The global youth climate strikes of 2019 and early 2020 revealed the desire of young people to address climate change and the injustices associated with it. Yet, despite youth activism, climate-related topics remain marginal in formal education in many countries. In an effort to address this gap and to learn from youth how education systems might better prepare them for a changing planet, we worked with a team of researchers to co-lead a 7-month collaborative teaching and research project called The International Youth Deliberation on Energy Futures 2020. By the end of the project, the students had become a network of newly committed activists with a shared vision of a planet that is alive and well, and a map of what needs to happen to protect it.
Education for a just energy transition
The International Youth Deliberation on Energy Futures gathered secondary students and their teachers online to develop the energy literacy needed to engage in just and sustainable energy transitions. Under the guidance of teachers, researchers, and expert mentors, hundreds of high school students from 18 countries connected through shared curriculum and structured online research exchanges that included critical dialogues, inter-school collaborations, and ongoing discussion via blogs, forums, and videoconferencing. Topics included the meanings and histories of energy justice, transition to energy justice, and creating solidarities. Students expressed their learning through expository writing, artwork, video, and presentations, in which they creatively linked the science of climate and energy to history, emotion, culture, politics, economics, and social life.
Through a layered process that addressed local realities and interconnected systems, students came face-to-face with the experiences, values, and expectations of other young people in contexts often very different from their own. This process helped students understand how energy systems link us all unevenly together—and how we might together make a just energy transition. As one Canadian student commented:
"[W]hen you live in a small place like my small town, you hear a lot of the same ideas...[W]orking with people from all around the world has made me expand my research and expand my ideas. And how does this hold up in India, how does this hold up in Poland, how does this idea work in any other place? Because it is not going to be the same. There are so many other factors to consider. [Each place has] a different government, with different policies, [or] a different economy, [or] a different environment…And so being here with all of this diversity has really made me find out things I don’t think I ever would have seen if it was just me looking on my own."
At the conclusion of the project, students met virtually to summarize their collective vision for a just energy future and to prepare ways to disseminate this vision and the research at its core. They produced a video presentation, an opinion editorial, and an essay, all of which discuss the economic, cultural, and social components of just energy transition, and the need for comprehensive energy education to support these intersecting elements. As an international collective, students recognized the need for collaboration and differentiation in pursuing just energy futures, where some places with limited access require energy provision, while others must reduce energy consumption, “changing the ways we live and consume, and questioning habits that have been engraved in how we live.”
"Being here with all of this diversity has really made me find out things I don’t think I ever would have seen if it was just me looking on my own": Canadian student.
Students want action on climate
In a follow-up session, we asked the students what they had learned and how it had impacted them. Their reflections expressed a sense of urgency about the climate crisis and a need for immediate action. As facilitators, we noticed a shift from previous projects, where students seemed primarily concerned with creating awareness about climate change. The youth in this project said that we have collectively reached a period where climate impacts have become so prevalent and recognized that they were less concerned with creating awareness and more adamant about swift and informed action. As astudent from Ghana said: “it’s time to put the information into use. I am not saying that spreading awareness should stop. It should continue. But at the same time that knowledge should be implemented practically right now because of our circumstance.”
Discussing energy futures—rather than climate change alone—enabled students to address crippling fears of climate heating by considering concrete actions. Students expressed how, prior to the project, they had “a negative and grim perception of the future” (Student, South Korea). In some cases, schools even contributed to students’ sense of hopelessness: “in school we had a very bad vision of the future, like when teachers would say we can do nothing: we [the teachers’ generation] just destroyed the world, and you’re here to live it” (Student, Brazil). Throughout the project, students began to “think like there is actually a future. It isn’t going to end, right now at least” (Student, Brazil). Learning about energy transition gave them the tools to consider possibilities for change: “I always wanted to...help the world and the planet and everything. I just don’t know how. And that’s something that stresses me out a lot. And I didn’t really put much thought on energy. And I liked how this project isn’t only thinking about energy but everything that comes with energy” (Student, Costa Rica). This student’s reference to “everything that comes with energy,” evokes not only the technical components of transition but also the cultures, economics, and politics necessary for a more “cautious” use of resources, as the student from Nigeria described the needed change.
Despite this impetus for change, students remarked on their schools’ lack of engagement with energy futures, especially in ways that encourage learning and collaboration across contexts. Most students had never learned about energy transition, and especially not about justice-related issues. Any previous exposure to energy transition had typically been outside of school, where “youth are really working towards [energy transition], whether it’s through campaigns, or whether they are trying to bring changes into their personal lifestyles” (Student, India). In fact, neither school structures nor curriculum supported building knowledge about energy transition, which meant that most participants committed to working on this project during their evenings and weekends, supported with extra-curricular time by their teachers. One student from South Korea expressed particular frustration with her school, which she perceived as promoting an “individualist mindset” focused on success rather than a “truthful mindset” that would help students address current climate issues.
A global network of climate activists
A truthful mindset is indeed what the students brought to the International Youth Deliberation on Energy Futures 2020. This diverse group of young people confronted many of the difficult realities of climate change and together considered ways forward.
Though the students’ research was excellent, shared with creativity and insight, the friendships and bonds they formed may be the longest lasting impact. Students described the future of their friendships: “We continued talking via WhatsApp and share knowledge, we share some personal things, and I think she is my best friend…I didn’t expect I would have a friend from another continent, and it’s really amazing for me” (Student, Peru). Another extolled “the bonds between all of us, how we would become friends, just, you know, some kind of small family” (Student, Poland).
As a knowledge-sharing family connected over social media, the student-activists who participated in the International Youth Deliberation on Energy Futures are now better prepared to enact the futures they envision. Through their ideas they invite us in.
Lynette Shultz (email@example.com) is Professor and Director of the Centre for Global Citizenship Education and Research at the University of Alberta.
Carrie Karsgaard (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a doctoral candidate in Educational Policy Studies at the University of Alberta, specializing in Theoretical, Cultural, and International Studies in Education.
2020 Participant Schools
Brazil, Colégio Magno
Brazil, Centro Interescolar de Línguas de Taguatinga (CILT)
Canada, Paul William Kaeser High School
Canada, École Michaëlle-Jean
Colombia, Gimnasio Los Caobos
Costa Rica, St. Paul College
Finland, Helsinge skolan in Vantaa
Finland, Lintumetsän koulu
Ghana, Al-Rayan International School
India, The Hyderabad Public School
Indonesia, 42 High School
Kenya, St. Austin’s Academy
Kuwait, A ’Takamul International School
Nigeria, Army Day Secondary School Asokoro
Nigeria, Government Model Secondary School Jikwoyi
Peru, Colegio de Ciencias
Philippines, St. Joseph’s Academy
Poland, Zespół Szkół Nr. 1 w Żorach
Slovenia, Gimnazija Ptuj
South Korea, Asia Pacific International School
Sultanate of Oman, United Private Schools
Uganda, Bukulula Girls High School