Theses Doctoral

What Future Are We Studying For? School Engagement and Youth Agency in the Youth Climate Movement

Kessler, Erika Lyn

There can be no doubt: human activities are the unequivocal cause of contemporary global warming (IPCC, 2023). The effects of anthropogenic climate change are already being felt worldwide, including loss and damage to both human and natural systems, with vulnerable populations bearing a disproportionate burden (IPCC, 2023). As younger generations will experience the impacts of climate change more severely in scope, severity, and duration, urgent action is necessary to mitigate and adapt to its effects. The fact that so many young people are actively advocating for climate action clearly indicates the urgency of the matter. The time for action is now, and urgent steps must be taken to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change before it is too late.

Consequently, youth voices on climate change have never been more critical or widely publicized. The study of youth climate activists has grown significantly in recent years, but there is still a debate regarding their role in addressing climate change through political participation. Studying youth climate activism is essential to understanding how and why they have become such an influential force in the movement. In this dissertation, I investigate what drives young people to lead in the climate movement, examining what elevates youth concern about climate change, the role of family, friends, and schools in shaping youth climate activism, and how youth activists construct their climate action networks. Through two qualitative and one quantitative analysis, this research contributes to the ongoing debate surrounding youth participation in political action on climate change. The findings emphasize the need to address structural inequalities and promote youth agency in climate education and activism, highlighting the challenges of intergenerational organizing. We must embrace the involvement of young people in the political process and provide them with the necessary platforms to express their views and contribute to climate policy development. Only by doing so can we hope to create a sustainable future for ourselves and future generations.

Climate Change Concern Among Youth: Examining the role of civics and institutional trust across 22 countries

Although scholars have long documented perceptions of climate change and the public’s evolving response to the perceived risk it poses, these analyses have only recently begun examining youth and their views of the issue. Given that education has traditionally been considered a long-term strategy to promote sustainability among youth, this article conducts a cross-national and comparative study of students from 22 countries to evaluate factors commonly associated with youth perceptions of climate change as a threat to the world’s future. In doing so, this study finds that promoting institutional trust and civic knowledge may increase student climate change concern to a greater degree than other, more emphasized, curricular, and co-curricular environmental school opportunities. These new findings reveal potential pathways for future climate change education research, policy, and practice to help promote greater climate awareness and action among youth.

Beyond Traditional Pathways: Understanding Youth Mobilization and Climate Activism in the Face of Inequality

Scholars agree that family, friends, and schools play an essential role in the political socialization and mobilization of youth into activism. Research on these sites, however, overlooked two critical issues. First, family, friends, and schools vary in capacity and provide different resources and support. Second, this inequality means that youth agency is necessary to navigate their way into activism. In this study, I explore the processes of youth becoming climate activists. Drawing on 40 in-depth, semi-structured interviews with young climate activists in New York City, I argue there are multiple pathways to climate activism, which are shaped simultaneously by broader inequality and youth agency. Inequalities embedded within social structures – e.g., family, friends, and schools – spur youth to seek alternative pathways toward climate activism, including peer-to-peer organizing. These pathways have significant implications for how educators and social movements engage young people in learning and addressing climate change issues.

Networks of Change in the In-Between: Bridging and Brokering within the Youth Climate Movement

Scholars emphasize that overlapping networks and affiliations are important predictors of individual and collective participation in social movements. However, we know very little about networks that emerge through activism. The youth climate movement is witnessing diverse forms of youth participation and intergenerational coalitions. Little is known about how youth activists construct their climate action networks and what it means to be part of such networks, especially given the potential for intergenerational activist networks. To address this gap, this study uses in-depth interviews with 40 New York youth climate activists to explore how youth navigate organizing climate action between schools and movement organizations. The study employs a qualitative, mixed analysis design that includes thematic analysis and social network analysis to reveal the cross-organizational interactions of youth and the issue of adultism in the climate movement. The findings indicate that youth activists bridge schools and social movement organizations to form coalitions by leveraging their personal and collective youth power as 'in-between' activists. As a result, they can broker movement goals and coordinate actions by synthesizing information across the network. However, youth activists also face conflicting experiences with adult actors that diminish their potential for equitable organizing.

Geographic Areas


This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2025-10-02.

More About This Work

Academic Units
Comparative and International Education
Thesis Advisors
Pizmony-Levy, Oren
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 4, 2023