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Children, young people and families, Climate and environment

The climate crisis, COP27, children’s involvement and being ignored

As the COP27 conference enters its second week, Dr Dan O’Hare, lead author of the paper “The climate crisis, children, young people and educational psychology” explores the continued impact of the climate crisis on children and young people, and what can be done.

14 November 2022

By Daniel O'Hare

A recent survey from Save the Children has found, yet again, that children and young people are worried about the climate and the future of our planet. The key findings from the survey of 3000 children and young people were:  

  • 70 per cent are worried about the world they will inherit 

  • 60 per cent think climate change and inequality are affecting their mental health 

  • 75 per cent want the government to take stronger action

These findings aren't surprising, and they add to the already clear message that children care passionately about the environment, and they think that governments are failing them.  

In the recent discussion paper "The climate crisis, children, young people and educational psychology" children's views about the climate and their dissatisfaction with how governments have responded, were a key focus. I asked in this discussion paper: 

What role do child and educational psychologists have in gaining and representing children's views about climate change and its effects? 

As COP27 continues, this question remains a key one for our profession, and allied professions who work psychologically with children and young people. 

What is COP27

'COP' is something that has become more visible in recent years - particularly in 2021 when the UK hosted COP 26 in Glasgow. COP stands for 'Conference of the Parties' and it's a decision making body represented by all states that signed up to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  

This time round, COP27 in Egypt, there are three big objectives

  1. Climate change mitigation and how countries will reduce their emissions

  2. How countries will ensure adaptation to the changing climate, and how they'll help other countries do the same 

  3. Climate finance, particularly how developed countries will support developing countries to limit greenhouse gas emissions and provide financial support for the most vulnerable 

What young people want from COP27 

For the first time at a COP, children and young people will have a specific space within the conference. The Children and Youth Pavilion will be held within the important 'Blue Zone' of the conference. The Blue Zone is for people registered with the UN, whose job it is to coordinate the global response to the climate crisis. Being positioned in the Blue Zone is important because it is here politicians and government officials do their work.  

Previously children and young people's groups were positioned in the 'Green Zone', outside of where the negotiations and debates happen.  

Social media commentary on the opening days of COP was pretty unequivocal that the greatest 'buzz' at the conference was coming from the Children and Youth Pavillion and this is welcome news, particularly as the aim of the Pavillion is " give children and youth a voice at COP27 to push their agenda for climate justice." (Children and Youth Pavillion, 2022).  

However, the experience on the ground may well be different. The BBC's climate change reporter at COP27 spoke to Dishi Ravi, a 24-year-old climate activist from India who commented: 

"They want to showcase that they are having us involved by giving us this youth pavilion... but is it actually letting us speak truth to power? There is no one in power here… they don't think it's important enough."

Young people then want to be listened to, involved, and taken seriously. Perhaps most importantly they want serious, genuine action. I remain astounded by children's ability to see through the noise, the greenwashing, the catchy headlines and their unwavering commitment to demanding better, sooner. 

Yes, the climate crisis is affecting children and young people…but so is being ignored  

What's clear from various research projects and when you talk to children and young people, is that the current state of the climate, planetary health, biodiversity loss and inequality, is having a detrimental effect on them.  

They see the environment as an overwhelming priority (Children's Commissioner, 2021) and children and young people from across the world feel very or extremely worried about climate change (Hickman et al, 2021). 

Feeling ignored, or not being listened to, is making these experiences worse.  

…negative thoughts, worry about climate change, and impact on functioning, were all positively correlated and showed substantial correlations with feelings of betrayal and negative beliefs about government response  (Hickman et al, 2021, pg. 7) 

This was brought into sharper focus in a recent panel that I participated in at the University of Bristol, about climate anxiety. The panel was attended by a range of young people from across the city, and University, and one key message stuck out. 

The young people recognised an increasing focus on the anxiety or distress they might be feeling, but were well attuned to how this focus on individual anxiety was taking the place of meaningful, positive climate action from institutions and organisations. In fact, several expressed the view that such attention on 'climate anxiety' without meaningful action and accountability was making things worse. 

Many of us have experienced the detrimental effects on our emotions or wellbeing of tokenism about an issue we have felt passionately about. Many children and young people feel this strongly about climate (in)action. 

So what can we do? 

Given the focus on COP27 and the overwhelming desire that children and young people have to be heard, taken seriously and supported, there are a number of actions we psychologists might take: 

  1. Commit to understanding the climate crisis in the same depth that children and young people do, understanding the nature, extent and severity of the problem and the inherent inequality experienced across the world. Children and young people often speak about the importance of climate education, not just for them, but for adults too. This continuing education can be seen in the context of our professional responsibilities - "This is particularly relevant given that both the accreditation standards and the HCPC Standards of Proficiency advocate for the necessity for EPs [and other psychologists] to understand the various systemic influences on child development and wellbeing" (O'Hare, 2022)  

  2. Understand the impact of climate breakdown on children and young people. This might be the immediate and gradual impact, psychologically but also physiologically. This includes understanding that the relationship between climate breakdown and inequality is bi-directional and that the impacts of the climate crisis are real, now.  

  3. Get to grips with children's views about climate change - the discussion paper referenced above includes a section about children's views. Beyond this however, you might speak to local young activists or consider involvement with various youth groups, for example, the UK Schools Sustainability Network. 
  4. Take action. This is a refrain we often hear, particularly in response to the distress children might be experiencing, but Psychologists can also take specific action in a number of ways: 
  • Develop an awareness of one's own responses to climate breakdown  
  • Inform school support mechanisms e.g. training staff on psychological responses in children and young people to the climate crisis 
  • Work with youth organisations to "put some thought into the support that brave and courageous activists at the forefront might also need" (Gimalova & Milton, 2019
  • Bring psychological assessment, planning and intervention skills to community projects and groups 
  • Communicate the psychological impacts of the climate crisis to policymakers in local areas e.g. transport planning, housing, public health 
  • Bring psychological knowledge to politicians in local surgeries or by writing letters
  • Provide children and young people with platforms to communicate, advise and persuade - we did this recently at our Festival of Educational Psychology, where two young people from the UK Schools Sustainability Network talked to psychologists and educationalists about what they need to know and should be doing. 

Read the full paper,  "The climate crisis, children, young people and educational psychology".