Research Summary

Youth voice on climate change: using factor analysis to understand the intersection of science, politics, and emotion

Youth combine knowledge, politics, and emotion when discussing climate change

Environmental Education Research

Most of the scientific community agrees that climate change is a real, pressing issue. However, the subject of climate change remains controversial and politically charged to the rest of the population. The researchers in this study looked at how science, emotion, and politics intersect and inform communication, particularly with youth. Youth will have to grapple with the devastating realities of climate change if action is not taken, yet not much research has focused on youth voice on climate change action. Through examining letters written by youth, the researchers aimed to understand how youth who are invested in climate change action communicate about the climate change to each other and the public.

In 2016, youth ages 12 to 18 years in the United States took part in a project called “Letters to the President” in which they voiced specific concerns they wanted the 2016 election winner to address. The researchers analyzed 350 letters using a mixed methods approach. They first coded the letters using four major themes: 1) scientific knowledge about climate change, 2) solutions to climate change and whose responsibility it was to develop those solutions, 3) emotion related to climate change, and 4) politics related to climate change. Then, they used a statistical technique called factor analysis to help them identify three separate discourses, or ways youth typically think, feel, and talk about climate change, present within the letters. They then linked these discourses with the voting patterns in the areas from which the letters came, allowing them to see how youth discourses appeared in differing political contexts.

The three discourses identified in the study were solution-oriented, climate politics, and discourse of doom. The solution-oriented discourse highlighted individual, technological, and collective solutions, and had an overall hopeful tone. The general sense was that there are climate change solutions, and the phrase “it is not too late,” was common in youth writing. Researchers also noted that many of the solutions were technocratic, or emphasized technology and science, rather than collective action, to provide solutions. Youths who used the solutions discourse were mostly from regions of the country with liberal political leanings, suggesting that the political context could be shaping youths’ views.

The climate politics discourse focused heavily on attributing the cause of climate change to humans, advocating for a policy-based solution, and had an anti-capitalist tone. Overall, these letters highlighted the politicized nature of the issue, and suggested that political solutions, particularly ones that challenge the dominant societal structure, are necessary to address the crisis. Letters using this discourse were found from all regions of the country, suggesting that youth may be interested in activism regardless of the political context in which they grow up.

Finally, the discourse of doom discourse focused on the impact that climate change has on humans and the natural world with a fair amount of alarm. The letters in this discourse seemed to view climate change as so large of a threat, it is difficult to be hopeful. This discourse also cut across political boundaries, suggesting youth everywhere may understand the seriousness of climate change.

There were some limitations to this study. The researchers acknowledged that the sample of letters was not necessarily a representative random sample, as teachers volunteered their classrooms for the program – a self-selecting bias. The letters were written in states with a political climate that is mainly liberal. Furthermore, only the most frequently repeated themes related to climate change were taken into account, meaning that some ideas were left out. Therefore, the study’s results may not have characterized the entirety of youth’s thoughts and discussion about climate change.

The researchers advise that environmental educators keep the socio-political implications of climate change in mind when discussing this issue. Because climate change is so politicized, educators are warned against isolating more conservative students with their teachings. Environmental educators should also teach solutions to climate change, thus instilling hope in students. However, solutions should not focus on just technology-related solutions, because climate change mitigation involve other social, political, scientific, and ethical dimensions. Feelings of fear and alarm should be addressed and worked through so students do not become overwhelmed.

The Bottom Line

Youth are thinking, talking, and acting on climate change whether it is addressed in school or not. Much like among adults, there are distinct ways youth think about the issue – including identifying individual and technological solutions, advocating for political and systemic change, and being overwhelmed by the impacts already felt. Through examining letters written by youth ages 12-18 years, the researchers aimed to understand how youth who are invested in climate change action communicate about the climate change to each other and the public. Results indicated climate change is already politicized by youth, they understand there are climate change solutions, and they view climate change as a threat. Educators must work to understand where students are coming from, build on existing patterns of understanding, and support youth in navigating a complex and pressing topic.