Melinda Ureczki Lázár

The kids are alright. Are they? Exploring the intersection of climate change education, sustainability, and policy design for empowering youth

Alexandra Ciocănel & Andrada Istrate

Abstract

Across the European Union, a youthful demographic (ages 15-34) is increasingly preoccupied with climate change and sustainability. Nevertheless, there is a significant gap between their intentions and actions, between what they would like to do and what they are able to do. Drawing on a more extensive study on climate change and youth in Romania and the EU, we focus on a problem space that centres around education as the main domain for co-productive interventions that could address this gap. In our research, when discussing youth engagement with climate change, the experts and young people interviewed champion education as a sine qua non condition for empowering youth. However, there is a pervasive structural misunderstanding among policymakers and experts about the perspectives, interests, ways of learning, and thought processes of the youth. This disconnect extends to misconceptions on the most effective ways to educate and engage them in these matters.


This article is based on the research commissioned by the European Institute of Romania, within the project SPOS 2022 – Youth and climate change: policies and response measures at European level. You can access the full report here (available in Romanian with an executive summary in English).

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Alexandra Ciocănel

Author

Alexandra Ciocănel holds a PhD in Social Anthropology (University of Manchester, 2022) and one in Sociology (University of Bucharest, 2019). As a researcher, she has always joggled between academic and applied research, and worked in various research projects in academia and beyond on topics such as housing, mortgages, data and algorithms, climate change and sustainability, health, energy consumption, active citizenship and public engagement. Her current interests focus on digital design and civic tech as tools for addressing contemporary problems around inequalities and inclusion, work, sustainability and climate change. 

Andrada Istrate

Author

Andrada Istrate holds a PhD in Sociology from the University of Bucharest and EHESS, Paris. Her previous research examines the recent history of financial fraud in post-socialist Romania. She has been involved in several research projects dealing with marginality and precariousness: prisoners and ex-prisoners; people with disabilities; women and men living on welfare; gamblers and addicts; immigrants and subsistence farmers. Since 2018, she has participated in various research focusing on how climate change emerges in the contemporary imaginary. Her current interests replicate the European ethos that envisions an inclusive, digital, and green future.

Melinda Ureczki Lázár

Illustrator

Melinda Ureczki Lázár is an artist, illustrator and animator. In her artistic practice, she is interested in reflecting on social issues and presenting them in narrative forms through different media. Her main themes are explorations of local identity, the interpretation of interpersonal relationships and experiences in everyday life, the present manifestations of tradition and its presentation through conceptual and lyrical associations. She graduated from the Bachelor degree in graphics and the Master in animation and comics in Cluj-Napoca. Since then, as a member of the ArtiViStory collective, she has participated in various research projects using comics for documentary and mediation purposes, while also participating in the POC!#2 documentary magazine project. She has had solo and group exhibitions in Romania and participated in collective art projects in Hungary.

Though old problems, climate change and sustainability have, at times, some youthful aspects. On the one hand, the frame of generational thinking predominates in debates by claiming that ‘future generations’ should have a voice in current decision-making processes, highlighting their stake in long-term outcomes. On the other hand, the face of climate change activism is evolving, with movements like Fridays for the Future gaining prominence. The rise of young activists, such as Greta Thunberg, has injected new life into the climate crisis movement, symbolising a dynamic shift in how we engage with global issues. As valuable as they might be, both attempts fail not only in adequately portraying how youth understand and engage with climate change issues but also in offering potential efficient solutions. Generational framing has been critiqued for resting on a kinship metaphor implied through “our children and grandchildren” that might move responsibility “towards our own.” This perspective overlooks that climate change impacts are unevenly distributed and fails to adequately consider that populations in lower-income countries, who often bear less accountability for climate change, are likely to be the most severely affected (White 2018). The portrayal of Greta Thunberg in the media overly focuses on her as a Western, young figure, which tends to overshadow the broader need for collective action and the variety of engagement forms (Ryalls & Mazzarella 2021). Our contribution posits a more mundane and present account of the youth in relation to climate change to understand their perceptions, attitudes, and practices.

