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Health sector urged to engage and empower young people in climate advocacy and activism

The public health and health promotion communities must strengthen their commitment to engaging and empowering young people in climate advocacy and activism, according to researchers at Deakin University who asked 500 young Australians about how corporations and politicians are responding to the climate crisis.


Grace Arnot, Hannah Pitt, Simone McCarthy and Samantha Thomas write:

The climate crisis is the most urgent public health issue of modern times. Despite the clear negative impacts to the health and wellbeing of people and planet, researchers have argued that global public health continues to be ‘at the mercy of fossil fuels’. Those who will be most disproportionally impacted by lack of action on climate are young people.

There is no doubt that the lack of action on climate is a clear intergenerational justice issue, with young people inheriting the increasingly harmful health and social outcomes from a lack of global political action on climate.

Our research and the research of others has shown how important youth climate justice initiatives have been as a mechanism of solidarity and empowerment for young people, creating a sense of unity and hope, raising public awareness, and casting a spotlight on the shortcomings of powerful political and corporate actors.

As one young person told us, the youth climate justice movement is:

…forcing the media to focus on [and] to bring publicity to the issue of climate change. It’s forcing the public to think about how climate change is affecting the future of the younger generation.” 17-year-old female, Western Australia

However, youth engagement and involvement in responses to the climate crisis is about much more than ‘raising voices’.

Major reports have argued that young people have the right to contribute to discussions and decision-making about the climate crisis, enabling their participation in setting the agenda, and championing their right to have a seat at the decision-making table.

This must include understanding how young people conceptualise and critically reflect about the two key vectors of climate harm – commercial actors and the politicians that make decisions about the future of the planet.

Governments have arguably sought to frame themselves as taking comprehensive action on the climate crisis, while prioritising wealth over the health of future generations. Corporations have developed a range of social responsibility initiatives to legitimise themselves as serious actors in developing practical and policy responses to the very problems that they have caused for planet and people.

While researchers have spoken to young people about the individual and social determinants of the climate crisis, there is much less consideration of their attitudes towards these corporate and political determinants.

Research findings

In our two recently published studies in Health Promotion International and the Health Promotion Journal of Australia, we report the responses from 500 young Australians (aged 15-24 years) about the commercial and political determinants of the climate crisis.

We wanted to know whether they thought that there was a genuine attempt from the commercial and political sectors to meaningfully act on climate, whether they thought this was making a difference, and what they thought needed to change.

Young people were critical of corporate practices, specifically those of the fossil fuel industry. They told us that corporate responses often focused on soft options and lacked meaningful action. They were also sceptical about the intent behind corporate actions, often perceiving that these were more about corporate image than planetary health.

Some went as far as to say that their corporate practices such as greenwashing were deliberately designed to hide the true cost of their practices for the climate, to get regulators and the community “off their backs” and to improve their corporate image.

Few companies are introducing policies that are truly helping in a positive way and not greenwashing. I think they can do more.” 23-year-old female, New South Wales

Young people also perceived that the pursuit of economic gain and wealth had the most influence over decisions that corporations made about the climate crisis. Because of this they did not think corporations that were causing damage to the environment would change their practices voluntarily.

Young people stated that there needs to be a system which inherently changed industry behaviour, through increased regulation and stronger penalties, but also incentives to create corporate demand for ethical, eco-friendly practices.

[The Australian Government should be] planting trees, protecting more natural areas, planning cities to have more green space and efficiency, taxing or stopping fossil fuels, incentivising/subsidising renewable energy sources or products.” 18-year-old female, Western Australia

However, in relation to political practices, young people believed the decisions that governments took on climate were far too influenced by powerful corporations and economic factors. They observed that climate agreements and targets were not matched by urgent action, and criticised government responses which still framed climate action as a matter of personal responsibility.

I think that any small change is always positive but we shouldn’t put the blame on individual citizens when big corporations are the main offenders.” 20-year-old female, Victoria

The message from young people about the duty of care governments had to protect young people from the current and future impacts of the climate crisis was clear.

They stated that current government inaction risked their futures and described how a new level of accountability for government action was needed. They called for structural mechanisms to urgently engage young people in climate policy decisions, and highlighted the need to act upon expert climate knowledge and recommendations:

In government meetings have youth representatives who contribute to ideas and decisions.” 24-year-old male, Western Australia

Messages for health sector

What does this mean for young people and their engagement in climate action and how can the health community better support them?

Engaging young people in discussions beyond individual and social determinants, to challenge powerful corporate and political practices, are important in developing their ability to civically and politically respond to climate policy issues.

However, we must also ensure engagement strategies and mechanisms do not exacerbate inequity by appealing only to those who may already be well equipped to respond to climate disruption. For example, some young people have told us that traditional activism and advocacy activities such as street protests may be inaccessible for those with disabilities, young people who live in remote or rural areas, or those who find large crowds overwhelming.

Using a strengths-based approach will ensure that the public health and health promotion communities are able to support young people’s existing abilities and capacities, as well as learning from already successful youth climate initiatives such as Seed Mob, who are at the forefront of youth climate justice.

The Geneva Charter underscores the necessity of the public health community in working together with community stakeholders to address the climate crisis.

The public health and health promotion communities must treat the climate crisis as an intergenerational justice issue, and strengthen our commitment to engaging and empowering young people in climate advocacy and activism.

Author details

  • Grace Arnot is a PhD candidate at Deakin University exploring young people’s understanding of the determinants of the climate crisis, and their engagement in climate responses.
  • Dr Hannah Pitt is a Vic Health research fellow at Deakin University exploring the impact of harmful industry tactics on at risk populations, in particular the impact of gambling marketing on young people.
  • Dr Simone McCarthy is a research fellow at Deakin University researching the commercial determinants of health and the gendered impacts of gambling harms, specifically among women.
  • Samantha Thomas is a professor of public health at Deakin University, adjunct professor at Curtin University, and editor in chief at Health Promotion International, researching the impact of the alcohol, gambling and fossil fuel industries, particularly on young people.

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