Teenagers are generally concerned about climate change and interested in learning more about it. But those findings belies a significant disparity: White students are less engaged in the issue than students of color and are also less worried about how the changing climate will affect their own futures.
Forty-five percent of white teenagers said the threat of climate change hasn’t affected their plans for the future, compared to 35 percent of teenagers of color, according to a nationally representative survey of teenagers between the ages of 14 and 18. The survey, conducted by the EdWeek Research Center in October, also found that white teens were more likely to say they haven’t engaged in any climate activism recently and are less likely to want to learn more about the issue.
Experts say these findings indicate the link between climate change and societal inequities. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has found that the effects of climate change—from extreme heat to flooding to severe storms—already disproportionately affect communities of color, and those impacts are projected to worsen.
“For students of color, the investment is so deep because they know the risk is deeper, and the impacts will come sooner,” said Beau Morton, the director of education at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, a community-based advocacy group. “A lot of the concepts are more tangible to the student experience when it comes to students of color.”
More than half of the Black population in the United States lives in the South, which is experiencing stronger hurricanes, more flooding, and hotter summers due to climate change. Historic segregation has led to more African Americans living in low-lying, flood-prone areas across the nation.
Latinos are more likely than other U.S. adults to say that climate change is affecting their local community at least somewhat, a 2021 Pew Research survey found. They’re more likely to live in places where it will frequently become too hot to work a full day outside, the EPA has found, and millions of Latinos work outside in industries like agriculture and construction.
Also, Black and Hispanic children suffer from asthma at higher rates than white children. Asthma attacks are triggered by pollutants and allergens—both of which are worsened by rising temperatures due to climate change.
Extreme temperatures come with a financial cost, too, Morton said: “Students of color have to worry about whether they have heat in the winter or air conditioning in the summer. There’s a need and urgency to have those resources during the climate emergency that is already here.”
The EdWeek Research Center survey found that nearly a third of teenagers of color feel overwhelmed when they think about climate change and its effects, compared to 25 percent of white students.
When those results were broken down further by ethnicity and race, Latino teenagers were the most likely to say they feel overwhelmed—36 percent, compared to 31 percent of Asian teenagers and 27 percent of Black teenagers.
The survey also found that white teenagers were more likely to feel skeptical, uninterested, and unconcerned about climate change than students of color.
“Black and Hispanic students ... are directly impacted by climate change in a way that white students aren’t,” said Tiffany Fant, the co-executive director of Sol Nation, an organization for climate justice. “If something isn’t happening to you, you sort of think—out of sight, out of mind.”
Thirteen percent of white students said they don’t want to learn more about any climate change topics or issues in school, compared to 10 percent of Black students, 6 percent of Latino students, and 5 percent of Asian students.
And 42 percent of white students said that in the past two years, they have not taken any actions related to climate change—whether posting on social media, signing a petition, or attending a demonstration—compared to 34 percent of students of color.
What does this divide mean for schools?
Schools must provide comprehensive education about climate change in all subjects and starting in the earliest grades, experts say. That way, students will understand the impacts, learn how to adapt to the changing climate, and feel empowered to take action.
“This idea that somehow I don’t have to worry about it because my future is bright and shiny—that’s a fallacy first of all, and your future is bound up in the injustices of the world,” said Deb Morrison, a climate justice learning designer and adviser who runs the group CLEAR Environmental. “There is no one [who will be] unaffected by this in the next 10 years.”
Across the board, more than a third of teenagers say they want to learn more about environmental justice, or how some groups of people are more affected by others, in school. Yet only 22 percent of K-12 teachers say they teach about environmental justice, according to another survey from the EdWeek Research Center.
Both climate change and societal inequities can be politically polarizing topics, and teachers in states that restrict what can be discussed in the classroom might feel wary of talking about environmental justice.
But Fant said teachers can navigate these potentially sensitive conversations by encouraging students to use their own critical thinking skills—"asking them questions so kids can come to their own conclusions, based on facts that exist,” she said.
For example, teachers could show students the demographic breakdown of asthma rates and discuss what factors could be contributing to the differences, Fant said. These discussions could inspire students who don’t currently see the effects of climate change in their own lives to feel more engaged and connected, she added.
“We have to begin to see the humanity in each other so we’re motivated to act based on compassion and empathy, and not just when it’s on our front step or in our backyard,” Fant said.