Research Summary

Framing action in a youth climate change filmmaking program: hope, agency, and action across scales

Climate-themed student films emphasize individual behavior change instead of structural changes

Environmental Education Research

The political worldview of neoliberalism emphasizes individual behavior change to address larger issues, which is insufficient as a solution to climate change. Adaptation to climate change will require wide-structural change and collective action, such as rethinking transportation and energy sources. However, these mechanisms require people to be willing to act on climate. Past research has shown that hope, not just concern, may inspire action on climate change, especially among young people. However, research also shows that young people may focus on their individual behaviors because they feel unable to change larger structures. This mixed-methods study analyzed how a student filmmaking program’s students, mentors, and films framed action relating to climate change, focusing on themes of hope, agency, justice, and neoliberalism.

Lens on Climate Change (LOCC) is a one-week summer program in the United States for high school students from underrepresented communities. During this program, the students make climate-themed films, and are mentored by graduate students in science and film. The program includes a one-day workshop on climate change issues and actions and concludes with a public screening. The study followed three LOCC sessions in the Southwest: two in summer 2016 and one in summer 2017. Across all sessions, 43 students from ages 14-18 years participated. Of the students that listed their demographic information, 51% were Latinx/Hispanic and 28% were Native American. Many participants were from low-income and/or first-generation college households. Of the participants, 38% identified as male, 57% as female, and 2% as nonbinary or another gender. The sessions also included 16 graduate student mentors, who were 69% white, with 56% female and 44% male. The researchers collected data on participants’ discourse related to environmental action from student-produced films (a total of ten, across the three total sessions) and post-program surveys (completed by 34 of 43 students from the three sessions). In summer 2017, they also practiced participatory observation of the program, interviewed mentors, and ran a focus group of six randomly selected students on the final day. They simultaneously used quantitative and qualitative analysis to code and track themes and trends in the data.

The research found four frequent themes related to action from the film production: focusing on action can promote hope and agency; action is primarily small individual behavior changes; it is possible and necessary to make these changes, which inspires hope; and everyone needs to make these changes to address climate change. The student films emphasized pro-environmental behaviors by individuals, such as conserving water, using non-plastic objects, using renewable energy, or choosing less carbon-intensive forms of transport. The films placed responsibility on individual consumers to address climate change, reflecting neoliberal concepts that recommend working within the system instead of transforming it. How the LOCC program was implemented influenced the focus on individual behaviors, as mentors were perhaps worried about being too political or not offering hope through concrete solutions for the youth. Prior to filmmaking, the researchers observed a brainstorming session in which a mentor and students discussed solutions to climate change. Following the proposal of activism, the mentor asked students what could be done at home, which led students to focus on individual actions rather than system transformations. Mentors focused on action to promote hope in students, while students associated action with promoting agency in themselves. Structural change and collective action appeared in only a few of the films and was not depicted as the primary mechanism to address climate change. Only one film emphasized a community taking action to sustain themselves throughout a drought. In contrast to the student films, most of the mentors described system-level climate action as the primary means to address climate change.

There were limitations to this study. When entering the program, 91% of students believed anthropogenic climate change was happening, which is not representative of the views of the larger population in the United States or the world. LOCC also selected students from underrepresented groups that tend to have low carbon footprints and are more likely to be marginalized by climate change, so how these students thought about power and structural changes may not be generalizable.

The researchers acknowledged that the neoliberal foundation of program sessions may have limited the students’ willingness to consider system transformations in response to climate change. Although the mentors prioritized system-wide changes, their lessons focused on individual behavior changes to provide hope to students rather than discuss political, “doom-and-gloom” subjects. The researchers suggested that, rather than fall back on neoliberal solutions to remain hopeful, environmental education programs recruit mentors with experience in collective action and structural change to emphasize different ways of addressing climate change.

The Bottom Line

Adapting to climate change requires wide-reaching collective action and structural change, which requires people to be willing to act. This mixed-methods study analyzed how participants in a high school filmmaking program framed action relating to climate change. Student films placed responsibility on individual consumers to address climate change, reflecting neoliberal concepts that recommend working within the system instead of transforming it. Although the mentors believed system-wide changes were necessary to address climate change, they avoided these topics to promote hope and agency in students. The researchers suggested that similar programs recruit mentors with experience in structural change and collective action to emphasize different ways of addressing climate change in environmental education.