In just three years, calls for climate action have seen the Fridays For Future movement grow from one girl in one country – Greta Thunberg in Sweden – to millions of teenagers all over the world. Despite this, a survey conducted in 2020 found that most young people were unlikely to take part in peaceful marches. Our research looks at why this might be.
We conducted a qualitative study with 121 young people in areas of England and Northern Ireland where fracking had either been a lived reality or a possibility. We wanted to understand how these teens felt about both the environmental issues local communities were worried about, and the political processes in place to deal with them.
Many of the teenagers we spoke to were disillusioned with the politics. They also felt unsure that protesting would make the kind of difference they hoped for. Instead, they were keen to find other ways to make their voices heard.
In November 2019, the UK government announced a moratorium on fracking. In the months that followed, from December 2019 to March 2020, we held focus groups with young people from five schools and colleges near sites in Lancashire, England and County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, where anti-fracking protests had taken place. We wanted to understand their views on fracking.
In Lancashire, when we spoke to these local teenagers, exploratory fracking had ceased just weeks earlier. The oil and gas exploration company Cuadrilla had been drilling at the Preston New Road site, near Blackpool, since 2017.
In County Fermanagh, meanwhile, petroleum prospector Tamboran’s plans to drill at a former quarry site in Belcoo were being considered by the government. The decision had been delayed for years, however, because of the collapse of the devolved government at Stormont in 2017.
In both places, the young people we spoke to were unhappy – angry even – with the political process. As one respondent put it: “It’s just frustrating, because you feel like you’ve got all the answers and no one’s listening. The people that are making the decisions about it aren’t going to be directly affected. You feel quite helpless.”
Many of our respondents said they were not convinced by the economic arguments used to justify shale gas extraction, deeming it worse than renewable and nuclear options. They thought it would damage the economy and the community, not to mention the environment. “It’s like everywhere is becoming a sacrifice zone,” one young person said. “There’s a point where it goes too far just to get some gas which can be replaced by more green ways of energy.”
The teenagers we spoke to largely agreed that demonstrating often resulted in negative portrayals of the protest, not the fracking. Crucially, such protests affected the wrong people – local people, rather than the politicians who made decisions about fracking permits and so on. Participants in our focus groups saw protests as the last resort.
Many of our respondents said they preferred more dutiful expressions of dissent. This could be speaking or writing to industry representatives, their local councillors or MPs, or working to get coverage in newspapers and on social media. It could also be taking legal action.
In 2020, in Australia, Youth Verdict (an organisation of young people working in solidarity with First Nation people and the environmental research charity, Bimblebox Alliance) went to court to prevent a large coal mine in Queensland from being approved. This marked the first time human-rights arguments were used in a climate change case in the country.
In 2021, meanwhile, a class action suit was launched on behalf of all Australian children and teenagers against Australian environment minister Sussan Ley. The claimants asserted that the minister owed them a duty of care not to cause them physical harm, by approving projects (in this instance, the extension of a coal mine) that would result in personal injury from climate change. This too has been a landmark case.
Similarly, a complaint filed in late 2020 against 33 European countries by Youth Climate Justice at the European Court of Human Rights states that failure to act on climate change constitutes discrimination against children and young adults.
The young people we spoke to suggested that responding to environmental situations they were concerned about, in this way, was preferable to protesting. It could allow them to reach politicians more directly and inform wider audiences beyond the rural communities affected. There was no guarantee though, they said, that it would work. In England in particular, young people felt impotent, noting that such approaches have failed.
Most of the children and young people in our study couldn’t vote. They will, however, be disproportionately affected by decisions taken - or not - today. There has been widespread concern that when young people are finally of voting age, they often don’t. Research has shown a rise in anti-politics in Britain. Our findings suggested a similar lack of trust in government and negative attitudes towards politics.
Our findings also chime with other research that shows young people do ultimately want democracy to function. One way to counter this undermining of trust in democracy and to empower young people to take action, in the kind of dutiful ways they prefer, is to educate them on how to use the law and enable them to do so.
We would like to acknowledge and thank Denise Mc Keown for her contribution to the research, particularly during the data collection phase.
Lucy Atkinson and Maria Turkenburg-van Diepen do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.