“There is one thing I almost never hear leaders talk about, and that is loss and damage. For many of us, reducing and avoiding is not enough. You cannot adapt to lost cultures, you cannot adapt to lost traditions, you cannot adapt to lost history, you cannot adapt to starvation. You cannot adapt to extinction.”


– Vanessa Nakate, climate activist, author and founder of Rise Up movementFull Keynote Speech at Youth4Climate Pre-COP26


What Vanessa Nakate and so many other countless youth climate activists emphasize is the need to acknowledge that concern, worry, and grief for the climate and our environment is a valid emotion that is impactful to our everyday lives. Scientists agree the Earth’s climate is changing and humans are the primary cause of this development. Given that young people today will face the brunt of climate change as they reach adulthood in 10-20 years (IPCC, 2018), it comes as no surprise that youth-led movements have begun mobilizing to address the crisis now. In 2018, the youth climate movement (also known as the Student Strike 4 ClimateFridays for Future, or the Youth Strike 4 Climate) burst forth calling for widespread and urgent climate action by protesting and striking schools.


On September 20th, 2019, I participated along with millions of other youth and adults in the weeklong global climate strikes, also known as the Global Week for Future. The beat and rhythm I felt marching beside thousands of protestors ignited overwhelming emotion and purpose within me. I was in my second year as a doctoral student in the Comparative and International Education program at Teachers College and had been studying climate change education, social movements, and sustainability for the past three years. Protesting alongside others made me see the work of research and practice as more consequential and charged with a greater sense of purpose. Reflecting, I realized how the role of emotions and concern about issues could be a driver toward action. My experience during the global climate strikes then led me to ask questions about the role of emotions such as concern and grief in climate activism. It also led me to publish my first solo-authored paper titled, Climate change concern among youth: Examining the role of civics and institutional trust across 22 countries.


In this paper, I concentrate on climate change and how there is growing concern among youth and adults about the climate crisis we are now facing. Previous studies show that large percentages of young people worry about climate change and the global future (see for example, Corner et al., 2015). Young people who have higher levels of trust in science and societal actors, along with an increased sense of hope, are more likely to cope and engage in climate action (Ojala, 201220152020). Yet while scholarly attention to youth and climate change concern has primarily focused on single case studies and student views about climate change in relation to their social networks, less attention has been given to aspects like civics education or other avenues, such as trust in institutions, which could elevate, or diminish, student climate change concern. In this paper, I evaluate factors associated with youth perceptions of climate change to better understand how curricular and co-curricular environmental opportunities in schools compare to other factors –such as promoting institutional trust and civic knowledge –in elevating student climate change concern.


In this study, I draw from data provided by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) called the International Civics and Citizenship Survey (ICCS) and the data was collected in 2016. I analyzed the data cross-nationally (all the countries together) and comparatively (looking at differences between countries) to get the full picture. This data includes over 82 thousand students from over 3,500 schools and across 22 countries. The countries included in this analysis come from three regions - Latin America, Europe and East Asia.


I find that opportunities to learn about the environment and climate change do not uniformly contribute to raising youth concern for climate change across countries. There are limitations to this as we often see environmental and sustainability education as a primary approach to instill environmental attitudes and perceptions in students. However, I also found students who have higher levels of civics knowledge, across 22 countries, are more likely to be concerned about climate change. There is an opportunity here to consider integrating climate change education and civics and citizenship approaches to increase awareness and concern among youth.


I also find that trust in sources of information plays a key role in elevating or diminishing student awareness, and concern about climate change. Trust in the UN has significant implications for both how youth trust and gather information about climate change, as well as the ways in which they understand the international discourse addressing its consequences. Cultivating trust in schools as sources of information should be a high priority. After all, schools are a primary place to raise and discuss issues related to climate change and reduce skepticism or denial about climate change. My analysis showed that student climate change concern can be elevated among youth by increasing their civic knowledge, their opportunities to learn about the environment in schools, and building trust in schools/international organizations. Indeed, four key findings emerged.


In sum, my study finds that promoting institutional trust and civic knowledge may increase student climate change concern to a greater degree than other, more emphasized, curricular and co-curricular environmental school opportunities. These new findings reveal potential pathways for future climate change education research, policy, and practice to help promote greater climate awareness and action among youth.


Solving the climate crisis will require meaningful changes in policy, society, and individual behavior at global and local levels (IPCC, 2018). Understanding public perceptions of the threat will help determine the best strategies to increase concern and spur people to act. Gaining a better understanding of youth climate change perceptions is essential given that today’s young people will bear the brunt of climate change’s impacts (and be responsible for addressing them). Increasing youth climate change concern will help forge future pathways toward collective action and policy support.


Potential further resources on climate concern:


Young People's Voices on Climate Anxiety, Government Betrayal and Moral Injury: A Global Phenomenon


Photo credit: Callum Shaw (CC 2.0)