Teens and young adult leaders are key to the climate change challenge - Part 2

Youth have an important leadership role to play against the frequent and extreme weather events and climate change.

Today’s youth, teens and young adults in particular, have an enormous stake in understanding climate change in order to advance communities and society towards a sustainable future. Despite this fact, recent research suggests that the majority of American middle and high school students lack an adequate understanding of climate change. In a study released in 2011 that “graded” American middle and high school aged youth’s understanding “about how the climate system works and the causes, impacts and potential solutions to global warming,” researchers from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication found that “25 percent of teens received a passing grade (A, B or C),” and that over half of the teens (54 percent) received a failing grade (F). While the results demonstrate significant room for improvement in American teen’s knowledge of climate change, it should be noted that the results for American adults were only slightly “better.” The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication found that 30 percent of American adults received a passing grade and 46 percent received a failing grade.

Climate Literacy: The Essential Principles of Climate Science, a guidebook released in 2009 by the U.S. Global Change Research Program / Climate Change Research Program, is a source of information based on the work of public, private and nonprofit organizations that outlines the essential principles of climate science that individuals and communities must understand in order to be climate science “literate.” According to the guidebook, “Human activities are now the primary cause of most of the ongoing increase in the Earth’s globally averaged surface temperature.” The resulting impacts - “rising global sea levels and increasing frequency and intensity of heat waves, droughts, and floods” – “will affect almost every aspect of human society.”

Giving the complexity of global climate change, adults preparing to help teens and young adults to develop climate science literacy (such as parents, teachers, non-formal educators, mentors and others) should begin their efforts by first having an understanding of the ages and stages of youth development. This will allow adult helpers to design educational learning experiences that are appropriate for the cognitive, social and emotional level of development of the youth they are working with. The document “Ages and Stages of Youth Development: A Guide for 4-H Leaders” is a good source to learn about the physical, thinking, emotional and social development of children and youth. Children ages six through 11 are often logical, concrete thinkers, which can make learning about climate change a tricky subject for young learners. The complexity of climate science and climate change can be challenging to understand for learners in this age range, who may benefit more from learning about and connecting with the natural environment through firsthand experiential learning. Those interested in tailoring climate change learning experiences to ages and stages of youth development may also benefit from reviewing the “Guidelines for K12 Global Climate Change Education” developed by the North American Association for Environmental Education in partnership with the National Wildlife Foundation.

Understanding the climate system is the first step youth can take to plan for and respond to these issues through their current and future roles as informed, engaged citizens. The Climate Literacy guidebook defines climate science literacy as “an understanding of your influence on climate and climate’s influence on you and society.” The guidebook contains seven essential principles of climate science that must be understood in order to be considered “climate literate.”

The Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness Network (CLEAN) maintain a collection of educational resources that can be used by youth and youth educators to develop knowledge of the seven essential principles outlined in the climate literacy guide. The educational resources in the collection are reviewed by scientists and educators to ensure that they reflect the essential principles of climate science and to ensure that the information shared in each resource is scientifically accurate.

In the subsequent articles in this series, the author will highlight the seven principles of climate science literacy and the role of youth leadership and civic engagement in addressing the challenges associated with climate change. Participation in educational programs offered by the Michigan State University Extension 4-H Youth Development Program provides youth with a variety of opportunities to develop the knowledge and skills needed to engage in leadership and civic engagement around the issue of climate change at the local, state, national and global level. These educational opportunities will also be highlighted in the rest of the articles in this series.

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