From the Individual to the System: Reflections on youth awareness of climate solutions

Updated: May 3


Isaac Bell and Holly Giacomodonato, from the SUTE scientific research team, have been published in the Spring issue of Green Teacher Magazine! Green Teacher is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping educators, both inside and outside of schools, promote environmental awareness among young people aged 6-19.


Green Teacher magazine offers perspectives on the role of education in creating a sustainable future, practical articles and ready-to-use activities for various age levels, and reviews of dozens of new educational resources.

Read and download their insightful article below, published in Issue 127 (p18-22. March 2021) of Green Teacher Magazine. We encourage you to visit and subscribe!


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From the Individual to the System Reflections on youth awareness of climate solutions (and what teachers can do to help)

Written By Isaac Bell and Holly Giacomodonato

Photos By Alena Blanes at the 2019 Climate Strike in Toronto, ON

Youth are increasingly engaged in the fight against climate change, and for good reason. The scientific predictions paint a dark picture of a world where extreme temperatures, natural disasters, and loss of biodiversity are commonplace. Even with role models such as Autumn Peltier, Vanessa Nakate, and Greta Thunberg inspiring millions of youths to push for positive change, it can be difficult to accept the responsibility of addressing climate change when those who have known about it for so long have done so little to mitigate this crisis. Much like learning about other aspects of our world, the journey of becoming ‘climate aware’ looks different for every young person. This article will begin with a discussion of a trajectory that students may experience as their awareness of climate and environmental issues develops over time. Broadly speaking, individual actions (turn off the lights, pack litterless lunches, etc.) are often emphasized first, followed by a gradual comprehension of more systemic challenges (e.g., corporate pollution). In this article, we will also offer suggestions for teachers (of all grades and disciplines) to help their students grapple with these topics without imposing predetermined opinions or biases on them.


In Leonardo DiCaprio’s infamous environmental documentary Before the Flood, DiCaprio describes first getting involved in the environmental movement in the early 2000s and explains that “back then everyone was focused on small individual actions... and it boiled down to simple solutions like changing your lightbulb... but it’s pretty clear that we are way beyond that now”. Now almost 20 years later, many environmental awareness campaigns, policies and incentives, and educational measures are still heavily focused on individual actions. However, suggested actions for leading a ‘green lifestyle’ are no longer quite as simple and non disruptive as everyday consumer choices like buying more efficient lightbulbs. Lowering your personal carbon footprint requires a close examination of your dietary habits and modes of transportation, as eating meat (especially beef) and flying are two of the largest contributors to personal carbon footprints.


By making climate change a personal problem, our actions, or seeming lack of action, can make us feel guilty — turning climate change into an even more daunting problem to tackle.

Actions on the individual level can certainly be a force for good! Many young people have found that trying to reduce their impact on the environment through actions such as reducing household waste and distancing oneself from fast fashion have provided a sense of control and strengthened their identity as environmentalists. That said, focusing on these types of actions does not address the socioeconomic barriers that might prevent someone from biking to work or cooking without using less expensive, plastic-wrapped, time-saving food products. Additionally, it might send the message that being a ‘good environmentalist’ is something you can buy in the form of a new stainless steel water bottle or electric car. By making climate change a personal problem, our actions, or seeming lack of action, can make us feel guilty — turning climate change into an even more daunting problem to tackle.


Placing the burden of saving the planet onto individuals is also deeply unfair. Neoliberal ideology, corporations, and governments divert our attention to our own carbon footprints — which have been responsible for the minority of carbon emissions since 1988 — while moving forward with privatization, deregulation, tax cuts, free trade deals, and fossil fuel subsidies. These interwoven barriers to collective and systematic changes, and what we can do to address them, were in the authors’ experiences only discussed in a space that is not accessible to everyone: post-secondary education.


Indeed, there is no fixed timeline for when (or the extent

to which) students learn about climate change issues beyond the loosely-defined level of individual responsibility. Even accounting for large variability in curriculum content between regions, school is only one way for students to encounter these topics: family, friends, and the internet (particularly social media) can all influence how, when, and what youth come to understand about climate change. Events such as Fridays for Future, started by Greta Thunberg in August 2018, have further amplified awareness among youth audiences about the need to act on climate change.


