Report warns a lack of diversity among climate spokespeople and an unforgiving online environment is putting off young people from discussing climate change

Conversations around climate change are not flowing as they should among young people, both off and online, who are holding back because they are concerned about getting facts wrong or being accused of hypocrisy for failing to lead a ‘perfect’ sustainable lifestyle.

That is the broad conclusion of a new report from charity Global Action Plan and Virgin Media O2, which concludes that media, business, and campaign groups need to work harder to enable young people to publicly speak out on climate issues. It argues this push will open the door to much-needed conversations about the best way to take climate action and galvanise progress towards a net zero economy.

The study found that nine in ten people aged 16-24 care about climate change, but only a third regularly talked to their friends about it and only 10 per cent said they had posted about the issue online.

There are numerous reasons for the disconnect, many of which are related to fear of judgement from peers, according to the study authors. A third of respondents to the study said they felt they did not have enough knowledge to post about climate change on social media, while a quarter reported they held back on sharing climate content for fear of being judged for their views. Just under a quarter – 24 per cent – of respondents, meanwhile, said they were concerned about being accused of hypocrisy if they spoke out about climate online, given their own lifestyle was not perfect, the study found.

Francisca Rockey, an environmental youth campaigner and founder of Black Geographers, reflects in the study’s introduction that action needs to be taken to enable young people to talk more freely about the issues that are consuming them. “It’s an unsettling thought that climate change will have a big impact on my future and the future of all young people,” she writes. “That’s why climate anxiety is so high. We care deeply about the issue but most of our friends are not talking about it, so we don’t speak up either.”

“I am the first to admit that I don’t know everything, but you don’t need to be an expert to talk about climate change,” she adds. “It’s about being confident to put yourself out there and learn together. Your experience and interest can spark more conversations and motivate other people to act too.”  

Global Action Plan and Virgin Media O2 also identified a lack of diversity among prominent climate spokespeople as another reason stopping young people from engaging with climate issues. Only 16 per cent of young people surveyed for the report said they found people talking about climate change on social media to be “very relatable”. And focus group participants said they would be more motivated to join the conversation if they saw more people from their own background speaking up about climate change.

Rockey predicted that engaging more diverse voices in the climate debate would lead to the development of climate solutions suited to all parts of society. “Young people hearing and seeing relatable voices and faces gives them the confidence to speak out more and do more,” she said. “Just as important, a diverse range of people speaking out on climate change will result in richer conversations and offer solutions based on wider experience.”

To encourage so-called ‘Generation Z’ to speak up about their climate concerns, the report argues the voluntary sector, media, employers and educational institutions must work together to make climate discussions more inclusive and accessible for young people.

The media needs to showcase a more diverse range of people speaking out on climate change in order to generate richer conversations that are based on a wider experience, it notes. Educational institutions and employers, it also suggests, could provide spaces both online and in-person for staff and students to discuss climate free from judgement.

The research recommends that conversations on climate change staged by business, media and the non-profit sectors must go beyond scientific statistics and find ways to connect to young people’s social reality, whether through human stories, accessible talking points and new formats. Climate charities, activists and campaigners need to put climate content on the channels young people are already using, it notes. Meanwhile fear, guilt, grief and anger surrounding climate change should be acknowledged and normalised, it adds.

“If we can create a culture of caring, rather than calling out, young people will feel more comfortable to engage in talking about climate change and subsequently encourage their friends too, therefore creating a positive cycle of communication and action,” the report notes.

Global Action Plan CEO Sonja Graham said there was currently a “stigma” around talking about climate change that needed to be broken down to “normalise” the conversation. “This is important because conversations about climate change are a pre-cursor to environmental action,” she said. “Young people want to act on the issues they care about so we must provide solutions to these barriers. Our top tips will help organisations to guide young people through a successful conversation and provide tools for young people themselves.” 

The authors of the study argue a form of ‘cancel culture’ is to blame for holding young people back from discussing climate issues, and it is clear one of the biggest barriers preventing climate conversations among young people is today’s vicious and unforgiving climate for public debate, which frequently holds little room for nuance in discussion and savages those that change their position or make a mistake.

But it is worth noting that many of the issues thrown up by the study are also shaped by the particulars of climate politics. Young people’s fear of speaking out comes after decades where large swathes of business and government have fought to undermine climate science and sow discord and mistrust around the issues.

Some industry lobbyists have worked hard to promote the idea that the onus of tackling climate change lies largely upon the individual to forging a green lifestyle in a society founded on high-carbon activity. It is an argument that risks absolving big polluters of responsibility and discourages guilt-ridden individuals from adopting a stronger public stance on the issues that would, in turn, drive systemic change. Some of those same companies have been quick to frame climate as a predominantly white, middle-class issue – despite climate breakdown posing an existential threat to everyone, with Indigenous communities and poorer nations already feeling the brunt of climate impacts.

But yesterday’s report from Global Action Plan and Virgin Media O2 makes clear that progressive businesses committed to the net zero transition have an opportunity to deliver a clean break from this inquitious tradition and showcase how the private sector can play a critical and steering role in ramping up climate engagement, as opposed to shutting it down.

Companies would do well to heed its advice and use their leverage to encourage richer climate conversations among staff members, customers and the broader public. In doing so, they could galvanise momentum towards a more sustainable, low carbon world that benefits people and planet – all while protecting their long-term profits.

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