activists. Explore all the roles that we need for a greener future and where their skillsets could fit. 
  3. Make it accessible: young people growing up in poverty have less consumer influence than their peers. Keep projects and activities focused on school, community and social changes instead of behaviours at home. 
  4. Make it diverse: explore cultural diversity and how behaviour in the UK can impact other countries in positive and negative ways. Is it ok to recycle if all our waste ends up polluting another country? 
  5. Make it mean something: as educators we focus a lot on engagement and attainment, but when it comes to behavioural change we need to see young people as their future selves. What action will they take as consumers and citizens? 
My School, My Planet activities at Whinhill Primary School, Inverclyde
My School, My Planet activities at Whinhill Primary School, Inverclyde