For some, the next step on their journey of climate awareness is to turn their back on individual-level climate action. After all, one’s personal impact seems incredibly minuscule compared to the harm inflicted by ‘the bad guys’! While there is no exact recipe for what combination of individual-versus-systemic actions would optimally address climate change (and actions can certainly blur the boundaries between these definitions), a more nuanced phase of climate awareness acknowledges the potential benefits of both types of action. In other words, one can try to lead a sustainable life through their individual actions (understanding that no one is perfect) while also recognizing the need for large-scale changes that dismantle systemic barriers to progress.


So, what are some more examples of these important climate-related issues

occurring at a ‘larger scale’? Corporate pollution, often produced out of sight and at exponentially greater magnitudes than would be possible by any individual, is a prime example. The statistic that just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global industrial greenhouse gas emissions illustrates the scope of this issue in a concise one-liner. Moreover, it can be troubling to learn about the role of the fossil fuel industry in spreading disinformation and intentionally deceiving the public about climate change. It often feels like the more you learn the less you want to know — from the environmental impacts of intensive agriculture to the carbon emissions associated with global military activities, addressing climate change will evidently require systemic societal changes.


The political level can be elusive and difficult to pin down, as it affects responses to climate change at local, regional, and national scales. In this era of increasing partisanship, it may be difficult or intimidating for teachers to navigate politically-charged topics in the classroom. Since political identity strongly influences views on climate change and students have likely formed political identities before they reach their teens, the classroom is an opportunity for environmental education and communication to occur in an (increasingly rare) non-partisan space. Social science research suggests that when it comes to highly political topics such as climate change, biases interfere with people’s abilities to learn new information, as they essentially “black out” information that conflicts with their original perspective. In a hyper-partisan context, it is difficult to face the challenge of climate change for a number of reasons: the complexity of the crisis, jurisdiction and accountability, collective action and trust, and imagination. This means that influencing the opinions of young climate change deniers is not just a matter of improving their understanding of the scientific facts, and that trying to address the topic through a political lens in the classroom could further divide students’ opinions. Understanding the depth in which partisanship affects climate action and comprehension can help you engage your students in a more effective manner.


Understanding the depth in which partisanship affects climate action and comprehension can help you engage your students in a more effective manner.

An alternative and beneficial approach to teaching students about climate change involves hands-on activities where participants are able to take action and see change, consequence, and benefit first-hand. Research suggests that behavioral change can have a bigger impact on students than traditional methods of debating the science and ethics of climate change. Experiential learning actively engages students and provides opportunities for reflection and assessment of one’s beliefs. Several studies found that students who engaged in projects were more likely to communicate climate information with others, which increased their feelings of motivation and empowerment. Utilizing projects and hands-on experience is also a way to make the material more personally relevant to each student by linking climate change to, or framing the concept through, other topics and issues. Allowing students to view the climate crisis through a lens that speaks most to their interests — such as through health, food, or biodiversity — can help reframe their ideas and emotions about climate change.


For example, students from an agricultural community who were skeptical about human-caused climate change had greater response levels and hopefulness when climate change was discussed through an agricultural lens. These projects and experiences can also emphasize teamwork and community involvement, which further develop ‘soft skills’ such as active listening and reaching across the aisle, while strengthening collective bonds that are necessary to address the systemic issues we are facing. Ultimately, young people are certainly expected to be the future leaders and innovators who will address climate change, so why not help them on this journey by providing opportunities in the classroom to develop and express their climate-related understandings, concerns, and ideas?


Teachers already have a lot on their plates, and the point of this article isn’t to burden educators with more tasks and checklists. Moreover, it’s not your responsibility as a teacher, nor is it realistic, to ensure that all of your students go on to become engaged citizens and climate activists. However, you are in a position where your words and actions can inform, inspire, and encourage empathy as students navigate their journeys of developing climate awareness. Drawing on the information presented above, here are some final suggestions for teachers to consider:

  • Burnout among activists/change-makers (or whatever term you prefer) is a real and very common occurrence. You can help lessen this risk for students of all ages by promoting self-care and encouraging rest. From university students to kindergarteners, creating space (even just five minutes at the start of every class) to reflect on positive topics and practice gratitude can make a huge difference. These are healthy habits for anyone, not just budding climate champions, to incorporate into their live. It should also be noted that you need to look after your own well-being, too! Shake Up the Establishment has some resources on self-care in the context of environmentalism; a link is provided in the resources section below.

