Youth Climate Activists and the Classroom: Created or Dissuaded?

Climate change has been widely dubbed the ‘Generation Z problem.’ However we were born into ‘our problem’ with our elders actually wanting the problem to be solved, but expecting that we will be the ones to fix it. We were born into a problem that everyone knew we would have to solve eventually, but kept putting off until it became a dire situation.

Even without sitting through a history class, the average person knows about the great social movements throughout the years. The civil rights movements in the 50s and 60s, marches for peace in the 70s, the fight against AIDS in the 80s – every decade had a continuous social or political issue citizens sought to rectify. With that, every movement seemed to be led by a specific generation, working towards solving their generation-defining problem.

As a 16-year-old, I have sat at countless carpets, desks and outdoor classrooms, learning about these movements and how they shaped the society I was born into.

It was made extremely clear what my generation’s problem was – the task we were given, the mountain we had to climb. I have so many memories of sitting in the library of my public school, as young as the third grade, watching ‘educational’ videos of the state of our climate. It’s an seemingly innocent picture, a way to create a connection between our science unit and our futures. Picture this: 30 eight-year-olds watching videos about the animals of our world…. until the screen changes to the destruction of their habitats, the plastic in their food and the images of them suffering.

“Picture this: 30 eight-year-olds watching videos about the animals of our world…. until the screen changes to the destruction of their habitats, the plastic in their food and the images of them suffering.”

Now, showing myself and my classmates these scenes probably had good intentions – well meaning educators wanted to show their students the problems of the world, and how the future will look without change. However, looking back on the experiences of myself and my classmates, it’s no wonder why after a poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Washington Post, only 29% of teens feel optimistic for their futures because of climate change.

We are shown videos of destroyed rainforests, bleached coral reefs, plastic oceans, wildfires, and starving animals from a young age then are promptly told that THIS is the problem we have to solve. We are told that our parents and grandparents have created this problem and that we have no choice but to solve it. We need to stop the destruction of the earth not only because we care about the health of our planet, but because if we want any semblance of life past our 30s we must. We are told that we are strong, smart and dedicated: perfect traits for any activist. What we are not told is how to go about solving the problem that is quite literally a life or death matter.

In public school, we are taught that raising awareness on environmental issues is great, that making small changes to our daily lives will help the planet. We were raised thinking that was all that was possible for us to do, however we quickly realized that the size of our actions did not match the size of the problem; it was not enough.

Schools are hammering home the fact that the climate is changing and the world is in danger. However, that is where they are stopping. Children are learning about the destruction of their homes from a young age, but we are not being shown any concrete ways to help fulfill the generational destiny forced upon us by our elders.

Climate change has been widely dubbed the ‘Generation Z problem.’ However we were born into ‘our problem’ with our elders actually wanting the problem to be solved, but expecting that we will be the ones to fix it. We were born into a problem that everyone knew we would have to solve eventually, but kept putting off until it became a dire situation.

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“We were born into a problem that everyone knew we would have to solve eventually, but kept putting off until it became a dire situation.”

Schools have shown us what will happen if there is no immediate action, but have not given us the tools to act. We are taught to try to solve the problem with individual actions with no mentions of the systems in place that caused the climate crisis to begin with. It is true that the efforts to educate us on the crisis in the classroom have borne passionate youth climate activists; but on the other side they have created a population of teenagers that feel hopeless and detached from their own futures, desensitized even, on climate issues. Teens that discuss the melting ice caps, then switch seamlessly to a new tiktok trend not even a minute later.

In order for schools to become effective tools in preparing youth to fight for their future, we need to find the missing half of our ‘climate crisis education’. We need to incorporate tools that provide opportunities for student advocacy, stress the importance of collective action over individual efforts, and educate students about local policies that will directly affect their backyard environments. Within schools, green teams need to do more than sort recycling and begin to educate students on the topics mentioned above. Students are more educated than ever about world issues, but in order to motivate and mobilize them – and protect their mental health – the education system needs to begin providing actual opportunities for students to begin their advocacy journey.

Whether you are a teen, parent or educator – what are your experiences with in-class climate education? Leave a comment down below 🙂

Until next time,

Blythe

Blythe Wieclawek

Blythe Wieclawek

Blythe is SCGC's inaugural summer youth advocacy intern. She is a high school student in Orillia, a competitive swimmer, and president of Sustainable Orillia's Youth Council.

