Q: How much would you say you know about climate change?
I was interested in how teens would evaluate their understanding of this important topic. The most common answer was “not much”, though I also heard “some”, “a fair amount”, “enough to know we need to reduce emissions”, and “not much, but probably more than most kids”.
A few kids expressed frustration with their lack of knowledge. For example, “I don’t know much, I mostly just see protests. I wish I knew more.” Or “I wish we learned more in school.”
Since it was clear from the initial conversation that there was a wide range in understanding, I asked a follow-up.
Q: Where do you learn about climate change?
Answers to this question ranged from Instagram and social media, to friends, parents, school, and the nightly news.
The kids who were most informed learned from the news. Which news? “KRON”, “CNN”, “local news”, “weather” (“where they compare before and after”), and “You know, that channel that everyone watches” (which he later guessed was KQED; yes, we live in a bubble). These kids seemed to have a daily news habit, and the news is doing its job of getting information about climate change across.
The kids who seemed least informed got most of their information from social media. They were aware that they didn’t know much, with one saying: “Instagram activism is the worst thing ever. People pretend to care, but they don’t really know anything.”
I heard mixed messages about school. For example, two kids said climate change is integrated into the curriculum at Paly, while others said they weren’t learning about it there. Several cited AP Bio and environmental science classes. JLS science and even elementary school science classes also came up. (“They teach us that the little things add up.”)
Most kids said they didn’t learn much from their friends. Parents were generally influential, but the amount the kids learned about climate change from their parents was mixed.
Q: Do you feel like you have had any direct experience with climate change?
To get a better understanding of motivation, I asked some of the kids if they have had any direct experience with climate change. It was interesting to me how few mentioned the fires last year, though many must have had their activities curtailed. None mentioned the power shut-offs, which had less impact in our area. None mentioned recent statewide drought. And none mentioned things they’ve seen on their travels or experiences of relatives or friends living elsewhere. In general, the kids are not seeing a connection between climate change and their day-to-day lives.
Q: Are you and/or your family taking any actions with climate change in mind?
Far and away the most common answer to this was about recycling and composting. The pervasive messaging about waste management in schools and at home has gotten through. Plastic came up a lot -- reducing use of plastic straws, bags, utensils, and bottles. Two kids had an interesting discussion about metal straws vs no straws at all.
There was some attention given to greenhouse gas emissions. A number of kids brought up transportation. Biking and carpooling were tops, but also “that bus that everyone takes” (to Gunn). There was some mention of EVs, with awareness that they are good but also expensive. One savvy student mentioned that the source of the EV power matters. Only one teen mentioned that her family is flying less, though one noted that her family doesn’t fly much, so there isn’t much to do there.
A number of kids mentioned saving electricity, and in particular turning off lights. One rattled off a number of things: using LEDs, unplugging appliances, idling less, closing the windows. Several kids were explicit that small things matter. “Everyday things make a difference, like turning off lights. We just need a lot of people to do them.”
A few kids also mentioned saving water, for example via shorter showers or turning off the tap while brushing teeth.
I didn’t get a sense of a strong ambition to reduce emissions, so I asked a follow-up question in case they were feeling frustrated with that.
Q: If you had a magic wand, are there things your family or our community would be doing differently?
A few kids mentioned a desire for solar panels at home and/or an EV, while also acknowledging their high cost. One boy wished that compostable bags were cheaper so his family would compost food scraps and not just yard waste.
Several mentioned a need to “work together”, expressing some frustration with politicians. “If I had a magic wand? I would make it stop. If I couldn’t do that, I would like politicians to be better. A lot of people won’t change actions unless it becomes a law. If the politicians were all on the same page, and were serious about it, we could do so much with the government.” “I wish there were more incentives for doing things like recycling. We need elections and laws to better prevent really bad things from happening.” And one said simply: ”I wish more people cared”.
Some of the kids were frustrated about big things that seemed out of their control. For example, one really wanted to use less plastic, but “Everything is plastic”, and gave examples of toothbrushes and toothpaste. “I wish things were more recyclable and compostable.” and “We need alternatives to plastic, and for companies to use less plastic packaging.” Two others stressed “big companies” that produce a lot of emissions, with a third saying “In this city, we are doing all that we can. But I’m not sure how much it’s helping. Corporations and moneyed interests are mostly to blame.”
