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From despair to action: engaging young adults in Europe with climate justice

By Robin Webster on November 8, 2022

Supporters of Indigenous communities participate in a protest rally during a global day of action on climate change in Glasgow on November 6, 2021, during the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference.

As COP27 gets underway in Egypt, climate justice has become a major theme. The concept has finally broken through to the mainstream debate – in fact a quick google search now yields over 535 million results. But despite this, very little research – until now – has explored how people, particularly young people in Europe, respond to messaging around climate justice themes, or whether they understand the deeper systemic analysis it offers to the climate debate.

People in their 20s and early 30s, in Europe today, are likely to be profoundly impacted by the climate crisis – and are also grappling more than any generation before with systemic issues like racial and gender justice. But what does the term ‘climate justice’ mean to them? Are climate justice messages understood in the way they are intended? Do they create motivation to take action, or the reverse? 

New research undertaken by Climate Outreach explored these dynamics through a survey of over 6,000 young adults aged 18–35 from six different European countries across the political spectrum. The responses and reflections were explored through 20 in-depth workshops in nine European countries, this time with young adults concerned about climate change who were politically centre or left of centre. Here are some of the insights:

1. Young adults agree with many of the principles underlying climate justice, but don’t know the terminology and lack deeper understanding of the analysis

The young adults agreed with and responded well to many of the fundamental principles of a climate justice analysis. 

Four in five (81%) survey respondents agreed that we need to transform society and change how our economy works to tackle climate change. Over half (55%) agreed that the people who are the least responsible for causing climate change are suffering the worst impacts. 72% of respondents agreed that people and communities most affected by climate change should have more of a say in decisions about climate solutions.

Young adults also supported the idea of bringing ethics and morality into discussions about climate change – and saw the climate crisis as a systemic problem. 

In the focus groups, young people called for current systems to change. As one workshop participant in Spain put it: “It is this economic system that makes us have a selfish mentality. I think that if we want a change in the future on all issues, racial justice, gender justice, climate justice… everything depends on the economic system.” 

Advocates should not assume, however, that young adult audiences in Europe are aware of or understand the term ‘climate justice’ – or that they have even encountered some aspects of the analysis, particularly the historical context of exploitation and the role of colonialism in shaping climate change today.  

Research participants’ understanding of climate justice principles appeared to be fairly superficial in this research – not politically polarising, but also not deeply held. Questions often attracted a significant number of ‘don’t knows’ in the survey. 

The term ‘climate justice’ itself attracted confusion. 28% of survey respondents said they could definitely define ‘climate justice’ and 41% said they ‘maybe’ could when asked, but they then struggled to do so. A significant number of participants recognised that climate justice meant something to do with reducing emissions, or cleaning up pollution, but most didn’t make an association with social or historical justice. For many, ‘justice’ had something to do with implementing environmental regulations or taxes, rather than redressing wrongs. 

While younger people express increasing concern about social justice issues like racism and sexism, the participants also didn’t readily connect these issues to climate change. In the workshops, young adults concerned about climate change recognised that living in poverty or in a poorer country increased someone’s vulnerability to climate change – but not that experiencing marginalisation and discrimination can do so as well, at home or abroad. 

Only a fifth of survey respondents, for example, agreed that women are more impacted by climate change than men – showing that this well-established connection is not well understood. 

There is a way to go to familiarise people – even the young people who are more potentially activist-leaning – with what climate justice means, what analyses it entails and how it relates to different struggles for justice.

Fishermen in Bangladesh pray for a benevolent sea before going fishing, after one of the strongest cyclones to hit the country killed thousands of fishermen at sea.

2. Many young adults do support what climate justice means in practice - such as supporting countries with loss and damage finance

The idea that wealthy countries should pay financial costs for the climate change-related damages and loss of life and livelihoods that people and communities in the global south are experiencing has made it onto the formal agenda of COP27 in Egypt for the first time. This links to the controversial topic of whether rich countries should pay reparations for past harm. 

In the Climate Outreach study, a majority (58%) of survey respondents were in favour of the principle that richer countries should pay compensation. Two fifths of the respondents to the survey agreed that climate change can only be addressed if resources are redistributed away from the powerful and wealthy to those who have less.

Many workshop participants were supportive of the principle of richer countries paying compensation – recognising it as a way of, for example, acknowledging wrongdoing, giving back money owed, taking responsibility and preventing future harm. The concept of ‘polluter pays’ was familiar too, and resonated with a significant number of the young adults in this study. 

“… what speaks to me is the concept of ecological debt and compensation… We have economic debts, so why shouldn’t we establish ecological debts? Rich people… I mean, rich countries, sorry, would have debts towards poor countries and therefore there would be debt repayment systems, just as there could be a payment for damages and interest when you are responsible for an accident.” Workshop, France

While some supported the idea, however, others raised practical and philosophical questions – does paying compensation equate to permission to continue harming? Who pays and who decides to pay? What form will compensation take and who decides? 

