Polar bears, face paint and protest: why young people don’t care about climate change

I’ve been a climate change communicator and campaigner for over a decade, and recently I delivered a keynote at the Shell Powering Progress Together Conference at London’s Olympic Park.

An unlikely mix you might think. But not really.

There are three things which attracted me to speak at this event: complexity, cost and collaboration.

Before I explore my motivation and message, we need to evaluate why current communications on climate change aren’t working.

Climate change is perceived to be dull. Very dull. If you want to kill a conversation, just drop this climate-bomb in there and watch it wither. Climate change is not a fascinating topic for anyone outside of the niche bubble of climate geeks. By the majority of people, it is seen as a distant threat in time (its impacts are perceived to be at least a generation away) and space (its impacts are perceived to be happening to faraway, dehumanised landscapes like Antarctica or to communities so unrelatable to western lifestyles like rice farming villages on the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta). It is a concept which is seen as far removed from everyday life and ‘action’ on climate change is seen as punitive rather than liberating with the likes of carbon taxes, stricter standards on everyday products and the guilt associated with waste and consumerism.

There are countless reasons behind why the climate message isn’t resonating with people. However, the one which I am increasingly seeing as a barrier to people, especially young people, engaging with climate action is its long-standing association with activism and protest. Climate activism is seen as a preserve of the far-left, and protest is discarded by many as idealistic and ineffective. This long standing association between climate change and hard-core activism discourages many from engaging with climate change, and I feel this is even more true for millennials.

As a group, millennials are actually quite conservative: economics tops the list of our concerns, and as a result we are a very financially prudent generation. As Fiona Scott, Managing Director of consumer engagement agency PSONA, put it in a recent Evening Standard interview: “the 24/7 coverage of the recession means [young people] are very driven and at the same time also very entrepreneurial”.

We are entering the working world in one of the most competitive environments seen for generations: globalisation is speeding the world up and there are increasing pressures to achieve. Gym culture is thriving; vanity is increasing; and the hedonism of youth is being replaced by hard work. Entrepreneurship is exciting, and the images of the entrepreneur and of the activist couldn’t be more polarised. 

This disassociation with activism brings me on to my three ‘C’s which framed my message at the Shell conference. We need a radical rebranding of climate change, as it is actually extremely compatible with millennial values. You’re currently reading this article on a green conservatism microsite so these ideas probably won’t be entirely new to you, but acceptance of these features is far from universal.

Firstly, we have to acknowledge that tackling climate change is difficult. Very very difficult. And the simplified adversarial battle of attrition between ‘the people’ and ‘the powers that be’ who profit from the high carbon system only exists in the minds of some activists. We have built our entire civilisation on the foundations of cheap fossil fuel and now those foundations are shifting. There is not a simple solution to the transition as it is wound up in issues of national competitiveness, cost, technology, politics and science. Transitioning to the low carbon way is necessary, as we know, but difficult and we need to acknowledge that messiness.

That said, the transition is also a fantastic engine for innovation and enterprise. The future path to a low carbon world is not clear to see but this means there is room for trailblazers and new systems, which offer health, security and cost benefits alongside environmental ones. To communicate this new climate narrative, we need to banish the idea that tackling climate change is this grand battle of good versus evil.

Secondly, saving the world can actually be very profitable. The production price of renewable energy tech is plummeting, and after the Paris Climate Agreement new investable markets are opening up. Likewise, consultancies are genuinely transforming the sustainability of corporations throughout the entire supply chain. Now that the low carbon economy is starting to show how profitable it can be to go green, I expect more millennials to be attracted to the industry.

At the moment, I see an increasing dilemma in young people between having a career which is more of a lifestyle and fits their core values (generally associated with start-up or freelance culture) and a more traditional, safe and prestigious corporate job (yet often bland and stale). The dilemma is that although the former initially seems more attractive, it also has poor income stability and hubs of innovation such as London aren’t getting any cheaper! As traditional employers embrace sustainability (and similar internal culture changes which accompany this more modern mind-set), I believe they will also attract and retain young talent. Those of us who are already involved in the emerging and profitable industry of sustainability need to do more to get the message out there, show young people the opportunities for innovation and start getting excited about how you can change the world and make a living. Essentially the eco movement needs to take some lessons from what the tech industry has become.  

My final point is about meaningful collaboration. This is not so much about getting together with peers and friends but more about reaching beyond your current circles and getting radically new working groups. Mixing the very siloed domains of activists, business people and politicians. The echo chamber of social media exacerbates these views. There is an increasing need to break the chamber and bring these different groups together in order to achieve transformational change. In particular, I believe more work needs to be done to bring together activism and business. Activism has the vision and the passion for change but lacks the realism, business on the other hand has the economic pragmatism and experience but can be stale and un-imaginative. Combining these worlds offers an opportunity to make significant headway on tackling climate change. The private sector is showing increasing engagement with climate change after COP21 and seeing that sustainability action makes business sense. It is now up to activists to cast aside protest and opposition as a means of driving change and work collaboratively with business and politicians. This is not to say activists should stop pointing out social and environmental wrong-doing when they see it, but rather the general attitudes to genuine cooperation need to shift. 

The adversarial nature of climate change activism needs to change in order to attract more young change-makers to the issue of climate change and the future of energy. Discussing and debating with others who hold different views is an excellent start.

David Saddington is a climate change communicator. A white paper from Shell’s Powering Progress Together London event, including David Saddington’s contribution on youth engagement in climate change and business, will be available soon. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.