In that vein, one or two kids wished that more places cared as much as our cities do. One girl referenced a relative who would love to recycle and compost, but who lives in a city where those services aren’t available. Also: “Palo Alto is designed for bikes. When I moved here from Texas and saw bike lanes everywhere, I couldn’t believe it.”
A number of other “magic wand” answers included:
- “I don’t know, do we really need two refrigerators? Is that some kind of a grown-up thing?”
- “We need to find other solutions to gas cars and cows. We need to take a break from meat. I would put a limit on how many cows a farm can have. I wouldn’t ban them, because that would be bad for jobs and the farmers. Also, we shouldn’t waste meat, we should use it carefully, not throw it away.”
- “We need to protect our parks and our land.”
- “I want to save the polar bears.”
- “I would really like to reverse this. All we are doing is trying not to make it worse. I’d like to do better than that.”
- “A big problem is over-population. Too many people are using up limited resources.”
I followed up with a more direct question about our response to climate change.
Q: Do you think we are doing enough? Are our actions aligned with our rhetoric?
Some had already commented on this, but there were some additional responses, reflecting a sense of helplessness among some of the kids:
- “Everyone is complaining, but no one is really doing anything.” (referring to kids at school)
- “Things need to change so much, but no one is doing anything, making an effort. Just talking a lot.”
- “I’m worried it will hit us all of a sudden and it will be too late.”
- “People care but they aren’t willing to give stuff up. It’s also true that, mostly in other countries, some people don’t care at all but naturally live low emissions.”
- “Are our actions aligned? I don’t think so. It’s really bad at this point. It’s hard to measure up with everyday things. When you buy something from the store, it comes wrapped in plastic.”
It’s interesting how “plastic” has become a stand-in for all things climate. If only the climate problem were that constrained.
Q: How do you think climate change will affect you in the next 5 years? Next 20?
While few of the teens felt they had any direct experience with climate change to date, what did they envision for their future?
Responses to this question were somewhat sparse, in part because it was towards the end, but it’s also a difficult question. Most of the responses were about poor air quality. “The air will be toxic.” There were a number of mentions of fires. “Bigger and worse, not just in sparsely populated areas.” and “Fires will be commonplace.”
A few felt we are in better shape than most. “Cities like San Francisco that are working on this now will be better off.” and “It won’t affect us as much. It will have more effect on people who aren’t as well off.”
One or two teens were enthusiastic about the prospects for jobs (“science jobs”, said one; “NASA jobs”, said another). Several felt it would affect where they live. “It would impact where I live. There will be more weather and disasters.” One was pretty sure we would be colonizing another planet (“though that will probably be after I die”). And one took the same global perspective but without the extra-planetary escape, expressing concern about destabilization from geopolitical tensions and climate-induced migration.
One of my biggest takeaways is a worry that we are raising kids to be apathetic or even cynical given the disconnect they see between the severity of the issues we are facing, the amount they and their peers know about it, and the actions they see us taking. (Can you imagine being a kid in Australia right now, with entire ecosystems and hundreds of millions of animals being destroyed in fires, yet a prime minister who insists on mining massive amounts of coal?) Would it help if we all did a better job discussing the actions we are taking with our kids? With that in mind, I’ve drafted an outline that could be a starting point for parents who want to discuss what they are doing about climate change with teens, or vice versa. I think the more we can do to show kids that we are aligning our actions with our concerns, the more empowered they will feel.
Another observation is that many kids want to learn more but they rely mostly on social media for information and recognize that they learn little from it. There is an opportunity for an engaging, informative Instagram account that kids can follow and learn about climate change. A local teen here could start one and see how it goes. There is also an opportunity for more learning in school.
It’s not clear to me that kids understand which activities result in the most greenhouse gas emissions. I was disappointed that so many felt the need to fall back on recycling and composting when asked about actions related to climate change. More important are: transportation, diet and food waste, home energy use, and general consumption (especially reduce but also reuse). I would like to see more ambition from our teens, for themselves and for others, when it comes to reducing emissions. Making sure they know basics like this could help.
Finally, I think it’s important that kids understand we are moving towards a cleaner, more sustainable future, and that they can play a big part in making that happen. This problem is still manageable, and as several of the kids said, “We just need to work together” and “More people need to care and take action.” It’s on all of us to make that happen. Parents can help kids, and kids can help parents, to do just that.
Current Climate Data (November/December 2019)
The ocean in 2019 was “by far the hottest” on record (see here).
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)
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