In 2023, we won the call organised by the European Institute in Romania to write a scientific report on the youth in EU and climate change. We were supposed to find better ways of engaging young people in political decision-making regarding climate change and sustainability. Our mixed method study comprised a literature review, the analysis of data from various Eurobarometers, and a series of in-depth interviews with young people and various stakeholders in Romania (Istrate & Ciocanel 2023). We analysed attitudes and behaviours related to climate change, perceptions of public policies and civic participation at the EU and Romanian levels. We moved beyond their quantification in surveys and dived into a more in-depth understanding of people’s experiences and thinking, as well as contradictions and tensions of practical living in ways that are or could be more sustainable. This approach helped us map a broader spectrum of experiences and, unsurprisingly, learn how young people are not only todayaffected by climate change. Moreover, this approach signalled the pitfalls of imagining youth as a homogenous category, as important differences can be identified along age, group, social class, education, and geography. We lack the space here to do justice to such diversity. We focus, instead, on common and powerful concerns echoed in our research on Romania: the need for more climate change education and the displayed lack of confidence in young people as viable (if not equal) partners in political decision-making.

Other studies also reveal that climate change and sustainability education in Romania face several systemic challenges. Climate education lacks standardisation and is predominantly driven by NGOs and the voluntary efforts of individual teachers, rather than being an integrated part of the standard curriculum. More quantitative studies reveal that approximately 30% to 50% of young students did not take any classes on sustainable development, climate change or biodiversity (Todor 2021a; 2021b; Save the Children Romania 2021) despite a vast interest in doing so and the governmental support for such education (Presidential Administration 2022). Such a paucity of education was echoed among the youth interviewed in our study, who were unaware that such classes could exist. In Romania, young people primarily learn about environmental issues from TV, the Internet, and their social networks, yet they often distrust these sources. This scepticism, coupled with the challenge of navigating information in a ‘post-truth’ era, underscores the need for formal education to both teach critical evaluation skills and provide a scientific understanding of climate change and sustainability.

Further, the stakeholders interviewed in our study, representatives of ecological and youth NGOs, drew attention to the complexity of teaching climate change and sustainability notions as these need to be delivered by people with a solid understanding. They argue that to be effective, education needs to be translated into concrete practices and attitudes. At this phase, most interlocutors pointed to the important role of the government in going beyond programmatic documents that allegedly licence measures to tackle climate change and implement more sustainable solutions.

The lack of formal education reverberates throughout various areas of social life, an important one being civic participation and activism. In Romania, not only do we lack a similar figure to Greta Thunberg, but the cultural context here tends to view the emergence of such an icon as generally undesirable. Most of the young people interviewed in our study, even though supporting tackling climate change and wanting to live a more sustainable life, felt that the forms of more ‘aggressive’ activism encountered in Western Europe, such as those promoted by the Stop Oil movement, are ‘too much’ and missing the point. NGOs representatives described young people as less inclined to participate in activism due to a gap between intentions and behaviours. First, this issue is evident in everyday life. Many young people express concern about climate change and want to adopt more sustainable habits. However, they often struggle to do so, primarily due to lacking an infrastructure supporting these behaviours and a broader lack of recognition for such efforts. Secondly, the lack of role models in civic participation can lead to a sense of apathy among Romanian youth. Even those who are initially motivated may become discouraged by the prevailing status quo, finding it challenging to enact the changes they aspire to see.

If more mundane forms of civic participation might nonetheless be imagined as desirable and reasonable, we surprised our young research participants when asking them about ways of being more involved in policy design and implementation. What became transparent was a profound lack of entitlement or capacity, as the policy was usually understood as a top-down measure coming from powerful actors in society. At the EU level, initiatives such as the Conference on the Future of Europe (2021-2022), events marking 2022 as the Year of European Youth, and the European Green Deal (2020) have been established to expand platforms for civic participation and to involve more people in policy-making processes. However, they typically depend on participants’ self-selection and have yet to establish more concrete ways of ensuring broader, more representative involvement.