The concept of historical responsibility for harm was also little understood. Workshop participants rarely referred to the past. Across the 20 workshops, no one spontaneously raised the history of colonialism, and its relationship to climate change. When prompted to consider this, some acknowledged the connection and demonstrated an openness to discussing it. Others, however, were resistant to looking at the past, seeing it as a distraction from solving the problems of today. 

Young people are reflective about – and can be critical agents of change in – driving forward the systemic change needed to address and mitigate climate change and its impacts on justice and equality.

3. Young adults feel a sense of powerlessness to make change on climate justice and they lack trust in decision makers

Research with young people has consistently uncovered scepticism about mainstream politics, distrust of political figures, and a sense of being personally unable to make a difference on climate change. 

This study reinforced these findings. Many participants across different European countries voiced doubts about whether politicians will do what they promise, and expressed a desire for their political leaders to act with more integrity. As one workshop participant put it: “[I want governments to be] much more honest with people. To say what they’re actually doing. Let’s not be lied to and disrespected.” 

The young adults in this research felt that their governments had conflicting priorities preventing them from taking action. In Hungary, one dryly commented, “if the only way to save the environment is to dismantle capitalism, then the EU won’t be like, yeah, let’s do that, that would be cool.” 

They reported feeling that power lies primarily with governments and big companies, but expressed doubts about these more powerful actors taking action on the scale required. One encapsulated this feeling with the phrase, “I believe that big changes are needed, but they cannot be achieved, however, they should be.”

This appeared to result in contradictions when participants were asked what should happen next. Many argued that individual behaviour change isn’t effective unless accompanied by much more significant changes – and some expressed annoyance at it being used as a distraction from the large-scale changes that are needed. But at the same time, they struggled to imagine what those changes might actually be. They tended to default to alterations in individual behaviours when asked what they should do, and technical changes to legislation when asked what governments should do. 

Occasionally, the young adults in this research expressed resistance to the idea of being the ones who should bear the burden of responsibility for fixing the problem: “I’m tired of always being targeted, as young people… ultimately, many of these things should not be our responsibility…” 

Debris left after Cyclone Winston. Many villages were completely destroyed and people were left without food for several days, as access to Taveuni Island, Fiji was cut off.

4. The need for power, change and specificity

The results demonstrate a significant opportunity for advocates to more deeply engage young adults with the climate justice analysis. Young adults have an instinct that the problem lies in systems, for example, identifying capitalism, economic growth and consumer society as among the main drivers of climate change – meaning they are open to messaging that goes beyond seeing climate change as an isolated technical challenge. 

Many young adults across Europe demonstrate deep concern about climate change and social justice issues – meaning that the challenge is not to raise concern, but to link their existing concerns about the two issues. This means being clear about the ways in which climate change is a social justice problem, and making the case that social justice is not just something that is nice-to-have but is a necessary part of developing solutions.

Advocates should not assume that younger audiences in Europe are aware of or understand the term ‘climate justice’ – or that they have even encountered some aspects of the analysis, particularly the historical context of exploitation and the role of colonialism in shaping extractive systems today. 

Crucially, in many areas what young adults require is specificity: specific ways that they can be involved in organising and mobilising, specific examples of what deeper, more systemic change could look like, and an understanding that systems are open to pressure and change. Young adults are open to a climate justice analysis, but to fully engage they need a deeper understanding that change can happen, and that they can be a part of it.

3 responses to From despair to action: engaging young adults in Europe with climate justice

  1. Adam, Ecocore says: says:

    I wonder why the workshops you ran after the survey only included politically left-leaning and centre-ground participants?

    It would also be interesting to understand more about the attitudes towards reparations, which you touch on tantalisingly with references to discussions about the complexity and contentiousness of the concept.

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By Robin Webster

Robin leads the Advocacy Communications programme for Climate Outreach, focusing on providing civil society campaigners with knowledge, tools and research to help them engage all sorts of people on climate change. She loves working with campaigners for their resilience and positivity even when facing up to the world’s biggest challenge. She has been knocking around the environmental world for twenty years as a researcher, journalist and campaigner, first becoming interested in the disconnect between political debate about climate change and how we talk about it in real life whilst working as campaigner for Friends of the Earth. She helped to start up Carbon Brief when it began life as a climate science and energy blog and has spent more time than is healthy digging into the intricacies of climate policy, including as a researcher for the European Climate Foundation. 

Robin has a Masters in Conservation from UCL and an undergraduate degree in Biology. She is the author of Climate Outreach’s #TalkingClimate handbook amongst many others, and has lived in the UK, USA, Uganda and Austria. In her spare time Robin hikes, swims, cycles and teaches and plays at comedy improv, which she thinks is the best art form in the world.

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