By Alexa Piccolo, Special Advisor, OECD Environment Directorate
“Climate change is not a lie, we won’t let our planet die!” Building on the momentum of global school strikes organised in the spring of 2019, about four million students took to the streets around the world on 20 September 2019. Students voiced their concern about the climate crisis, demanding immediate action from public authorities. Never before had young people demonstrated in such huge numbers in favour of climate action, in either democratic or non-democratic countries.
Days after the protests, world leaders gathered in New York for the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit. There, 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg – who had reached the event in a sailboat to reduce her trip’s carbon footprint – addressed the UN General Assembly with a passionate speech.
This is not the first time that children and teenagers rallied globally for a common cause. We’ve seen peace protests and civil rights movements in the 1960s, and later, demand for social and economic justice in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis. Yet the magnitude and intensity of the youth’s participation in the climate protests – not to mention the unparalleled prominence of girls and young women spearheading climate marches in cities across the globe, bears a dimension of novelty.
Pundits and researchers on social protests have highlighted the importance of the digital revolution in mobilising young people. The internet and on-line social networks play a key role in helping young people to organise grassroots level movements. Such technological factors can certainly account for the speed at which the climate youth strike travelled across the globe. And yet they have mostly been looked at to explain how environmental activism is spread, but not how interest in demanding climate action is generated.
Environmental issues have been on the political radar for over 50 years, and while the magnitude of expected impacts have hit an all-time high, predictions for the future course and effects of environmental degradation were not any more promising decades ago than they are today.
Why then are young people only reacting now with such a heightened sense of urgency?
To understand youth’s sensitivity to environmental issues, we need to look at how the environmental awareness of today’s youth has evolved over time. It can be argued that environmental education is a major driver of increased awareness. Environmental education has been discussed internationally since the 1970s, with leading global organisations (UNESCO and UNEP) establishing programmes and guidance on how to integrate environmental teachings into education curricula and certification schemes for schools. Since then, environmental education has been considered an elective subject outside of the formal curricula in many traditional school programmes.
Over the last decade, many countries have increased their efforts to teach students and train teachers on environmental issues. These educational methods generally aim at providing students with the tools to make informed decisions based on scientific knowledge and experience about environmental issues. However, environmental education is not limited to formal school programmes. It often encompasses a wide range of initiatives, from training of elected officials, civil servants, and justice officials to media campaigns and ongoing education for the broader professional community and NGO-led outreach projects.
In November 2019, Italy’s Education Minister announced that from the following school year, public schools would require children in every grade to study climate change and sustainability. In some other parts of the world, however, public authorities are swimming against the tide. In the US, dozens of bills were introduced in 2019 in state legislatures to question or erase from curricula and instruction materials the existence of climate change and its anthropogenic origin.
Climate protests – further amplified by the youth’s presence on social media – are a powerful vehicle of informal environmental education. The “Greta Thunberg effect” has already resulted in increased awareness about climate issues in both children and adults. Often children’s knowledge can play a role in influencing parental and household environmental behaviour. In addition to this, NGOs and other organisations have reported a fourfold increase in investment from individuals and businesses seeking to offset their carbon footprint. Participation from the youngest individuals within the global population, often not having reached voting age, reinforces the requirement of mandatory environmental education.
Unfortunately, environmental education has received less attention from policy-makers and the wider public, compared to other environmental democracy aspects. This is primarily due to data gaps and the difficulty in establishing sound indicators. However, it is important to note that this can often occur as a result of domestic political challenges and ideological opposition. There are other environmental democracy issues that are analysed by international organisations, an example being the Environment Democracy Index. This index covers public participation, access to information and justice, but not environmental education.
Since the early 2000s, the OECD has been discussing environmental education issues in its Environmental Performance Reviews. It is crucial in assessing the effectiveness and efficiency of countries’ environmental governance and management systems. However, it was only in 2014 that the topic was systematically integrated in to the Reviews, as part of a section that discusses environmental democracy.
Environmental education is a tool for raising awareness and a main driver behind citizen’s engagement in democratic processes concerning the environment. The other components supporting enhanced environmental democracy include citizens’ participation in environmental decision-making, environmental information, and access to environmental justice. Beyond OECD members, other countries are looking at the OECD for policy advice on environmental education and democracy. Recent projects have focused on developing countries, notably Jordan and Morocco to assess different dimensions of environmental democracy and their mutual reinforcement.
“Climate: Reclaiming our Common Future”, Fourth Biennial Lecture on Climate Change by Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General, 3 July 2019, Geneva
 Marc Hooghe, “Taking to the streets: economic crises and youth protest in Europe,” Harvard International Review, Vol. 34 (2012), No. 2, 34–8.
 Carles Feixa, Carmen Leccardi, Pam Nilan (eds.), Youth, Space and Time: Agoras and Chronotopes in the Global City, Leiden: Brill, 2016.
 Jordan Fullam, “Becoming a youth activist in the internet age: a case study on social media activism and identity development,” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, Vol. 30 (2017), No. 4, 406–22.