How young people can make effective change in the climate crisis, according to experts

The consequences of a century of global warming is on their shoulders.

January 22, 2022, 8:57 AM

The fate of the world is in their hands.

The youngest generations may feel that they have the smallest ability to impact the devastating effects of climate change at the moment but also shoulder the burden of its future effects.

This responsibility -- along with the prospect of living under a looming humanitarian crisis -- sparked by rising sea levels and extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change -- has caused widespread psychological distress among young people.

Many say they don't trust their leaders to make the right decisions for them and the planet. They are frustrated with older generations for putting them in this position and they are scared about the future of the planet -- about what living conditions will look like decades from now.

But it has also sparked a camaraderie among young people, who are using their collective voices and actions to become the most vocal generation to fight for the planet in recorded history.

"The climate emergency is already here," 19-year-old Jeeva Senthilnathan, an engineering student at the Colorado School of Mines, told ABC News. "We're seeing the entire climate emergency in front of our eyes."

Older generations have a responsibility to foster and encourage young people's goals to conserve the planet as well, Lise Van Susteren, a general and forensic psychiatrist who has researched how climate change has affected the psychological health of young people, told ABC News.

"We have to listen," Van Susteren said. "They recognize that the cumulative toll of climate change is on their shoulders."

PHOTO: Young people attend 'Die-In' protest during Global Climate Strike to demand action be taken on climate change in Krakow, Poland, Oct. 14, 2019.
Young people attend 'Die-In' protest during Global Climate Strike to demand action be taken on climate change in Krakow, Poland, Oct. 14, 2019.
NurPhoto via Getty Images

These are the things young people can do to get ahead of climate change:

Make your voice heard

One of the biggest assets young people have in the climate fight is the ability to make themselves be heard on a global scale.

Ever since Swedish teen Greta Thunberg inspired millions of teens to skip school to demonstrate for climate change in 2018, the world's media has been paying attention to youth climate strikes.

The protests, filled with passionate young people, and often led by Thunberg, now 19. They have captured the attention of the world's media, reverberating with the anger and angst the young attendees feel about the future.

Young people, especially teens, are experts at arguing with their parents, Van Susteren said, adding that, when it comes to the climate crisis, that catharsis is "absolutely critical."

"Don't hold it in," she said. "If it's churning inside you, let it out. Talk about it. Don't stop talking about it."

Students, who are dealing with other overlapping crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic and racial injustice, are pushing to bring those topics into the classroom.

Senthilnathan, who has not only led climate strikes but has also met with local legislators to discuss policy, said more of those type of interactions will move the needle on awareness.

"When they work together and put their voices together, it has much more impact," Van Susteren said. "Make as much noise as you can."

But beware of the "false dichotomy" between collective action and individual action, Morgan Edwards, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a leader of the university's Climate Action Lab told ABC News, adding that reducing personal emissions or shaming others' lifestyles is not fulfilling or effective.

"There's no price of admission to the climate movement," she said. "Trying to think just about how you can reduce your personal emissions can feel really lonely, whereas, being part of something bigger, finding a community to take action together with -- I think that's a much more empowering way to think about climate change centers the conversation around those who are responsible for the crisis, which isn't you as an individual."

PHOTO: Teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg joins a Fridays for Future climate protest, Feb. 21, 2020, in Hamburg, Germany.
Teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg joins a Fridays for Future climate protest, Feb. 21, 2020, in Hamburg, Germany.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Participate in local politics

As young people grow to voting age, it will be important for them to use that power to spark change.

And if they believe that none of the candidates are up to the task, young people can run for office themselves.

Senthilnathan has already run for city council in her town in Parker, Colorado. Although she was not elected she encourages her peers to continue to fight for those positions of power.

"Election after election after election, we're still seeing the fact that the climate emergency isn't really being addressed," she said. "Running for like a city council position is a great place where they can like input those policies."

One of Senthilnathan's goals is to become an adviser to the White House on science and technology committee, she said, adding that it will be important for people her age to not let older generations tell them they are too young to lead.

"As youth, we barely have any resources to run for office," she said. "I hope people are paying attention to the youth who are trying to make a change."

Apply your interests to the climate fight

Young people do not need to dedicate their entire lives to climate activism to make a big difference in protecting the environment, the experts said.

"The best way to take climate action is to think about the thing that you already love to do," Edwards said. "So if you're, if you're an artist, you can make art about the climate crisis. If you're a writer, you can tell stories."

While studying for her engineering degree, Senthilnathan learned that about 40% to 50% of pollution comes from construction engineering. This is something she hopes to address in future policy, she said.

"I think, whatever you're interested in, climate intersects with that," Edwards said. "Bringing conversation into the things that you already love, I think, is the most one of the most sustainable ways to take action."

For college students who feel like they can't get involved in the climate crisis because their major has nothing to do with the environment, Senthilnathan said there are ways to apply every course of study to the climate fight. For instance, people with a focus on business administration or property management can apply their studies to finding ways to construct and maintain buildings with more sustainable materials and less toxic waste, she said.

"I think we need so many more perspectives coming into the climate crisis, and to really be thinking about how it interacts with all of these different fields," Edwards said. "So it's not just a science or policy or an engineering problems."

PHOTO: Young people attend 'Die-In' protest during Global Climate Strike to demand action be taken on climate change in Krakow, Poland, Oct. 14, 2019.
Young people attend 'Die-In' protest during Global Climate Strike to demand action be taken on climate change in Krakow, Poland, Oct. 14, 2019.
NurPhoto via Getty Images

Living with fear of the future

Senthilnathan got a front row seat to the climate emergency after multiple wildfires destroyed hundreds of homes near Boulder, Colorado, just weeks ago.

Winds that help spread the fires rapidly were so high that they broke her window, Senthilnathan said, describing that week as "terrifying" and "emotional." There was dust and debris all over Jefferson County, where Senthilnathan lives, and because her father had contracted COVID-19, she had no where to escape to.

Activism is the only way she knows how to take control of her destiny, rather than live in fear, she said.

It will also important for young people to find like-minded peers to discuss ideas over, Van Susteren said. It's easy to feel like an outcast or "the weird one" when you're young, especially when older people keep telling you you're too young to know anything.

In the past, kids who found that their concerns about the climate were not taken seriously felt like outsiders, Van Susteren said.

"Kids find that when they talk to each other, they feel a sense of camaraderie," she said. " This is critical, because it makes them feel like they're not weird," Van Susteren said.

Van Susteren also advised young people to find a mentor who does not write off their concerns.

"They want their teachers and administrators to provide the space and the time for them to talk about their fear, and they want their school districts to create the curricula that enable them to speak intelligently about climate," Van Susteren said. "And also to show that the adults who are involved in education, understand what it is that they are going to need to know."

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