Climate advocates around the world are calling for climate justice and the term has become increasingly mainstream. But our research at Climate Outreach found that while young adults in Europe support many of its principles, they don’t always understand what it really means in practice (and they’re not the only ones). Explaining climate justice is key – but the language of climate justice could make barriers to action worse if not used carefully. Originally published in The Big Issue.
So what do young people think and understand about the term climate justice? And how should we talk about it to help them believe that they can help create a more fair and equal world?
To find out, we surveyed and spoke with over 6,000 young adults across Europe, and analysed what they told us. They expressed worry about climate change and support for the underlying principles of climate justice – but less than 30% thought they could explain the term.
At its core, climate justice is the understanding that climate change has a greater impact on marginalised groups (including women, children and racialized minorities) who are the least responsible for causing the problem. It asks of us to dig deeper into understanding the root causes and drivers of climate change.
It’s a really important concept and it matters that we can all talk about it in a useful way. So here’s some guidance from our new messaging guide and accompanying video on how to effectively discuss climate justice with young adults.
Tip 1: Build awareness and understanding of what climate justice really means
Just because you might have an in-depth understanding of climate justice yourself, doesn’t mean you can assume that others do. Only about half of the young people we surveyed believed that the most impacted countries are the least responsible for causing climate change — something at the heart of what climate justice means.
A good starting point would be to take the time to explain a few key principles. Climate conversations tend to focus on individual emissions cuts or carbon footprints, but try going a bit deeper into the root causes and drivers of climate change. Focus on explaining how climate change does not impact people equally. More often than not, you will find yourself having to discuss big ideas like colonial historical responsibility, how the past has led to the present, exploitative systems, and extractive economies. An overwhelming majority (85%) of the young adults we spoke to said that wealthy countries should compensate poorer countries for damages caused by the climate crisis.
It’s best to use real-life examples that young audiences can personally relate to and which pack a closer-to-home, emotional punch – like the fact that in the 2003 heatwave in Europe, more women than men died. Groups such as women, lower-income households, and people with reduced mobility are more likely to face heat-related health problems because they are less likely to have air conditioning.
The key is to bring underlying economic systems to life in ways that people can understand. For example, the huge waste and environmental impact of fast fashion is a good way to start a conversation about how climate change is linked to deeper problems.
Tip 2: Use language that connects rather than divides
Some 81% of the young people we spoke to told us they want transformational change to our economy and society. We found that a great way to have fruitful conversations about climate justice is to connect with people’s desire for a more equal, safe, and healthy place to live.
While it can be tempting to blame ‘baddies’, we found that young adults believe that blaming, guilting and shaming are counterproductive tactics that we just don’t have time for — considering the urgency of the situation — and will only create division rather than the unity young people are looking for.
Young people are often held up as the generation that will ‘save us’. But it’s best not to place the responsibility for tackling climate change solely on the shoulders of young people and individuals. Instead, focus on how collective action can end the unjust treatment of people, places and territories, and promote moving together to an economy based on respecting the Earth and people’s rights.
Emphasise that change is possible, and that it is time for everyone to stand with people and communities on the frontline of climate change in order to bring about systems change and create a more balanced world.
Tip 3: Focus on ideas, inspiration and infrastructure for building action
Young adults feel a sense of urgency when it comes to the climate crisis, but many of them also feel powerless to personally act. Don’t make this worse by focusing on the scale of the problem. Instead, be ready to talk about power and change. Discuss stories of popular struggle and collective action – the suffrage movement across Europe is a great example to show that system change is possible when collective action is taken.
Similarly, focus on discussing solutions, possibilities for action, and different visions for the future through building relationships and solidarity, instead of reinforcing young adults’ scepticism about formal political parties and institutions. Be prepared to ask people what they think a ‘good life’ looks like, and how we can achieve it through seeking changes in policies in addition to promoting community-based action.
The research in this article was undertaken as part of SPARK, a four-year European Commission (EC) funded project that aims to build the awareness, capacity and active engagement of European Union (EU) citizens, particularly young people, with efforts to bring about climate justice. SPARK is delivered by a consortium of 20 civil society organisations across 13 European countries. See: https://sparkachange.eu.
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