Analysis: they don't trust politicians, want more education on climate change and are frustrated at how hard it is to live a low-carbon life

By Anna Davies and Stephan Hugel, TCD

When millions of young people around the world took to the streets on September 20th, calling on their political leaders to act on the climate crisis, it became the largest climate protest in history. To find out why so many young people felt they had to miss school in order to make their voices heard, we hit the streets of Dublin to talk to some of the 10,000 who flooded the city.

Our ongoing research found the young people were energised, but angry and confused. Students expressed a complete lack of trust in politicians, a desire for more education on climate change, and frustration at how difficult it is to live a low-carbon life.

Concerns about government leadership in Ireland in relation to climate change might come as a surprise given the formation of an advisory council a "national dialogue" and an action plan on climate change in Ireland in recent years. But young people were unconvinced that plans would be converted into action. Given the findings of the UN's Climate Change Performance Index which placed Ireland as the worst in Europe, they are right to be dubious.

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There were particular concerns about the relative place of climate matters among other issues. They questioned why the government's Climate Action Plan is prioritising the roll-out of electric vehicles before it has a plan in place for drastically increasing the use of renewable energy. They also took issue at the influence of powerful vested interests in the food and automotive industries.

There was incredulity about the slow pace of change in the face of robust scientific evidence, a disbelief that more was not being done and disgust that their voices and futures were being blatantly disregarded by those in positions of power and influence. The climate marches are playing an important role in democratic systems, and even more so for young people who are unable to vote, but they are also the physical manifestation of a creaking social contract between the state and its citizens.

Education and empowerment

Knowing the facts of climate change was important to the young people we spoke to, but many of their concerns went beyond this. There was a clear desire to understand what kind of changes the climate crisis will cause, while others wanted to know more about the damage which has already been done to the planet.

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They wanted more and better formal education on climate change – not only about the facts of atmospheric science, but also about the political and economic systems that have allowed the climate crisis to happen. This is a particularly urgent concern given the recent removal of geography  as a mandatory subject in Irish secondary education. Where else in the curriculum do students get to study how natural and social systems interact? More than just having access to information, the march participants wanted to be able to take ownership of knowledge and skills in order to navigate the climate crisis; to be empowered.

Climate marchers were frustrated that it was not easy to establish the impacts of their everyday lives or identify what difference changing their consumption practices would make. They felt that it should be a basic right to be able to identify, purchase, and use low carbon products and services. They also wanted it to be easier to use public transport or cycle.

It's time to listen

In contrast to some commentators who think that such marches are "infuriating" and little more than a chance for young people to have a day off school, the students we spoke to would rather not be on the street, but felt they had no choice. They felt that they have no democratic voice, and are not being listened to. In climate change education workshops we've run with young people, imagining their futures in the face of climate change prompts anger and despair.

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Youth are trying to make their voices heard through official channels. In Ireland, a youth assembly with delegates from all counties recently came together to work out proposals for climate action, stating "we, the youth of Ireland, call on our elected representatives and on adults to listen. We put forward our recommendations for action to stop climate breakdown. We are not experts. In our recommendations we offer ideas but we do not have all the answers. It is a starting point for adults and particularly for those elected to protect and progress our society. We call on you to listen to the science, to take on board our recommendations and to work on our behalf to ensure that we – and you – have a future."

Dáil na nÓg Ireland’s national parliament for young people, is also set to work on climate change for the next two years, and there are initiatives like this being held at European and international scales. But without a clear way of translating the recommendations these bodies produce into measurable change, it is understandable that young people look to other methods to make their voices heard.

It is our civic duty to stop talking, truly listen to what these young people have to say and act on it.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he was "really inspired" by young people’s focus on climate action, but words are no longer enough for the striking youth. These young people are our future leaders and it is our civic duty to stop talking, truly listen to what they have to say and act on it.

Prof Anna R. Davies is Professor of Geography, Environment & Society and Director of the Environmental Governance Research Group at TCD. She is a former Irish Research Council awardee. Stephan Hugel is a Marie Curie Research EDGE Fellow at the Connect Centre in TCD

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