For the past 2 years I have been learning how to talk to teenagers about climate change with the help of a bit of psychological research but primarily by getting out there and just doing it. Trial and error.
Presenting and talking to adults is really easy. Generally, adults will just sit there and listen to you politely even if they are thinking ‘You’re an extremist! There is no way I am ever going to give up my four wheel drive and my yearly trip to Bali!’
Teenagers however are a whole different ball game. You want to make sure you’ve had a can of toughen up for breakfast because they will tell you exactly what they think. If they are bored, it will be obvious, they’ll tell you ‘This sucks!’ and have a conversation with their friend right in front of you while you attempt to present to the rest of the group. If you reveal you’re a vegetarian for environmental reasons, you will probably lose all credibility in their eyes and they’ll let you know (as a young teenage boy did last week).
So maybe I need a little therapy after the presentations I’ve done, but my point is when you’re presenting to teenagers, it is going to be challenging and you will need a very different approach.
The Australian Psychological Society has created some useful resources that I recently discovered on how to talk to children and teenagers on climate change (You can find them here). I found these really useful and they gave me some new ideas for my next lot of talks.
I would now like to share some of my own experience about what works and doesn’t work so well when presenting to teenagers.
1. Give teenagers a sense of hope
In my experience, teenagers don’t have a lot of hope. They turn on the TV and what they see is violence, they hear about catastrophic climate change, that we are going to sacrifice the great barrier reef and snow fields for continued economic growth, etc. They have difficulty seeing that whatever action they take (big or small) will make a difference in the world.
One way to give them a sense of hope is to reassure them that there are millions of organisations and people (including young people) around the world taking action. Give them real world examples of people who have led the way in protecting the environment (e.g. Steve Irwin, Al Gore and Captain Paul Watson, etc.).
2. Keep it visual and use videos, music, pictures , etc.
If you want young people to care about the earth, it can help by making it easy for them to see what is at stake. I often use pictures of big charismatic species such as the polar bear, tigers and seals (I once used an image of a frog, it didn’t go down so well). I always get a reaction to these cute animals.
I also use short videos and animations to keep their attention. Take a look at this and this (these videos seem to go down really well).
I use powerpoint and abide by the principles of Presentation Zen. I don’t overwhelm students with masses of text, complex graphs and bullet points. 98% of my powerpoint presentation is made up of images and catchy videos.
You can get royalty free images from stock.xchng and flickr. For empowering videos, check out One Earth.
3. Acknowledge what they are feeling and thinking
When you face the reality of climate change and what is happening/will happen to the world, it can be depressing and overwhelming. Students may feel anxious or be in denial as a way of coping. It’s important to acknowledge what they may be thinking and feeling, and let them know that whatever they are feeling/thinking is OK.
According to the APS, you also want to let teenagers know that
‘remaining in a state of heightened distress is not helpful for ourselves or others. We generally cope better, and are more effective at making changes, when we are calm and rational’
4. Encourage them to take action and discover their unique role
Students need to know that their actions (big and small) will make a difference. But just like anyone, they don’t like to be told what to do. I make it clear to students ‘I’m not here to tell you what to do. I’m not going to force you to go home and change all your light bulbs. That’s not my role’.
I tell students that they have a role to play in being part of the climate change solution, but that’s for them to discover. I give them an opportunity to explore this by getting them to brainstorm what they enjoy doing and what they would like to change about the world. Then in pairs, students look at the different ways they can combine the activities they enjoy with what they would like to change about the world.
For example, one 13 year old girl shared with the group that she loves drawing and she is concerned about poverty in third world countries. She wants to draw pictures and sell them to friends and family. Whatever money she raises will be donated to Oxfam.
5. Make it all about them
I used to talk about the worldwide impacts of climate change such as sea levels rising and people in other parts of the world suffering. I still do that to a certain extent but I now realise that young people want to know how climate change will affect them.
I recently showed a picture of a blue bottle (Portuguese man of war) and said to the students ‘What’s this creature?’ (they knew immediately and how badly they could sting). I told the students that with warmer ocean temperatures, they could expect more blue bottles at the beach. I also showed them a picture of a person snow boarding and said ‘Skiing and snow boarding- these activities could become a thing of the past, with less and less snow falling’. The students looked concerned. I then asked the students to discuss how they felt about what could happen if we don’t do anything about climate change. I heard a little girl in the audience say ‘I don’t want to get stung by a blue bottle!’
If you know of any techniques on communicating effectively to teenagers on climate change, please share them by posting a comment below.