How students and parents feel about the future of the environment

By Francesco Avvisati

Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Earlier this year, students from 112 countries across the world skipped school to join the School Strike for Climate and demand government action on climate change. The strike, initiated by the 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, came amid reports that climate change appears to be accelerating, and that urgent action is needed to curb emissions of greenhouse gases.

The impression, from both media coverage and the activists themselves, is that young people today are more environmentally aware than ever before – and more anxious about the existential threats that climate change may pose. But data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) suggest that such anxiety isn’t exclusive to today’s teenagers. In fact, parents in some countries are even more pessimistic about the environment than their children are.

The 2015 PISA asked 15-year-old students whether they think their future will be worse, from an environmental standpoint, than the present day. Parents in 15 countries and economies were asked the same question. Although the questions did not explicitly address climate change, they did cover a range of related environmental issues: air pollution, the extinction of plants and animals, clearing forests for land use, water shortages and nuclear waste.

As we describe in the latest edition of PISA in Focus, only a minority of 15-year-olds believed that these environmental issues would improve over the next 20 years, suggesting that pessimism is indeed widespread among teenagers. But when asked about their outlook on environmental issues, parents expressed even greater pessimism than their children.

The challenge is to ensure that students and parents understand the connections between their daily decisions and possible long-term consequences.

There are some exceptions to this trend. Students and parents were about equally pessimistic in the Flemish Community of Belgium; and students were more pessimistic than their parents in Hong Kong (China) and Macao (China). On average, though, parents appear to be even more worried about the future of the environment than the generation that will inherit it.

But students and parents do not always share the same concerns. Our analysis reveals that concerns about air pollution are most widespread among students, and at least as severe as among parents. Although students in Germany and Spain are generally less pessimistic than their parents across all five environmental issues, they expressed considerably greater pessimism about air pollution. Parents, on the other hand, typically worry most about water shortages. Notably, both air pollution and water shortages may be related to climate change – either as a common cause (e.g., human activity that increases greenhouse gases emissions and other pollutants) or as a consequence (e.g., more frequent catastrophic droughts).

The students who went on strike in March are certainly right to be worried, and governments should heed their calls. But curbing emissions of greenhouse gases and improving air quality in increasingly urban societies will require more than government action. It will require changes in how many people behave, as both consumers and producers. Government action can face pushback, as well; stricter environmental norms and carbon taxes often encounter strong opposition from voters – a force that most governments cannot ignore.

For educators, the challenge is to ensure that students and parents understand the connections between their daily decisions and possible long-term consequences – not just for themselves, but for society as a whole. They must also strike a delicate balance, taking care to ensure that pessimism does not lead to fatalism, while still transmitting the knowledge that can propel children – and their parents – into action.

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