Youth are 'wired' to push for change, researcher says about why they're climate choice influencers

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Shakti Ramkumar, centre, shown during a climate strike demonstration, says her activism began with her family's move from India to Surrey, B.C., when she was eight years old. She'll be at the UN's COP26 climate change summit that starts Sunday in Glasgow.  (Submitted by Shakti Ramkumar - image credit)
Shakti Ramkumar, centre, shown during a climate strike demonstration, says her activism began with her family's move from India to Surrey, B.C., when she was eight years old. She'll be at the UN's COP26 climate change summit that starts Sunday in Glasgow. (Submitted by Shakti Ramkumar - image credit)

Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This story is part of a CBC News initiative entitled Our Changing Planet to show and explain the effects of climate change and what is being done about it.

From decisions about what car to buy to what families eat, young people can have a big impact on choices their parents make, and that can benefit the environment, according to Canadian experts and young activists.

It's something Shakti Ramkumar discovered when she was growing up.

A climate activist most of her life, her journey began with her family's move from India to Surrey, B.C., when she was eight years old. Ramkumar said adjusting to a new life and seeing a new culture made her curious about the city around her, so in Grade 4, she did a science fair project about how public transportation could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

"It was really shocking to me that we had this global problem and I really wanted to help solve it," she said.

Since then, she's been focused on finding solutions to the climate crisis, and that's extended to her efforts to influence the people around her.

I would really urge adults who feel jaded maybe, or indifferent to the crisis, to see that young people are doing this out of a sense of fear. And also because we have hope that we can build systems that are so much better than this, that can be better for all of us. - Shakti Ramkumar, 25

As part of her job as director of communications and policy with Student Energy, a global and youth-led organization that aims to accelerate the transition to sustainable energy, she'll be attending the UN's climate change summit, COP26, in Glasgow that begins Sunday.

"I would really urge adults who feel jaded maybe, or indifferent to the crisis, to see that young people are doing this out of a sense of fear. And also because we have hope that we can build systems that are so much better than this, that can be better for all of us," said Ramkumar, 25.

She said one of her big victories was convincing her parents, who were already vegetarian, to give up all animal-based products.

"I finally asked my parents to go vegan with me in Grade 12. It was actually after visiting Antarctica with an organization called Students on Ice and kind of seeing the effects of climate change first hand on this remote ecosystem," she said.

Her father, Ramkumar Perumal, said he'd tried going vegan before but couldn't get used to drinking his coffee black. At his daughter's urging, the family finally went all in.

"We had allowed ourselves the occasional consumption of dairy products when we were outside, like when we had to buy a sandwich or a bean burrito, or the occasional slice of vegetarian pizza, telling ourselves that it was just occasional," he said. "But Shakti decided that we had to stop even that because things were getting bad on the climate change front."

Kids' brains behind them thinking outside the box

Ilona Dougherty is managing director of the Youth and Innovation Project at the University of Waterloo, and has studied how young people can influence the adults in their lives.

Dougherty and her group looked at how the brains of 15- to 25 year-olds are different from those of adults, and said the findings can explain why youth tend to be at the forefront of movements like the fight against climate change.

"Young people are literally wired to challenge the status quo, to think outside the box. Their brains are really amazing and they have a lot to offer us."

Lisa Griffiths
Lisa Griffiths

Dougherty also looked back at the last 35 years of youth movements and found adults play an important role, too.

"Intergenerational collaboration is key," she said. When young people get together with decision-makers who have the power to change things, "that's when the magic happens."

And that change can start at home.

"In marketing research, we hear a lot about the 'nag' factor, you know a kid [or] young person bugging their parents to buy something. But it's interesting — there's actually some research that talks about how this can have an impact on the environmental behaviour of parents," Dougherty said.

A child or teen having an open and trusting relationship with their parents or caregivers can help start those conversations.

Dougherty offered this advice for young people: "Be curious about what your parents think, why they think what they think, how they form those views, open a dialogue with them and challenge their beliefs."

It can go both ways.

If children are raised in an environment where adults are concerned about environmental issues, it will have an impact on those young people, Dougherty said.

"That's certainly my own experience. I have wonderfully engaged, activist parents and I grew up in the back of community meetings, so that's something that I have personally experienced."

Family can foster environmentalism

Shakti Ramkumar certainly credits her family for planting the seeds of her environmentalism — and not just her parents, but her grandparents and ancestors in southern India as well.

"I come from a rural background. My family are farmers and even now I see firsthand the changes and the challenges that they are facing because of climate change, and because of the changing expectation on what is profitable to grow and what they need to survive on this farmland so they're a huge influence on me and how I approach my work and my climate advocacy," she said.

Submitted by Shakti Ramkumar
Submitted by Shakti Ramkumar

Her father said he is proud of his daughter's activism and believes it is critical that adults listen to young people.

"I'm hoping that they will get more support from the rest of society so that we can move towards a safer situation and move out of this constant sense of crisis, because this can take a toll on people's mental health. It's not easy to be in a crisis-feeling year after year," Ramkumar Perumal said.

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