Youth Voices Are Needed to Spark Environmental Action

kids march for climate action

The recent UN report on climate change received a lot of media coverage for the alarming data it presented and for the emphasis its authors placed on the need for dramatic action to combat the devastating effects of a changing global climate. The report comes from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and highlights both current impacts of climate change like extreme heat, ocean warming, and changes to rainfall patterns as well as the potential for those issues to grow exponentially worse without “immediate, rapid, and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.”

young girls walk near a tent in a field

It’s easy for this kind of news to leave us feeling hopeless, perhaps even to the point of deciding that attempts at collective action to create change are futile. While there’s certainly a bumpy road ahead when it comes to large-scale environmental problems, this summer also brought us some more inspiring news about young people leaving a positive impact on their local environment. A recently published study from North Carolina State University shows the power of youth to take action for themselves and to inspire concern about environmental issues among voters and policy makers in their communities.

In the study, researchers focused on the issue of marine debris and measured concern about related environmental issues among adults who participated in youth-led civic engagement events. The results show that engaging with youth led to a boost in concern among voters and policy makers for marine debris issues and created an increase in local support for policy initiatives aimed at improving ocean health. This was true for adults who identified as both liberal and conservative and for adults who previously knew the student organizers as well as for those who were strangers.

youth environmental volunteers

These findings suggest that youth participation in political action around environmental issues may be key to sparking immediate change. While discussions of youth environmental activism often focus on cultivating a new generation of environmentally engaged voters and policy makers, this study suggests that young people are also able to create urgently needed change in their communities without waiting to become old enough to vote or run for office themselves. Environmental education efforts that encourage action and provide opportunities to share authentic youth voices on issues like marine debris and climate change may be key to harnessing the power of young people moving forward.

kids at a park clean-up

Our youngest generations have inherited an earth that is fairly far down the road to environmental destruction. They had no choice in past environmental management decisions, but many young people are eager to be engaged in protecting what we have left and restoring balance in broken ecological systems. The 2021 IPCC report outlines some of the worst possible outcomes of environmental inaction, and those consequences cannot be ignored, but we cannot let the fear of them paralyze us either. The many students involved in the North Carolina marine debris study are evidence that taking action is worthwhile and that lifting up the voices of youth who are often shouted over is an important step in any climate mitigation plan.