We need to talk about climate change
“We need to talk about it, it’s not… because we want to talk about it, because it’s a need”. Rey, 14 years old
(Togneri, 2022, p.99)
You might understand why my young co-researcher, Rey, may not have wanted to talk about it. UK predictions involve increased flooding, water scarcity, coastal erosion, ocean acidification, increased frequency and intensity of wildfire, and significant losses in biodiversity (Climate Change Committee (CCC), 2021).
As a serious ongoing global issue, it is relevant to us all, and with children much more vulnerable to the impacts (CCC, 2021; Sanson et al., 2018; Treichel, 2020), it is also an issue that EPs need to talk about. Allen (2020, p.1) noted a “lack of voice” from EPs in 2020, yet it is heartening to see a growing number of EPs reflecting on and taking action for the environment.
There have been a range of webinars from EP Reach-Out:
- What impact does contact with nature have on us? (McNally, 2023)
- Children and climate change: eco-emotions (Edginton, 2023)
- Children and climate change: suggestions for education (Edginton, 2023)
- The climate emergency and educational psychology (O’Hare, 2023)
- How are young people engaging with concerns around climate change? (Lee, 2023)
Last summer the DECP published a discussion paper exploring the climate crisis and its implications for children, young people, and Educational Psychologists (O’Hare, 2022a), and two EPs are currently part of the BPS Climate and Environmental Action Coordinating Group (BPS, 2023). On a personal level, it has helped to know that other EPs care.
My thesis research was inspired by Allen’s 2020 call to action: a small-scale collaborative action research project conducted with an inspiring group of young people in a high school in South Wales alongside a dedicated group of school staff.
We wanted to find out what eco-anxiety might mean for YP, who have said they do not feel listened to in this area, and what we might be able to do that might make these responses manageable to this real and serious threat. This is something I would like to share with you, with the aim of reaching out and talking about it more.
So, what are we talking about?
What do you feel when you read the predictions, or listen to the news about the climate?
Young people have reported a high level of concern (Burgess, 2013; Walker, 2020), with many worried about the state of the planet, the impact of climate change on their lives (Newsround, 2020) and broader environmental concerns, such as plastic waste and litter (Lofstrom et al., 2020; Thompson et al., 2022).
One term we might use for this is eco-anxiety. However, though the American Psychological Association defines this as “a chronic fear of environmental doom” (Clayton et al., 2017, p. 68), there is a lack of consensus on definition. Other writers use it as a broad term for difficult feelings about the ecological crisis, associated with fear, worry, anger, frustration, despair, guilt, shame, and grief (Pihkala, 2020). For my co-researchers, many different emotions were felt: sadness, jealousy, and different forms of loss – of places, experiences and life expectations.
Talking about the realness of climate change
We did do a lot of talking – exploring, grappling and listening. When Daisy brought in a news story describing the predicted timelines for noticing change in the UK, the group were struck by the fact that significant change would be visible when they were in their 40s. These timelines meant something different to this group than they might do to you or I.
We talked about the realness and scariness of knowing about climate change. However the difficulty for my young co-researchers was holding this knowing, and seeing a lack of response, or derisive response from others in different spheres of their lives: political, social media, their school and their peers. For these young people, a sense of loud media and school silence was particularly important: a contrast between a “cesspool” in comments sections and a lack of climate education, which they were angry about – why would their teachers not educate them about something this important?
Who did the talking?
Finding likeminded others who they could talk with was an important and safe way for the young people I worked with to explore and grapple with the climate and environmental crises and how others were responding to it. We also got to listen to each other, and take on helpful ideas, reframing our thinking. Our ongoing talk felt “therapeutic” for the young people, and me, realising that I was also surrounded by a network of caring others.
The young people also wanted to be heard, something that they struggled with as “just” students without “the control of the steering wheel”. Outside our research group their voices were often interrupted and spoken over in school, in much the same way that children and young people have felt disregarded at wider levels – when their voices and calls for action are ignored or displaced (O’Hare, 2022b), suggesting that these spaces of being heard are even more important.