In 2021, the European Commission published a guide to promote youth participation in the Just Transition Mechanism, a program supporting regions most impacted by the shift towards a climate-neutral economy. The guide emphasizes involving youth in co-creating and implementing policies inclusively and justly at all stages. A report on implementing the guide in 12 EU countries, including Romania, shows limited youth involvement: in only seven countries were they consulted, and even then, only to give feedback on pre-drafted documents, not in initial creation (Generation Climate Europe and CEE Bankwatch Network 2022). Other methods included workshops, working groups, and surveys. However, the report highlights the risk of these methods being mere tokenistic civic participation, lacking a true bottom-up approach that actively involves young people from policy design to implementation and monitoring. Our research found that while young people are interested in such opportunities, they also feel intimidated by the idea of contributing, leading to a reduced sense of their input’s value and a general feeling of powerlessness in influencing public discourse.

We propose rethinking our approach to public policy, addressing its recurrent inability to meet complex challenges and the current deficit in creativity and innovation. Co-production through design thinking methods has been increasingly advanced as a radically more democratic form of policy making. Drawing on Elinor Ostrom’s research on the management of common-pool resources, co-production entails a different configuration of the relationship between policymakers, practitioners, and service users by enabling citizens to play an active role in the production of public goods. Co-production can take place at different levels and there are different strategies and ways of implementing it. Though not without its critiques, including its understanding as another neoliberal tool of shifting responsibility from the state to the citizens, it nonetheless remains one of the most powerful methods of public consultation that currently exists.

In the following, we advance some co-productions inspired suggestions for the problems identified in our research by framing them as How Might We questions. Such questions are a design tool commonly used in ideation workshops aiming to move from learning about the problem space to generating solutions that truly meet real needs. Though this article is rather a unidirectional attempt, we hope it has the potential of opening broader conversations enabling a future that brings ‘all the kids’ forefront in policy making. 

 

How might we enable a formal education that fosters a long-term practical adoption of sustainable behaviours and attitudes?

An environmental NGO representative interviewed at the end of 2022 asked a fair question: How should the educational system be organised to appeal to today’s youth? Moreover, how can scientific climate change writing be mainstreamed to reach a generation intensely socialised in digital technologies (Turner 2015; Seemiller și Grace 2017; Dolot 2018; Giray 2022), highly diverse in terms of origin (ERPS 2020), and simultaneously cautious towards politicians, corporations, and media (Rice & Moffett 2021)?

The consensus among Romanian youth interviewed is that climate change education in Romania is precarious, with limited educational resources, ill-equipped teachers, and outdated teaching methods. Our interviews revealed the necessity for a type of education that caters to contemporary needs, focusing on environmental issues and climate change. The youth interviewed propose an education reform based on four tenets: rethinking the curriculum, adopting new teaching methods, learning-by-doing, and expanding access to climate education.

As such, most interviewees emphasize developing a curriculum that addresses current challenges, particularly climate change. This involves merging formal education with informal learning techniques and fostering an interdisciplinary approach. The curriculum should cover the scientific, social, and economic aspects of climate change. Incorporating real-world experiences, such as partnerships with NGOs and industry sectors like renewable energy, is considered crucial.

There is also a strong push for modern, digital teaching methods, exploiting young people’s familiarity with digital technologies, the internet, and social media. Innovative tools like educational video games are proposed to transform students into active learners and critical thinkers. The “learning by doing” philosophy is highlighted, with hands-on experiences seen as critical for engaging youth in environmental issues. For example, educational gardens, like those in Spain (see Vilchez și Escobar, 2014; Corrochano et al., 2022), offer practical insights into natural processes, sustainability, and climate change.

