Young climate activists aren't always consistent. So what?

Sander Thomaes on the NRC climate blog

Young people might choose to grab a hamburger at McDonalds after attending a climate rally. While some might find this hypocritical, developmental psychologist Sander Thomaes feels such criticism is disingenuous. We should be helping young people to adjust their behaviour in order to reflect their concerns.

Credit: Markus Spiske

Some 70% of teenagers view climate change as a global emergency, according to international studies by the United Nations and Oxford University published this month. These figures are hardly surprising. This is the first generation for whom global climate change is a reality rather than some dark future scenario. Melting ice caps, forest fires and record temperatures are no longer science fiction; they are real. Today's youth are the protagonists in a social realism drama playing out against the backdrop of an ominous future.

Small surprise, in other words, that they are choosing to speak up. On 7 December, Youth for Climate NL placed hundreds of signs bearing their names on the Malieveld as part of a virtual demonstration, reminding the government to live up to its own climate targets. 'If you don't take responsibility, we're here to hold you accountable.' The climate protests of 2019 are also still a vivid memory. Following the example of 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, young campaigners around the world skipped school and took to the streets to demand more government action on climate change. This generation of young people clearly cares about important issues. It has found its voice and knows how to organise and speak out.

These young people are fighting for an important common cause, and then we slam them for inconsistencies in their behaviour


At the time of the protests, several journalists asked me whether I didn't find the situation somewhat hypocritical: masses of school-age children who are both eager to voice their concerns about the climate and excited to fly to holiday destinations with their mum and dad. We also saw plenty of images of teenage protesters enjoying a burger at the local McDonald's after the demonstration.

I think that's disingenuous. These young people are fighting for an important common cause, and then we slam them for inconsistencies in their behaviour - inconsistencies we are all guilty of. Still, there is a big discrepancy between young people's ideas and their actions - more so than in the average adult. In the cacophony of things they want and are expected to do, sustainability tends to be a weak voice.

Education could be the key here, but there is a caveat. Traditional education programmes and media campaigns inform young people about ecological problems and what we can do about them. That's obviously a good thing in terms of awareness. Still, this approach can have an unintended side effect if we're not careful: it tends to make sustainability feel like a chore. Something we need to do out of a sense of duty, yet doesn't yield many tangible results in the here and now.

For example, just imagine a teenager who loves taking long showers. Simply pointing out the importance of energy conservation generally won't lead them to change their behaviour: nice long showers are just too appealing. But what if we could get that same teenager to realise that quick showers fit the lifestyle of the sort of person they're aspiring to be? If we can get them to associate energy conservation with independent young people that fight for their principles, they may well change their ways.

Personal motives

Psychology teaches us that young people can be motivated to change their behaviour if they realise how 'new behaviour', such as sustainability, can benefit their personal lives. This approach appeals to their own personal motives. Young people want to have their own voice. They want to be taken seriously. They want to show the world they stand for something and can make their own decisions. Crucially, they want these things now rather than in some distant future.

What's more, most adolescents don't like other people telling them what to think or do. They'd rather think for themselves. They do things because they want to, not because some adult told them to. This presents a challenge to teachers, parents and any other adults who play a role in their lives. After all, how can we ever win under those circumstances?

The answer lies in presenting sustainability as a way of finding your own voice rather than an obligation. For example, wearing sustainably produced clothes can become a way of demonstrating that you have your own opinion and are mature enough to speak out against polluting fashion companies. Eating less meat can become a way of expressing who you want to be. The approval of your peer group is obviously a welcome bonus.

This blog was published on 4 February 2021 on the climate blog of the NRC.
Scientists from Utrecht University are reporting in the climate blog of the NRC on their research in the field of sustainability. They are united around the strategic theme of 'Pathways to Sustainability'.