Elevating young people’s voices to create change
When we worked together, we linked these young people with supportive adults in their school, and they were able to get a platform for their voices to inform curriculum changes and department approaches on the teaching of climate change.
They went on to put their voices out into the world through radio shows and running for Welsh Youth Parliament and shared how powerful they had felt in being able to speak with their headteacher and senior staff about how they felt about climate change and the environment.
In this way, supporting their talk and their voices created change within their school, and perhaps beyond it.
Talk, connect and listen
There are three things I would like you to take away from this:
- Tell others about creating safe spaces to talk about climate and the environment – this is real and scary stuff – and we all need to know we have a network of caring others we can feel contained within.
- Help make connections between young people and supportive school adults – they get to know that school adults also care, and they get practical support from those with more power to help them work towards change in school.
- Be quiet sometimes! Prioritise young people’s talk – they may experience this in a very different way to you as an adult, and we can only find this out if we do some listening.
Hannah’s webinar with EP Reach-Out: What is eco-anxiety for young people and what helps in school?
Allen, K.-A. (2020). Climate change, a critical new role for educational and developmental psychologists. The Educational and Developmental Psychologist., 37(1), 1-3. https://doi.org/10.1017/edp.2020.6
Burgess, J. (2013). Climate change: children’s challenge. UNICEF UK. https://www.unicef.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/unicef-climate-change-report-2013.pdf
Clayton, S., Manning, C., Krygsman, K., & Speiser, M. (2017). Mental health and our changing climate: Impacts, implications, and guidance. American Psychological Association & ecoAmerica. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2017/03/mental-health-climate.pdf
Climate Change Committee. (2021). Independent assessment of UK climate risk. Advice to government for the UK’s third climate change risk assessment (CCRA3). CCC. https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/independent-assessment-of-uk-climate-risk/
Lofstrom, E., Klockner, C. A., & Nesvold, I. H. (2020). Nature in your face – disruptive climate change communication and eco-visualization as part of a garden-based learning approach involving primary school children and teachers in co-creating the future. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 568068. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.568068
Newsround. (2020). Climate anxiety: survey for BBC Newsround shows children losing sleep over climate change and the environment. CBBC Newsround. Retrieved 03/08/2021 from https://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/51451737
O’Hare, D.P. (2022a). The climate crisis, children, young people and educational psychology. British Psychology Society Division of Educational and Child Psychology (BPS DECP).
O’Hare, D.P. (2022b, November 14). The climate crisis, COP27, children’s involvement and being ignored. British Psychological Society. https://www.bps.org.uk/blog/climate-crisis-cop27-childrens-involvement-and-being-ignored
Pihkala, P. (2020). Anxiety and the ecological crisis: An analysis of eco-anxiety and climate anxiety. Sustainability, 12(19), 7836. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.3390/su12197836
Sanson, A. V., Wachs, T. D., Koller, S. H., & Salmela-Aro, K. (2018). Young people and climate change: the role of developmental science. In V. Suman & A. Petersen (Eds.), Developmental science and sustainable development goals for children and youth (pp. 115-137). Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-96592-5_6
Thompson, R., Fisher, H. L., Dewa, L. H., Hussain, T., Kabba, Z., & Toledano, M. B. (2022). Adolescents’ thoughts and feelings about the local and global environment: a qualitative interview study. Child and adolescent mental health., 27(1), 4-13. https://doi.org/10.1111/camh.12520
Togneri, H. (2022). From “powerless and alone” to finding “all the great people who care”: a co-operative inquiry with young people exploring eco-anxiety and constructive ways of coping. [Thesis] https://orca.cardiff.ac.uk/id/eprint/152217/1/Thesis%20-%20Hannah%20Togneri%20-%201720282.pdf
Treichel, P. (2020). Why focus on children: a literature review of childcentred climate change adaptation approaches. Australian Journal of Emergency Management, 35(2), 26-33. https://search.informit.org/doi/pdf/10.3316/ielapa.179621861555500
Walker, C. (2020). Uneven solidarity: the school strikes for climate in global and intergenerational perspective. Sustainable Earth., 3(1), 1. https://doi.org/10.1186/s42055-020-00024-3