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Michele Andrews

Grateful to you for taking the time to write this piece, Blythe. We definitely have this all wrong to be putting this at the feet of your generation to solve. In the next 10 years, we must turn this around – and this is squarely on the shoulders of people now in their 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and 60’s – people in positions in business, government. This is the “we” who must act. You will of course still face needing to deal with it by the time you begin your career, but we cannot and should not be waiting for you. I also believe that elementary and secondary schools can play a role in communities, as catalysts of change, inspiration, and hope. I am working on a project to help accelerate climate action in elementary and secondary schools. If you wanted to learn more, would be happy to connect.

Blythe Wieclawek

Hi Michele! I love this comment and definitely agree. Adults need do more (and heavier) work towards fighting climate change and the systems that created the issue in the first place. I also feel like youth bring a really unique perspective to the fight because of our experiences growing up during the crisis as well as all our knowledge on the subject (not to mention the bold and risk-taking attitudes youth can bring to any movement). However, like you said, we are still only children and this isn’t a fair burden to place on our shoulders.
I am super interested in your project and would love to learn more! If clicking on my profile picture at the bottom of the article doesn’t direct you to my contact info you can reach me at blythe@simcoecountygreenbelt.ca .

Catherine Everett

I 100% agree with you Blythe. EcoSchools type programs are really not enough…. there isn’t enough focus on action, and it should be expected that ALL teachers and students are taking their learning into the real-world, to truly make a difference. Also- well-being of people and the planet should be the big idea that guides curriculum/is our curriculum. Take heart- COVID has taught us that we can make big changes…. now it’s time to make sure people know about the emergency we are facing with climate change. It’s a bigger challenge, but we have all the means/tools to reduce carbon emissions…. so lets use our voices and take action!

Blythe Wieclawek

Hi Catherine! Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. You are so right when you say that all teachers and students should be taking their learning into the real-world, as well as prioritizing the well-being of ourselves, others and the planet within the curriculum. (which ties directly into environmentalism!). I think you’re right to say that COVID has shown schools that they are capable of making big changes – we should be optimistic (and determined) that another, greener change can be created as well 🙂

Anne Keary

Thank you for writing this, Blythe. I completely agree that a lot more needs to be done to show students all the many solutions that people are working on. For my part, I think I have been advocating for the forging of connections between school communities and municipal climate action plans. Cities and municipalities are working on all sorts of ways to reduce emissions and develop hopeful, more resilient communities – cycling infrastructure, urban agriculture/food security, green roofs, renewable energy etc. etc. The more people learn about what is already going on in their own neighbourhoods, the more motivated they will feel to support and act. My other thought – schools can do a lot more to teach students about how to build community. One of my favourite quotes “People find happiness in group activities with a shared purpose.” Climate action can solve many connected problems.

Blythe Wieclawek

Hi Anne! I love that quote. I agree that it is so important that people reconnect with their local communities and how that can give people so much motivation to better their environment (and how schools can play a massive part in that).

Marianne Larsen

Dear Blythe, Thank you for your post. It gives me great hope that there are youth like you who want to do what they can to address the climate crisis. I too as a middle aged woman (long time environmental and peace activist) feel overwhelmed by the messaging we are bombarded with about the crises our planet is facing. Sometimes it feels like it’s all too much. What gives me hope is that I have seen in my lifetime incredible positive changes that people in power, globally, nationally and locally, have done to address the climate crisis and the willingness of ordinary people to do their bit. So much more needs to be done. That is true. But so much is currently being done and that makes this not a despairing time to live in, but one of great hope, in my opinion. I work with Climate Action London and I’d like to send you a copy of the brochure we’re working on to distribute to households with ordinary actions that ordinary people can do to cut greenhouse gas emissions and improve our planet. Would love to get your feedback on it. Marianne

Blythe Wieclawek

Hi Marianne! I’m so glad you enjoyed this post. You are right to say there is still much to be done, but if generations of older climate activists are willing to work with youth and welcome them into their spaces, so much more can be achieved. I would love to take a look at the brochure Climate Action London is creating! You can reach me at blythe@simcoecountygreenbelt.ca

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