Lastly, expanding access to climate education is vital. This includes diversifying delivery channels such as online platforms and extracurricular activities, offering resources in multiple languages, and aligning with young people’s communication preferences. In Romania, creating a platform for environmental organizations to supply schools with up-to-date information and methodologies for youth engagement in environmental protection is suggested. Strengthening collaborations among NGOs, educational institutions, and universities is viewed as essential for empowering young people in environmental advocacy.

How might we enable the development of a civic attitude oriented towards sustainable ideals?

Developing a civic attitude oriented towards sustainable ideals requires an integrated strategy that combines practical education, effective communication, hands-on awareness initiatives, and equitable access to sustainable resources. This approach offers a comprehensive strategy to cultivate a deep-rooted sense of ecological responsibility and active participation in sustainability efforts among young people. Central to this endeavour is the role of education, specifically through the concept of sustainable schools. By integrating green infrastructure and sustainable practices into the educational environment, students are not only taught about sustainability but also witness its practical application in their daily surroundings. This method of learning by example is key in instilling a deeper understanding and commitment to sustainable practices. Such initiatives make sustainability a tangible and relatable concept for students, fostering a lifelong commitment to environmental stewardship.

Another key element is effective public communication about climate change. The study highlights that while young people may be aware of climate change, their understanding of sustainable practices and behaviours is often limited. Broadening this understanding through targeted public communication campaigns can play a significant role. These campaigns should use various media channels popular among the youth for wider reach and engagement. By presenting climate change and sustainability in contexts relatable to young people, such campaigns can transform abstract concepts into actionable knowledge. Awareness of the circular economy and sustainable businesses is also critical. Educational programs and workshops that focus on the circular economy can help young people understand the impact of individual behaviours on the environment. Initiatives like the Food Waste Combat project, which educates students about food waste and ecological footprints, provide practical, hands-on experiences that reinforce the principles of sustainable living.

Lastly, addressing social equity is vital. The study underscores that the costs and benefits of the green transition are often unevenly distributed, disproportionately impacting low-income groups. Policies and programs must be designed to ensure equitable access to sustainable resources and opportunities. This includes thermal rehabilitation of buildings, reducing energy poverty, and promoting sustainable mobility accessible to all. Such inclusive approaches ensure that sustainability is not just a privilege of the affluent but a universal norm, fostering a civic attitude where every individual, regardless of their socioeconomic background, is empowered to contribute to sustainable development.

How might we involve young people in co-designing policy?

Our research shows that in designing policy it is important to shift from viewing citizens as passive recipients of policies to making them active agents. Consequently, it is important to distinguish between four different types of engagement:

  1. Involvement through facilitating awareness campaigns coupled with consulting young people and taking account of their recommendations
  2. Co-creation through encouraging young people to define problems and solutions in their own terms
  3. Implementation through creating an institutional space in which young people can implement their own solutions
  4. Monitoring and evaluation through ways of making public authorities accountable along the process of implementing policies

Creating an institutional space able to deliver all types of engagement at scale is certainly a great challenge now, but we suggest that the first steps can be small and local, starting from creating a national network of small groups of young people who have a platform to express their problems, participate in workshops and working groups and meet policymakers. Promoting young talent through calls for solutions to specific problems can be another approach. Emphasizing inclusivity is key, linking climate action with social justice. To combat feelings of inadequacy, adopting open, learning-friendly formats is essential. This could involve playful, game-based learning in familiar settings like schools to engage youth in contemporary challenges.

Again, we are back to school and to the need that such a space becomes one of liberatory education that widens governance and decision-making and redefines our current understandings of cultural of success by including care for people and the planet as a central value of our actions.

References

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Dolot, A., 2018. The characteristics of Generation Z. E-mentor, 2 (74), pp. 44-50.

European Commission, 2021. “Youth for a Just Transition – A Toolkit for Youth Participation in the Just Transition Fund.” https://youth.europa.eu/news/toolkit-youth-participation-just-transition-fund_ro

European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS), 2020. Next generation or lost generation? Children, young people and the pandemic. PE 659.404. Available at: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2020/659404/EPRS_BRI(2020)659404_EN.pdf.

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