  • Another practice is to encourage connections to the natural world whenever possible. This could be as simple as having class outside on a nice day, or perhaps sharing your own experiences with nature (e.g., talking about the new species of birds that have been visiting your bird feeder). Developing relationships with the natural world can help people care more about issues that affect the environment. Furthermore, this can emphasize that time in nature, or being an ‘outdoorsy person,’ is not always about crazy wilderness adventures (which may not be financially feasible or of interest to certain families). The book Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer touches on themes of connections to the natural world and the importance of reciprocity; this is a highly recommended resource.

  • When talking about climate change, remind students to consider climate justice and the implications of the environment on human well-being. Climate justice is an essential component of the environmental movement and highlights the lived realities of those who are affected by environmental issues (often compounded by other systemic forms of oppression such as racism or sexism). For instance, if you are discussing how the Canadian Arctic is warming at almost three times the global rate, it’s important to point out that this doesn’t just impact Polar Bears, but also the Indigenous peoples for whom this is their traditional territory. Furthermore, when discussing these topics, students should be encouraged to listen to/learn from the people directly involved (thereby prioritizing the voices for whom a given ‘issue’ is their reality).

  • This point was alluded to previously, but a great way to foster healthy conversations on climate change is to ‘meet people where they’re at’ and use their interests as a starting point for discussion. Katharine Hayhoe illustrates this wonderfully in her Ted Talk The most important thing you can do to fight climate change: talk about it (check it out on YouTube; the link is provided below). For example, if a student loves skiing with their family, you could mention Protect Our Winters, an organization that connects outdoor athletes and winter enthusiasts who are concerned about climate change.

  • As you feel comfortable and are able, use your position to lead by example and push for changes, in addition to creating space for students to engage with these issues. For example, if you notice something at your school that could be improved (such as older, inefficient lighting; a lack of recycling or composting; excess waste of office supplies), work to fix it! Reach out to your superiors or take matters into your own hands as you see fit. If students have an idea for a campaign/project/club, you could act as, or recommend, a supervisor. Moreover, if you support the idea of Youth Climate Strikes (but can’t out-right encourage students to participate), you could avoid penalizing students for skipping class and make it possible to catch up on missed materials. At the university level, professors can lend their support to student-led fossil fuel divestment campaigns. Remember that you don’t have to push for change by yourself — connecting with other teachers and staff can be more powerful (and safer, depending on the context or perceived boldness of the initiative) than working in isolation.

The complexity of addressing climate change means there are nearly infinite ‘angles of attack’ or ways to help. To quote Mary Annaïse Heglar’s insightful article We Can’t Tackle Climate Change Without You, “Do what you’re good at, and do your best.”


Additional Resources:






Isaac Bell (He/ Him) and Holly Giacomodonato (She/Her) are researchers at Shake Up The Establishment, a non-partisan, youth-led, registered organization that aims to promote informed voting, advocacy practices, and political accountability surrounding human and social justice issues that are exacerbated by the climate crisis.

The themes discussed in this article are informed by our education through the traditional Western system and academia, as well as our personal and cultural experiences, and may not reflect the knowledge and values of other cultures.


Isaac completed an undergraduate degree in Bio-Medical Science and resides on the traditional territory of the Attawandaron/Attawandaronk/Chonnonton and the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation. Holly completed an undergraduate degree at Acadia University with a double major in Environmental and Sustainability Studies and Environmental Science and lives on traditional, unceded Mi’kmaq lands subject to the Treaties of Peace and Friendship between the British Crown and the Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, Abenaki, and Penobscot peoples of the Maritimes. Visit shakeuptheestab.org to learn more


Endnotes:


1. Monroe M. Before the Flood [motion picture]. Richman G, Sozanski B, Sofsky, Banks B, editors. N.A: National Geographic and Ratpac Documentary Films; 2016. Documentary: 1 hour 35 minutes.


2. Kenis A, Mathijs E. Beyond individual behaviour change: the role of power, knowledge and strategy in tackling climate change. Environ. Educ.Res [Internet]. 2011 Jul [cited 2021 Feb 28];18(1): 45-65. Available from: doi:10.1080/13504622.2011.576315


3. Vetter D. Got Beef? Here’s What Your Hamburger Is Doing To The Climate. Forbes [Internet]. 2020 Oct 05 [cited 2021 Feb 28]; Green Tech: [about 7p.]. Available from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidrvetter/2020/10/05/got-beef-heres-what-your-hamburger-is-doing-to-the-climate/?sh=3b1018c65206


4. Heglar MA. I work in the environmental movement. I don’t care if you recycle. Vox [Internet]. 2019 Jun [cited 2021 Feb 28; updated 2019 Jun 04]; The Highlight [about 10 p.]. Available from: https://www.vox.com/the-high-light/2019/5/28/18629833/climate-change-2019-green-new-deal


5. Lukacs M. Neoliberalism has conned us into fighting climate change as individuals. The Guardian. [Internet]. 2017 Jul 17 [cited 2021 Feb 28]; True North: Environment: [about 4 p.]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/true-north/2017/jul/17/neoliberalism-has-conned-us-into-

fighting-climate-change-as-individuals.


