Act: Inspiration

The One Sure Way to Convince a Climate Denier

June 10, 2019

Back in 2007, South Carolina Congressman Bob Inglis rebelled against the Republican party and his conservative state: He told the world that climate change was real, that it was caused by humans, and that his party would “get hammered” if they didn’t step up and do something about it. Then, unlike other Republicans who gave the issue lip service at the time, he actually tried.

Why would a dyed-in-the-wool Republican take such a strong stance? Inglis’s son said he’d vote against him if he didn’t.

Apparently, his son’s vote wasn’t the one he should’ve been worried about: Inglis lost his seat in Congress three years later to a guy who famously declared that “global warming has not been proven to the satisfaction of the constituents I seek to serve.” But the story is a good illustration of the potential that young people have to sway their parents’ opinions.

It’s a power that has come into play a lot lately: Pushed by dire circumstances to explore tactics beyond the eye roll, middle and high school students are leading the charge on just about everything, from climate justice, to gun control, to criminal justice reform.

And, it turns out, that cliché about learning more from your kids than they’ll ever learn from you has some scientific backing: To paraphrase researchers at North Carolina State University, kids are damn good at changing their climate skeptic parents’ minds — and climate educators who work with these kids every day have some pretty compelling info about why that might be.

“I see the dialogue between young people and adults as being super critical to shifting perception and understanding around climate change,” says Jen Kretser, director of climate initiatives at the Wild Center, an environmental education nonprofit in the Adirondacks. “We’ve seen a shift from adults saying, ‘Oh, aren’t those kids nice,’ to ‘Oh, these kids really know what they’re talking about.’”

The North Carolina study, published earlier this month in research journal Nature Climate Change, found that middle school-aged students who learned about climate change were pretty good at getting their parents to think differently about the issue. Conservative parents and fathers showed the greatest change in opinion — which makes some sense, as they probably had further to go in the first place (sorry dad!). Daughters were slightly more effective than sons (no surprise to the daughters among us — you know, Jupiter, stupider, all that).

The study involved a hands-on curriculum, where kids in North Carolina learned about the local impacts of climate change (like what it’s doing to hellbender salamanders, which sound way more badass than polar bears), and participated in a service-learning project (like collecting plankton samples for NOAA’s monitoring network — also badass, probably). They also interviewed their parents about climate change — without ever using the term, instead asking questions like, “how have you seen the weather change?” and “how will sea-level rise affect our community?”

Parents of kids in the course showed a greater difference in concern about climate change at the end of the unit than parents of kids in the control group, according to Danielle Lawson, the paper’s lead author, and a recent PhD graduate from North Carolina State University. In other words: Parents’ change in concern can be attributed to their kids.

It’s not the first study to show this superpower. In 2016, Nature Energy released a study that showed that Girl Scouts who learned about energy-saving techniques were able to bring them into their homes. Kids have also proven effective at getting their parents to recycle more, according to a study in Waste Management. (I can vouch for the power of progeny myself — I recently convinced my parents to get a dedicated recycling bin for all their empty Diet Squirt cans.) Parents have even softened their callused hearts on politically controversial topics like gay marriage.

When you think about it, kids have been the targets of a weird amount of campaigns for causes they don’t seem to have much power over. I get that the ’50s were a different time, but were kids really lighting enough campfires to justify Smokey Bear’s kid-friendly messaging? What about Smokey’s younger, tree-hugging counterpart Woodsy Owl, who spent the ‘70s railing against leaving cigarettes in the woods? If I didn’t know any better, I’d think those campaigns were, at least in part, efforts to get at jaded adults through the most influential people they know: their kids.

“I think about when I was in elementary school in the early ’90s, and recycling was such a big thing — you know, reduce, reuse, recycle,” Lawson says. “It became big because of kids learning about it in schools and taking it home.”

That’s right: Even those of us for whom the door of adorable child activism has long-since closed can harness the power of the teen. That thinking drives the work of educational organizations like the Wild Center and Minneapolis-based Climate Generation that work at getting kids the climate education they want — and the exposure they need to spread the word to the adults in their lives.

“They have this voice that they’re ready to use,” Lawson says.

Earlier this year, a group of students organized by Climate Generation descended on St. Paul, Minnesota, to meet with newly elected Governor Tim Walz, a Democrat who hadn’t made his position on climate change legislation clear. According to Kristen Poppleton, director of programs for Climate Generation, Walz’s daughter was there, and told her dad that she agreed with the youth at the summit. Less than two months later, Walz unveiled plans to generate all of Minnesota’s electricity from carbon-free sources by 2050.

Why are kids so effective at convincing their parents — and adults in general — to care about climate change?

The North Carolina researchers suggested that, in addition to parents just plain caring about what their kids have to say, it may have to do with what basically amounts to political innocence: Unlike adults, kids aren’t mired in ideology and party politics. They’re more easily convinced on climate change than many adults because they take facts at face value, without the overwhelming filter of worldview. It’s possible that adults perceive that lack of an agenda when kids are trying to get them on board.

“What’s really cool about kids from the age of 10 to 14 is that they’re able to take complex topics, critically think about them, and come to conclusions on their own, but they’re not at a stage yet where they’re ingrained in their own personal ideology,” Lawson says.

But even politically aware high school kids, like the ones Kretser works with, can be pretty convincing — just look at the teens behind the Sunrise Movement, which partners with political powerhouses like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to call for climate policy like the Green New Deal. In Kretser’s experience, teens who focus on politics are still effective at swaying opinion on climate change, in part because they’re pretty damn up-front about it. (Cue the collective “you don’t say” from parents of teenagers.)

Sure, not all teens are as quotable as 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, whose zingers make me cringe to think that teenage me believed she’d mastered the art of the burn. (“You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes,” she said to an audience of world leaders at last year’s United Nations climate talks.) But they’re certainly authentic — filterless — in a way that seems out of reach or undesirable for a lot of adults.

“They articulate and speak in such a way that goes right to your heart — but it’s also no-holds barred,” Kretser says. “They don’t dance around the issue.”

Kids can also help grown-ups understand just how catastrophic climate change is. For a lot of us, it’s tough to conceptualize those big climate milestones we always talk about, like the fact that we’re on track to reach 3 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100. After all, most of us will be busy composting by then (and not in our kitchens).

But kids put it into perspective. If we don’t act, nearly one-third of the world’s animal species will be gone by the time today’s high school students reach retirement age. Some coastal U.S. cities will be mostly underwater by the time today’s ten year olds start having grandchildren. 75 percent of babies born today will experience deadly heat waves in their lifetime.

Today’s youth are aware of all this — and when they hit their parents with a little climate reality, well, it’s clearly hard to deny.

“What else is there to say? They’re kids,” Poppleton says. “You don’t hurt kids.”

Teaser photo credit: By 1satzSuedtirol – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Zoe Saylor

I'm a Stanford graduate and Seattle-based journalist with experience in arts & entertainment, science writing and hard news. But I'm a generalist whose passion lies with writing narrative nonfiction about anything and everything: reality is wildly fascinating. True stories told well are wildly powerful. I have been published in The Seattle Times, Smithsonian Magazine (online & in print), The Olympian, The Stanford Daily, Peninsula Press and Stanford Mint Magazine, among other publications.

Tags: climate change communication, climate change responses, young people