Taking climate action can be difficult at any age, but especially so for young people. While research has shown that youths are anxious about the warming planet, they can also feel powerless to act on it.
UNICEF estimates that there are 1.2 billion people between the ages of 10 and 19; roughly one-sixth of the global population. A recent study found that today’s kids will live through three times as many climate disasters as their grandparents. And when world leaders gather again for the COP26 climate change summit next month in Scotland, a day’s theme is dedicated to “youth and public empowerment.”
“Younger people are growing into a world that is clearly changing around them. And they’re worried,” said Robin Webster, who leads the advocacy communication program at the nonprofit Climate Outreach. For teens looking to take action, she suggests they consider “thinking what are your passions? What do you feel like doing? And finding communities of people who are doing that as well.”
Entry points are infinite, says Webster. Do you like to garden? Consider starting a plot in your community garden. How about art? Create sculptures made from recycled materials. If you live far from school, you could organize a car pool, or if you live near water, you could organize a beach cleanup.
NASA has a whole section of its website dedicated to helping kids engage with climate change. “Turn off lights, TVs, computers, when you do not need them,” it reads. Maybe walk or bike to school instead of driving. Or, “turn down the thermostat on the heating when it’s cold. Sweaters, blankets, and socks are good for you and better for the planet.”
“Using less of everything is just key … What’s the thing that interests you?” said Joe Cox, President of the Museum of Discovery and Science in Florida. In addition to climate-focused exhibits, the museum holds climate summits, runs internship programs and engages youth in myriad environment-related activities. “What we’re really try to do is show that there are solutions.”
Of course, individual actions alone won’t curb climate change without broader shifts at the governmental and societal levels as well. But Webster says, “we found that people doing something, even if it’s a small thing, felt much more empowered to talk about it.” That, in turn, can lead to scaled impacts.
Mayana Torres, 21, is the outreach coordinator for the sustainability nonprofit Sustain US. But when she first learned about climate change while learning earth studies in her junior year of high school, she was among those that “didn’t think there would be anything I could engage in.”
Eventually plastic consumption caught her attention, and she decided that reducing waste would be a good place to start. Soon after, she began reevaluating the growth of her wardrobe and the fast-fashion consumption it entailed. Next, she attended the 2017 People’s Climate March in Washington, D.C.
“I was completely blown away,” said Torres, who had begged her grandmother to take her by train. The trip spurred a continued stream of action from her, including becoming a delegate to the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit.
Torres says her actions have also helped to get others involved, explaining that when she started culling her wardrobe for the climate, some of her friends followed suit. Webster says that those kinds of conversations — with parents, grandparents and peers — are a critically important benefit to individual climate action. She points to the momentum that groups like “Fridays for Future” have built.
That movement started in 2018, when a then-15-year-old Greta Thunberg would sit outside the Swedish parliament each Friday, with a handmade sign that read: “Skolstrejk for Klimatet,” or “school strike for climate.” Fridays for Future has since become an archetype of teen climate action, drawing millions of supporters around the globe.
Torres says that individual actions are steps in the path to systemic change — and they’re important reminders of the primary reason teens aren’t powerless.
“Remember that there are people beside you,” she said. “You’re not alone.”