Parents, Listen to Your Kids: how intergenerational learning could save our planet

Source: Lawson, D. F., Stevenson, K. T., Peterson, M. N., Carrier, S. J., Strnad, R. L., & Seekamp, E. (2019). Children can foster climate change concern among their parents. Nature Climate Change.

Featured image: Lorie Shaull, 2017

Climate change denied?

Climate change and the many associated threats are projected to cause hundreds of trillions of dollars in damage across the world, and losses to human life. Although there is a consensus among scientists, only 54% of adults globally believe that humans have caused climate change. And, 28% of American adults believe there is sizable uncertainty surrounding the causes and long term impacts from a changing climate.

We know that belief in climate change issues is one of the biggest predictors if someone will take individual or collective action against climate change. In order to drive people to take action, we must help them to accept that climate change is a local concern. One that humans must collectively address by either personal action or holding industry and political leaders accountable.

Flooding is a common symptom of rising sea level. The City of New Orleans. Photo By Commander Mark Moran, Lt. Phil Eastman and Lt. Dave Demers (NOAA), public domain.

Like many contentious social issues in America, there is a general, but slow, trend of increasing concern about climate change. However, the threats are becoming more imminent, and preventative action on climate change must be taken as soon as possible.

Identity influences scientific literacy

Socio-ideological identity tends to be a major predictor in how adults will perceive climate change. Those that are socio-ideologically conservative, for example, are statistically more likely to be skeptical about climate change. This group tends to be disengaged in taking action, even if they see impacts of climate change in their daily lives. Additionally, conservative adults with increased scientific literacy or knowledge of climate issues generally do not have different beliefs about climate change than conservatives that lack the same knowledge of climate science.

Gender identity is also commonly associated with climate change perception in adults. On average, conservative, self-identifying males tend to be more resistant to belief in climate change.

Research has shown that children, however, do not have the same influence from politics or ideology which molds their worldview. Children and adolescents are more flexible in their opinions, and as a result, their feelings about climate change will be a direct result of how much information they have been taught about the subject.

Unlike adults, children will only filter out information that does not align with their preconceived beliefs if they have low scientific understanding of climate change. Children and adolescents are probably the most open to climate change education, and the most likely to take action.

During fraught social change movements in America, adults are commonly more resistant to changing their opinion than children. In many of these cases, open-minded children make a large impact on their parent’s or guardian’s beliefs, and even drive cultural change.

Are children the future?

One study in coastal North Carolina aimed to identify how climate change concern in children may affect the beliefs of their parents, regardless of parental socio-ideology. Researchers tested parent’s and guardian’s beliefs about climate change before and after their children participated in a climate change curriculum at school.

Children were encouraged to learn about climate change through hands on activities and completion of field based projects. They were also required to discuss the subject with their families at home and lead a student-parent interview concerning changes in local weather.

It turns out that children who received hands-on climate education in school changed their parents beliefs significantly. These parents especially made large strides in understanding and gaining concern about local climate change issues such as coastal flooding and energy consumption.

Parents that were with the most resistant to climate change communication, i.e. male parents who are politically or ideologically conservative, showed the largest increase in concern about climate change. Almost all parents also indicated that they were more motivated to take action against climate change. These changes were directly fostered by their children. Families that discussed the topic often at home during the study were more likely to show a change in parent beliefs.

People’s Climate March in NYC. Photo by: Joel Pomerantz, 2014
Who will take action?

If people believe in climate change, they tend to care more about taking action. Children and adolescents may be able to sway opinions that previously seemed unchangeable. It should not be the job of our young people to continue fostering public concern over climate change. However, collectively they have created a larger cultural movement towards reducing human impacts and creating environmental justice for all. And they may even be able to convince their parents, too.

In order to have a prosperous future, children and adolescents need their parents, guardians, teachers, community leaders, and politicians to address the climate change emergency. Young people have the power to make positive changes on a global scale, only if everyone else will listen.


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Alina Spera

I am a second year PhD student at the University of Texas at El Paso. I study how climate change is impacting coastal Arctic biogeochemistry and ecology. When I'm not in the field or lab I'm probably running or hanging with my hamster!

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