Politics & Government

Kids can change parents’ minds about climate change, researchers say

Ask people how they vote, and there’s a good chance you’ll know what they think about climate change.

Liberals tend to believe it’s happening and it’s something to be concerned about, while conservatives are skeptical.

The consensus among climate scientists is human activities are causing global warming.

A new study suggests that factoring kids into the climate equation might cut through political ideology. When North Carolina middle school students learned about climate change at school, their parents became much more concerned about it, according to the results of the N.C. State University research study published in Nature Climate Change this month.

“Kids help you think about it differently,” said Kathryn Stevenson, an assistant professor at N.C. State and one of the research paper’s authors.

In the study, some middle school teachers in school districts on the North Carolina coast used a curriculum on wildlife and climate change that included having the students interview their parents or guardians. The interviews were set up to help start a conversation between students and their parents about weather and climate, Stevenson said in an interview.

Parents consented to participate in the study and allowed their children to participate, she said.

A control group of teachers did not use the curriculum.

Parents in both groups filled out questionnaires both before and after the climate lessons. All parents became more concerned about climate change, whether or not their children had the climate change lessons in school. Parents whose children had the climate lessons changed the most, with the biggest increased concern about climate change seen in conservatives and fathers. Girls were more effective at changing their parents’ minds about climate change, the study said.

Other researchers in the United States and other countries have shown over the years that children transmit to parents what they learn about wetlands, endangered species and other environmental topics.

Stevenson said the N.C. State researchers thought that transferring knowledge from children to parents would work with climate change, too, but the study is the first to show that it does.

The increased concern in men and conservatives was one of the most surprising findings, Stevenson said. “Those are the two groups who are most skeptical and least likely to engage with the issue,” she said.

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From left, Rose Houck, Issac Smith and Jackie Reyes are fellows with the Alliance for Climate Education. Courtesy of the Alliance for Climate Education

‘It has influenced their votes’

Students who are concerned about climate change but were not part of the N.C. State study said they’ve transferred some of their interest in environmental issues to their families.

Rose Houck, a junior at the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics in Durham, said she’s seen her strong views on climate change influence her parents.

“As you grow up, you learn more about the reality of climate change,” she said in an interview. “I was really spurred by the 2018 IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report.” The report said that global warming is going to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, above preindustrial levels as soon as 2030, increasing poverty and drowning islands and coastlines.

Houck, a fellow with the Alliance for Climate Education from Greensboro, said she and her parents spend a lot of time outdoors. “Hiking and camping, that was my entire childhood,” she said. She started talking with her parents about how climate change could affect the activities they treasure or how a strong hurricane could tear apart their home.

“It has influenced their votes and how they talk to their adult friends,” she said.

Megan Merritt, a 17-year-old student from Duplin County, said her interest in climate change was sparked during the 2016 presidential campaign when Donald Trump said he didn’t believe in it.

“I started to learn more about it, and was excited to learn more,” she said in an interview.

She’s a member of a youth group connected to the Down East Coal Ash Environmental and Social Justice Coalition.

Merritt attended a Climate Reality conference in Atlanta in March, and now she and her parents talk often about climate change and other environmental issues.

“They got more into it after I went, because I talk about it all the time,” she said.

Issac Smith, a senior at Wakefield High School, said his interest in environmental issues has changed his family’s habits.

When he was younger, Smith convinced his family to recycle. He would take reusable items out of the trash to make art projects or to build models.

“My mom got into recycling things,” said Smith, an Alliance for Climate Education Fellow from Raleigh. “My mom just sort of follows my lead when it comes to environmental things.”

The family talks about climate change at home, Smith said. When they are able, the family carpools, and Smith said he’s convinced his younger brother to take AP Environmental Science.

Jackie Reyes, a high school senior from Hillsborough, became interested in the environment when she attended a program for high school students at UNC-Chapel Hill before her freshman year that focused on water quality in Durham, and another the following year, called Climate LEAP, that focused on climate change.

“My journey in environmental programs brought to mind the problems we’re facing in the state as well as nationwide and worldwide,” she said.

Climate change didn’t come up often at home before Reyes, an Alliance for Climate Education Fellow, started attending environmental programs.

“It was an occasional thing you’d hear on the news,” she said.

Her family started talking more about the environment when they asked about what she was doing in the programs.

“I would tell them what I learned and it really brought in this new concern,” she said. “They’re really seeing the changes — more crazy, more extreme weather is happening. They’ve really become more concerned about it.”

Hurricanes made a difference, too

Direct experience with hurricanes may have influenced the views parents expressed in the NC State study, Stevenson said in an email.

A portion of the study was conducted in 2016, when deadly Hurricane Matthew hit the state. Experience with hurricanes has been shown to change people’s minds about climate change.

Hurricane Florence, which dropped nearly three feet of rain in some towns last year, flooded highways and caused dozens of deaths, contributed to changing views on climate change, according to an Elon University poll last year.

A poll taken after Hurricane Florence found an increasing percentage of adults believe climate change will have a negative impact on coastal communities. Shifts in Republicans’ attitudes were behind the year-over-year increase, the survey found.

“We think having the hurricanes undoubtedly made a difference,” Stevenson said in an email. The hurricanes may be why parents of children who did not have the climate lessons became more concerned about climate change, she wrote. But the greater concern among parents whose children had the climate lessons make researchers confident that the curriculum and the kids made a difference, she wrote.

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Lynn Bonner has worked at The News & Observer since 1994, and has written about the state legislature and politics since 1999. Contact her at lbonner@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4821.