By Dr Katy Wheeler, University of Essex

The SEEd Youth Listening Project started in 2018 and is a unique study asking young people aged between 8-25 to offer their thoughts about sustainability and climate change. Our second report based on 1,708 young people surveyed during 2021-2023 has now been published. The survey and the report can be accessed here.

SEEd has been gathering views from young people across the UK to learn how they think and feel about climate change, where they feel their education is lacking and what they would like to learn. We have found that young people want to positively make a difference to climate change and sustainability and are calling for a transformative education to enable them to do this. Young people are anxious about the future and educators can do more to inspire hope and empower young people towards action.

Ann Finlayson, CEO says: “As ever, this insight into young people’s attitudes, values and understandings will help SEEd design and better deliver effective Education for Sustainable Development. Our hope is that you will also find it useful and a tool to reflect on the design of your offerings to schools and young people. This report will be of relevance to policy makers, teachers, Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) practitioners and anyone interested in engaging with young people around these issues.”

50 top words from answers to the question ‘What is the first thing you think of if I say 'Sustainability?'

The survey revealed that young people have a reasonable understanding of environmental sustainability, but they are less aware of how it relates to social and economic issues. They tended to associate the term ‘sustainability’ with resource use and the environment. They were concerned about the lack of action towards sustainable development, especially on pollution, deforestation and fossil fuels. However, they showed less interest in the underlying systems that cause these problems, such as business operations, food systems, transport and emissions. Educators need to do more to help young people learn about the interconnectedness of environment, society and economy. This could be through involvement in local community-led action projects and learning from hopeful examples across the globe.

What do young people want and fear for the future?

Young people dream of a future with family, good homes and good jobs, but they are worried that sustainability and climate change issues might prevent them from achieving these goals. They are especially concerned about how climate change, poverty and a failed economy might affect their personal futures.

Our survey asked them to imagine what the future would be like for a child like them, named Alex, in the year 2050. This question evoked a lot of eco-anxiety and revealed young people’s fears about the future. Educators need to be careful about how they teach young people about the climate change crisis because too much eco-anxiety may create a feeling of hopelessness. It is important to promote intergenerational justice by showing young people positive examples and role models of what adults and children are doing together to create a better future and planet.

“Alex would think we are failures for not moving to sustainability sooner. Alex would lose hope in humanity”
(Female, age 17)”

How do young people feel they can take action on sustainability and climate change?

Young people want to take action on sustainability and climate change issues, but they are not sure how. They know some consumer actions they can do at home or in their community, such as using less, wasting less, recycling and picking up litter. But they are less confident about how to influence sustainability on a national or global level. They also think that governments and businesses have the most responsibility for making sustainability happen, followed by everyone – though this does vary by age. They need more guidance and support from educators on what actions they can take and how they can make a difference. Educators also need to help young people learn about the mechanisms of social change and how they can apply them in their everyday contexts and communities.

What do young people want to learn so they can act on sustainability and climate change?

Young people get most of their information about sustainability and climate change from school, social media, television and family. However, they are not always confident about the reliability of social media information, and they trust experts and teachers more. Young people do not feel they are taught enough about how to make a difference to sustainability, and they have asked for more practical guidance because they want to contribute. Our report argues that young people need support to develop their critical thinking skills and strategic action competencies to empower their learning and action on these issues.

“I would like to be taught on how to improve things, not make sure things don’t get worse. I feel like I need to know how to help, instead of just learning to just not make things worse.”
(Male, aged 12)

Learning points for SEEd

Young people have a real desire to learn how to live sustainably and are asking for the tools and competencies to achieve this. Whilst they welcome information about recycling, waste and food choices, they would also like to be given the opportunity to learn more about how they can contribute to broader global sustainability issues.

In keeping with the UN’s roadmap for ESD for 2030, educators need to make spaces for young people to develop their critical thinking skills, action learning competencies, political imaginaries and civic connections. Educators have a key role to play in providing young people with positive role models, practical guidance, and opportunities to take action and make a difference. By doing so, educators can help young people become Changemakers who can create a better and more hopeful future for themselves and the planet.