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How to engage the young adults on the sidelines of the climate youth strike movement

By Chris Shaw on December 5, 2019

Meeting of Friends of the Earth International

A new briefing provides evidence-based insights designed to broaden the cohort of young adult climate campaigners, and help campaigns connect with non-graduate audiences. It draws on the results of two years of research with young European climate campaigners.

Young people are rediscovering their political mojo

The school strike movement is inspiring young people to take action on climate change. Until recently research showed declining interest in electoral politics, but the latest studies have found young people to be increasingly engaged in electoral politics and activism. 

64% of those aged 18-24 cast a vote at the 2017 UK General Election, a 21% increase from the 2015 General Election. In 2010 a survey found only 8% of US youth agreed that we can and will do something to mitigate climate change.  However, a poll of US teenagers carried out earlier this year found a majority (53%) felt motivated to take action on climate change. 

Though this is a positive development, there are many young adults who are woke to the urgency of climate change but have yet to take that final step and lend their weight to the new wave of climate campaigning. 

Engaging with young people beyond the university campus

Climate Outreach worked with Dr Sybille Chiari and Sonja Voller (University of Vienna), Professor Julie Doyle (University of Brighton),  Bernd Hezel (Climate Media Factory), Persephone Pearl (ONCA) and Keith Ellis (Moving Sounds) for this project, which was given the title cliMATEs. The research gave young adults (on average aged 20 years old), the opportunity to connect with other people campaigning on climate change. What we heard from the young people involved in the project is that the motivation to begin campaigning on climate change did not arise until they left home for university, when they found themselves away from the social norms they’d grown up with, and free to forge a new identity. 

Young campaigners told us they wanted to broaden the reach of their campaigns beyond the usual suspects of middle class environmentalists, but they found this difficult to do because the organisations they were part of often had a middle class environmentalist identity. 

The role of peer groups in youth climate activism

Identity is a key factor shaping attitudes to climate campaigns, and lays at the heart of the cliMATEs project which Climate Outreach is a part of and which produced this new briefing. 

The influence of friends is very important for young adults, but most climate communication methods and formats tend to neglect the fact that young people act in close interaction and comparison with their peers. 

This gap in understanding was the starting point for the cliMATEs project. The project found that climate communication needs to shift from individual towards collective action, and be informed by an understanding of the role other young people play in a person’s choice to become involved in climate campaigning. For this reason the briefing focuses on the social dimension of climate campaigning, and how barriers to broadening the movement beyond the university campus can be overcome. 

One way campaigns can get beyond these barriers is by relating climate change closely to the things that less engaged young people care about. The FridaysForFuture campaign has been effective in part because it is talking about climate change in terms of the threat it poses to the kind of life nearly all young people want – a near term stable future that provides a life free from feelings of vulnerability and precarity.

Campaign goals must speak to the objective of action on climate change

Setting clear and realistic campaign goals is another strategy central to broadening the appeal of climate campaigns. The campaigners who we worked with reported that people will be more likely to get involved in campaigns that offer the potential for making a tangible and immediate difference to the environment. This meant campaigns were often not directly about climate change, but instead addressed problems such as food waste, or brought people together for a one off activity such as a beach clean or tree planting. 

Long term political campaigns can be a turn off for many young people, especially for those who work and have limited time and energy available to give to campaigning. Rather than forego climate change from campaign goals, we recommend developing shorter term campaign goals that speak to the overarching objective of climate change mitigation. 

We hope the guidance in this briefing – by informing the design of climate campaigns that seek to appeal to young adults currently standing on the sidelines of this movement – will help these new climate campaigns grow and endure. By sharing these insights we want to help the stunning successes of campaigns led by young campaigners become embedded, and catalyse the rapid changes needed to secure a long term decent future for today’s young people.

By Dr Christopher Shaw

Chris has been with Climate Outreach’s research team since 2015. In that role, he has been focused on ensuring climate communication practice is informed by a robust and up-to-date evidence base, combining new research with the existing literature to provide communicators with accessible resources to support their work. Chris’s work has been driven by a belief that successful climate policies are those policies that are shaped by the voices, concerns and aspirations of the people who live their lives outside of the policy and campaigning bubble. Chris completed his doctoral thesis as a mature student in 2011 at the University of Sussex, on the communication of climate risk, a theme he continues to publish on. 

In his previous lives Chris worked as a Geography teacher and then in marketing, always with the ultimate aim of learning how to engage people with climate change risks. Between completing his doctoral studies and starting work at Climate Outreach, Chris held research posts at the University of Sussex and the University of Oxford. Outside of office hours Chris can normally be found either smashing his tennis racket on the ground in frustration at yet another defeat, or wandering aimlessly on the South Downs and blaming inaccurate Ordnance Survey maps for being lost.

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