Teaching our children to care for the Earth and its many natural habitats is probably the best investment in the future that we could ever make. They, in turn, give back to the planet and to us: it’s been documented that parents’ concern for the environment increases after their children are educated to be environmentally aware and that local leaders’—as well as voters’—views shift after watching children’s presentations on environmental issues and how best to cope with them.
But recent results from a North Carolina State University study suggest something even more remarkable on this topic: children who are bilingual or multilingual saw bigger gains in this regard. And as the world and the U.S. become more diverse, that’s a very good sign for the next generation and their prospects for thriving in the world that we leave them.
There’s even more reason to hope for a brighter tomorrow: another new study on the same theme analyzes the factors that drive environmental concern among adults in an effort to understand how we can bolster popular support for combating climate change—and offers some new strategies that just could work.
Kids with more languages
For the North Carolina State University study, researchers asked 644 children to take part in a Duke University Marine Lab program that focused on trash in the oceans and other waterways. The program included lessons on how long different types of trash persist, trash cleanups and hands-on investigations of the challenges related to marine debris. Before and after completing the program, the students participated in a survey.
The children were asked about how motivated they were to act in ways that would help the environment, such as by using a reusable water bottle at home or refusing to use plastic straws in restaurants. The researchers found that after completing the program, on average the students scored higher on the measurements that gauged their motivation to act for the environment. But when the scientists dug down deeper, they found that most of the program’s effect was explained by the responses from the bilingual or multilingual students, who had bigger gains on average compared to students who primarily spoke English at home. This is encouraging, as linguistically diverse children are making up more and more of the U.S. population; and a goal for the program is to resonate with everyone. It also highlights how young people with different backgrounds can make important contributions.
Adults with more money
While throughout the world we’re all feeling the effects of climate change, surveys have shown that most people in Europe still don’t consider a warming planet, energy and the environment to be among the most pressing issues for national policymaking, according to a researcher in the IIASA Population and Just Societies Program. But public support in democracies, of course, is crucial to making good, sustainable environmental laws and regulations.
To raise the motivation of Europe’s general population towards climate action, it’s necessary to know which factors drive people’s concern for the climate and the environment. So, in a new study published in the journal Global Environmental Change, how environmental preferences in 206 European regions are shaped by geographical, meteorological and socioeconomic circumstances were addressed.
To find the determinants of environmental concern, the method of Bayesian Model Averaging based on 25 Eurobarometer surveys conducted between 2009 and 2019 was used, combined with measures of the regional economy, environmental quality, geography, meteorological events and population. It was discovered that favorable economic contexts, such as a relatively high-income level and low inflation, foster environmental concern. This is likely related to the idea of a “finite pool of worry,” in which more immediate issues—such as economic security—crowd out less imminent issues, such as climate policy.
A more equal distribution of income and wealth, then, had a positive impact on the prioritization of environmental issues, suggesting that social cohesion is beneficial for green concerns. Moreover, regions with greenhouse gas-intensive industries had lower environmental concern among locals. This could be related to worries about the potential effects of environmental policies on economic competitiveness in the transition from fossil fuels to clean technology. And while environmental factors, such as having a low-elevation coastline, also influence environmental concern, the socioeconomic context proved more important.
These findings emphasize that social cohesion and a just transition to carbon neutrality are key for the bottom-up support for environmental policies. Climate policy and environmental protection are likely to be unpopular if they increase income and wealth inequality, inflation and unemployment.
Therefore, a way to support climate action could be to emphasize the co-benefits of environmental policies; for example, calling attention to the positive employment effects of the transition to renewable energy sources.
Methods with more meaning
These two studies show that we have a variety of good ways to get environmental messages out there—paths that we haven’t even tried yet. Such communications need to focus not only on the health of the planet, but on the economic benefits and social equity advancements inherent in environmental actions.
And, one of the best arrows in our quiver might be today’s children: they’re proving to be the best spokespeople Mother Nature could ever have.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,