Research Summary

Evaluating climate change behaviors and concern in the family context

Family conversations about climate change tied to increased climate change mitigation behaviors for adolescents

Environmental Education Research
2019

Changing an adult’s mind about climate change is difficult. Studies have found that adults’ political ideologies strongly influence their views on climate change – and that individuals tend to seek out information that fits their preconceptions. The complexity of climate change science and the availability of misinformation have added challenges to the process of building a strong collective response. Recent research with adolescents, encouragingly, has found that specific education about climate change can change their beliefs, even when the information is not aligned with their worldviews. Recent research has also found that interactions with teachers, friends, and family all influence adolescents’ understanding of climate change. Other studies show strong connections between parent and adolescent behaviors in other areas, but limited research on the specific influence of parents on adolescents’ environmental understanding. This study aims to understand how parents and children influence each other’s views on climate change and how teachers might be effective in supporting these interactions.

This case study was conducted in coastal North Carolina in 2016. This location was chosen due to its vulnerability to climate change, specifically rising sea levels, storms, and salt water intrusion. The authors randomly chose 200 middle school teachers in the study area to invite to join the study; 15 committed to participating fully. Invitations were then sent to the parents of students in these teachers’ classes. In total, 182 families ended up participating, including 182 students (aged 11-14 years) and 241 parental figures (aged 29-77 years).

The authors developed questionnaires for both students and parental figures. The questionnaires for both sets of respondents measured climate concern, individual behaviors, and collective action behaviors through scaled response choices which ranged from “not at all” to “a great deal” (for concern) and “never” to “always” (for behaviors). Surveys for students and parents were mostly the same, the children’s survey included an additional question about their environmental behaviors in school. The level of discussion about climate change with their families was measured by another additional question on the student survey. Surveys were administered online during class time to the students and emailed to the parents. Surveys were statistically analyzed to look for relationships between students and parents and common themes.

Results from the surveys showed interesting relationships between parents’ and children’s climate concern and behavior. The strongest predictor of children’s climate behaviors was the frequency of family discussions; more discussions showed more positive behaviors. Children’s behaviors were also influenced by their parent’s behaviors; they were more likely to have positive behaviors if their parents did too. Lastly, children’s climate concern also predicted their behavior, though this was separate from their parent’s concern. As children get older they form their own opinions and can act on them, and are less influenced by their families, which could explain those results.

The authors acknowledge that the reliance on self-reporting and the case study design are potential limitations of this study. One additional specific comment on the design is that the setting in coastal North Carolina might make the study participants more open to information about climate change than they would be if they lived in an area with less pressing and visible climate challenges. Also, because the study is based on a single set of questionnaires, the causality between the family discussions and the adolescents’ environmental behaviors could potentially be reversed. Lastly, behaviors were self-reported by respondents, which have the potential to be over or understated.

For parents, this study suggests that having conversations with children about climate change and modeling environmentally friendly behaviors are both great ways of encouraging environmental action. For environmental educators, this study suggests that building activities or prompts for intergenerational conversations into climate change curriculums could make courses more effective in changing student’s environmental behaviors. Additionally, it shows the importance of climate change education for building children’s climate concern, and thus climate action. The authors of this study make the case that climate discussions at home, even when family members disagree about climate science, can increase adolescents’ climate change mitigation actions.

The Bottom Line

Families play an important role in influencing children’s behaviors, yet this relationship has not been broadly studied to see how children’s environmental concern behaviors are influenced by their parents. This study took place in North Carolina in 2016 and investigated the individual behaviors, collective action behaviors, and climate change concern of 182 middle school students and their parents. Results showed that adolescents who engage in family conversations about climate change are more likely to take action – whether or not their parents are concerned about the climate. Children’s own climate concern also positively influenced their behaviors, which pointed to the positive effects of climate change education. The researchers recommend environmental educators consider encouraging family conversations about climate change as part of their curriculums.