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Young people and the environmental crises in the UK

What does this mean for your mission?

By Jasmine Birmingham 16 June 2022 4 minute read

NPC is running a series of roundtables, convening charities and funders to understand how the environmental crises affect different social groups and what charities can do to respond. This is part of a wider project that NPC is currently fundraising for, with partners, which aims to accelerate environmental action in the social sector. This blog is the first in a series which summarises the roundtable discussions.

Today’s young people will disproportionately experience the effects of the environmental crisis because of the prior generation that has failed to act quickly enough. Yet, they are also a vital group that can inspire and mobilize climate action. Some charities and funders are carrying out pivotal work to collaborate with, educate and give a voice to young people keen to act against the crisis, but there is still a lot more work to be done. NPC’s roundtable on 23 May 2022, with charities and funders working with young people, explored how the crises will affect young people, what this means for charities’ missions, and how environmental and social charities can work better together.

The environmental crises encompass climate change, the loss of biodiversity and, more broadly, the breakdown of ‘planetary boundaries’, and young people are likely to be one of the groups hardest hit by the consequences. The crises are already taking a toll on the younger generation both physically and mentally. Children and young people are more vulnerable to associated health threats, such as air pollution, which has long-term impacts on health and development. What’s more, eco-anxiety is widespread, with 60% of 16–25-year-olds very or extremely worried about the environment.

Future generations must take on the responsibility of emitting approximately eight times less CO2 than their grandparents, if they are to limit global temperatures. Many young people are taking action into their own hands, for example youth-led movements like Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future are inspiring millions around the globe, and the world is waking up to its moral and ethical obligation towards future generations. However, despite this powerful narrative, youth movements can often lack resources and political power. Take COP26—young people were largely excluded from decision-making as older delegates committed to inadequate climate pledges that fail to react to the urgency of the situation.

The discussion at our roundtable focussed on how our sector can help and support young people, it solidified the need for future research—which NPC’s work with partners aims to take forward—and it enabled important conversations about challenges in the sector and opportunities for change.

What role can the social sector play?

1. Young people are looking for adults and the charity sector to step up

I don’t think CEOs and trustees are changing their behaviour because of the sector—I think radical changes are happening because their children are coming home from school and asking them what they are doing about the climate crisis. It is young people who are catalysing tough conversations that lead to change. Young people are still vulnerable, though, and look up to adults for answers. So I think we should recognise that young people are both looking for ‘trusted messengers’—for adults meaningfully changing things to tackle climate change—and that they can be the trusted messengers themselves.

Nina Vinther, Young Trustee, Earthworks St Albans, activist and roundtable participant

When it comes to the environment, people often believe and take action based on information from people they trust—family, friends, colleagues—also known as trusted messengers. However, the perspectives of young people are often not met with the same respect as adults, or they are let down by adults in their response to the climate crisis, further intensifying climate anxiety and the risks they face. Charities, funders and individuals in the sector must continue to work to become trusted allies with young people, both professionally and privately, recognizing that they can often be more informed than some adults. Furthermore, the sector must harness its experience in amplifying the voices of young people and apply these skills and networks to the intersection with the environmental crises—giving younger generations a platform, supporting them to succeed, and strengthening their message.

2. Education and training are fundamental to preparing young people for a new green era

It is not enough to understand the impact of the climate crisis on young people, we need to also change how young people are enabled to understand what is happening themselves. We need to equip young people to cope with the implications—and education is a vital part of this.

Cindy Forde, Director, Planetari / Polden Puckham and roundtable participant

Education is essential to shape attitudes and behaviour, to enable young people to make informed decisions, alongside preparing the youth for a more sustainable economy. The current education system is failing to meet these needs—as mentioned by one roundtable participant, most children learn about the environment through David Attenborough or YouTube. Unfortunately, changes to the education system are likely to be slow, therefore charities can fill this void by providing services to educate and train young people to help them become aware, informed and equipped—from allowing them to understand the rising global temperatures to developing skills for green jobs.

3. Building understanding around how the environmental crises overlap with multiple disadvantage

We must recognise that not all young people have the space to prioritise the environment when they are dealing with other immediate existential issues, such as homelessness, abuse and neglect … It is people on the margins who are less able to take part in the [environmental] debate.

Andrew Moreman, CEO, Young Devon and roundtable participant

Charities and funders working with young people will need to understand how the environmental crises does and doesn’t overlap with other systemic issues, such as race, class and gender injustices, and what this means for their mission. This requires space for charities to explore and educate themselves upon these systemic issues.

Environmental charities also need to improve their diversity and inclusivity and the charity sector as a whole must work to engage marginalized communities that face barriers to participation, but will disproportionately experience the effects of the environmental crises. What’s more, less than 3% of trustees are under 30, therefore as part of a wider movement to shift the power in the sector, the perspective of young people must be included, listened to and acted upon.

What are the barriers and opportunities for the social sector?

Our roundtable discussion also explored challenges in the sector and opportunities for change.

Greater collaboration is required across the social and environmental sectors. Working together and having frequent discussions can help environmental and social charities to understand where they have common ground on policy advocacy. Alongside this, others in the decision-making room must be prepped and willing to be inclusive of and collaborate with the younger generation.

Charites and funders must also work together to embed the environment into funding practices. A lack of capacity and restricted funding for environmental activity in the social sector makes it difficult for charities working with young people to incorporate the environment into services and decision-making. Funders must be made aware of these gaps and how they can broaden their mission to encompass the environment.

Ultimately, young people are agents of change when it comes to climate action, and the charity sector must support them to succeed. At NPC, we are continuing to convene social and environmental organisations and consulting young people to explore this intersection, and we will share this research to empower the sector. Please get in touch with Liz Gadd, Principal Consultant, or Leah Davis, Head of Policy and External Affairs if would like to get involved in this work and help the social sector collaborate with, educate and give a voice to young people keen to act against the crises.

Future generations must emit approximately eight times less CO2 than their grandparents. Here's how environmental and social charities can work better together, to help and support them: Click To Tweet


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