6. https://fridaysforfuture.org/


7. New report shows just 100 companies are source of over 70% of emissions. Carbon Disclosure Project [Internet]. 2017 Jul 10 [cited 2021 Feb 28]. Available from: https://www.cdp.net/en/articles/media/new-report-shows-just-100-companies-are-source-of-over-70-of-emissions


8. The Climate Deception Dossiers: Internal Fossil Fuel Industry Memos Reveal Decades of Corporate Disinformation. Union of Concerned Scientists [Internet]. 2015 Jun 29 [cited 2021 Feb 28]. Available from: https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/climate-deception-dossiers


9. Tranter B, Skrbis Z. Political and social divisions over climate change among young Queenslanders. Environ. Plan A. [Internet]. 2013 Sep [cited 2021 Feb 28]; 46: 1636-165. Available from doi: 10.1068/a46285


10. Stevenson KT, King TL, Selm KR, Peterson MN, Monroe MC. Framing climate change communication to prompt individual and collective action among adolescents from agricultural communities. Environ. Educ. Res [Internet]. 2017 Apr [cited 2021 Feb 28]; 24: 365-377. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1080/13504622.2017.1318114


11.Tranter B, Skrbis Z. Political and social divisions over climate change among young Queenslanders. Environ. Plan A. [Internet]. 2013 Sep [cited 2021 Feb 28]; 46: 1636-165. Available from doi: 10.1068/a46285


12. Kahne J, Bowyer B. Educating for Democracy in a Partisan Age: Confronting the Challenges of MotivatedReasoning and Misinformation. AERJ [Internet]. 2017 Feb [cited 2021 Feb 28]; 54 (1): 3-34. Available from:doi: 10.3102/0002831216679817


13. Kamarck, E. The challenging politics of climate change [Internet]. 2019 [cited 2021 Feb 28]. Available from: https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-challenging-politics-of-climate-change/


14. Kahne J, Bowyer B. Educating for Democracy in a Partisan Age:Confronting the Challenges of MotivatedReasoning and Misinformation. AERJ [Internet]. 2017 Feb [cited 2021 Feb 28]; 54 (1): 3-34. Available from: doi: 10.3102/0002831216679817


15. Tranter B, Skrbis Z. Political and social divisions over climate change among young Queenslanders. Environ. Plan A. [Internet]. 2013 Sep [cited 2021 Feb 28]; 46: 1636-165. Available from doi: 10.1068/a46285


16. Monroe MC, Plate RR, Oxarart A, Bowers A, Chaves WA. Identifying effective climate change education strategies: a systematic review of the research. Environ. Educ. Res [Internet]. 2017 [cited 2021 Feb 28]; 25: 781-812. Available from: doi: 10.1080/13504622.2017.1360842


17. Ibid.


18. Stevenson KT, King TL, Selm KR, Peterson MN, Monroe MC. Framing climate change communication to prompt individual and collective action among adolescents from agricultural communities. Environ. Educ. Res [Internet]. 2017 Apr [cited 2021 Feb 28]; 24: 365-377. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1080/13504622.2017.1318114


19. Ibid.


20. Frantz CM, Mayer FS. The emergency of climate change: Why are we failing to take action?. Analyses of social issues and public policy [Internet]. 2009 Dec 1 [cited 2021 Feb 28]; 9 (1): 205-22.


21. Arctic. The World Wide Fund [Internet]. n.d. [cited 2021 Feb 28]. Available from: https://wwf.ca/habitat/arctic/


22. National Inuit Climate Change Strategy. Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami [Internet]. 2019 [cited 2021 Feb 28]. Available from: https://www.itk.ca/nationalinuit-climate-change-strategy/resources/


23. https://protectourwinters.org/


24. Heglar MA. We Can’t Tackle Climate Change Without You. Wired [Inter-

net]. 2020 Apr 1 [cited 2021 Feb 28]. Available from: https://www.wired.com/

story/what-you-can-do-solve-climate-change/


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