Talking climate change:
controversial or crucial?
Talking about climate change these days too often involves politicians shouting at each other. Young people are left out of the conversation. That is, until teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg took to the streets in protest and school children around the world joined her. As the fight for climate action gained momentum, the conversation shifted to those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change: young people.
They know all too well how the climate crisis will affect their future. Climate change is now one of the most prominent causes of anxiety in young people in Australia. They feel neglected and unheard.
Which is why it seems ironic to be discussing how to amplify young people’s voices with a middle-aged woman who questions the legitimacy of ‘climate anxiety’ and young people.
In the Maranoa Region, the heart of Queensland’s mining country, conversations about climate change are hard to come by. Local ecologist Meryl Eddie, along with husband Craig, began environmental consulting firm BooBook with the hopes of developing interrelationships with the community and ecosystem in the South-West Queensland town of Roma. Though BooBook has been operating for over twenty years, the climate crisis means environmental engagement is needed now more than ever.
The Maranoa region stretches over nearly sixty thousand square kilometres of South West Queensland and is home to over twelve thousand residents. In 2022, the region was identified as the electorate in Queensland most at-risk to climate extremes by 2030. It is also the third-most at-risk in Australia.
In a town primarily focused on agriculture and mining, Meryl describes BooBook as “experts in the environmental field”. According to Meryl, there are plenty of resources available for young people to engage more with their local environment.
“I think the [education] barriers are more mind than opportunity. There’s a lot of organisations out there to work and connect young people with the bush,” Meryl said.
“I find that an interesting point, that they think there is a barrier. I think that might be an easy cop out.”
However, the reality of engaging young people with climate change in Roma is perhaps more challenging than people realise. To connect with climate action, there has to be a willingness to discuss it, something which this town noticeably lacks.
A university student from Roma, Abby*, explained that talking about climate change is not something that is encouraged.
“[Climate] is just not something we talk about.”
The seventeen-year-old seemed apprehensive to talk about climate change, even asking not to be named in case of fuelling family tensions. Her father, like many in the Roma community, works for oil and mining exploration company, Santos. She explained that climate change was not a topic discussed at home, in the community, or even among friends.
“[Climate] is just not something we talk about.”
- Abby*, 17, Roma
If young people in Roma are not talking to their family or friends about climate change, that only leaves school. An environment for learning, but as the school strikes revealed, a potential space for activism. However, the current Australian school curriculum only includes environmental related topics through the Humanities and Geography subjects, which are compulsory for Year 7-8 and elective only for Years 9-12.
Abby* explained they only touch on greenhouse gases in senior geography, which very few students choose to study. As the growing push for climate action gains momentum, some countries have even implemented national education programs to address students’ growing concerns. Though Australia’s curriculum is slowly introducing climate change, albeit a diluted version, there are no guidelines or structures for introducing climate conversations in the classroom.
The Roma student explained that a large concern of young people in rural towns is to stick to the social norms of the community.
“I just feel at school we don’t talk about anything political. We don’t talk politically, and I don’t know why that is”.
Monash University research found that as climate change is still considered to be politically controversial, teachers may fear potential accusations of political bias if they do teach climate change. Australian teachers also noted they did not feel supported or confident in teaching climate change to their students.
Young Australians have already dealt with an increase in extreme natural disasters in their short lifetimes. Following the result of last year’s federal election, researchers predicted a “youthquake” of young Australians actively engaging and demanding political reform around the climate crisis. However, it seems young people in Roma might not be a part of the aftershocks.
Most young people who voted based on climate action in the federal election were from metropolitan Australia. Regional Queensland, including the Maranoa region, remains loyal to the Coalition. Meryl believes young people from metro regions need to come and work out in country for a few years to gain a more practical understanding of climate.
“We live and breathe climate day in and day out. We have a broader understanding [than those in the city].”
Understandably, it is a different life in a rural town than the big city. As Meryl explains, there is a large amount of work and labour that goes into managing a remote property, a lifestyle city people cannot relate to.
“You turn on your tap and don’t have to go and get your own water.”
In regional communities like Roma, it's easy to dismiss the concerns of young people. The pressures of study, work, and social life make it hard to find time for political engagement, particularly when it's not encouraged. But young people are the group who will be most confronted by the impacts of climate change. According to scientists, the climate-altered future that young people are facing includes an increase in serious injury or deaths due to extreme natural disasters, food shortage supplies and a potential increase of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases due to poor air quality
Faced with this dismal outlook, a lack of educational resources, and community support, it's not surprising that regional youth are disengaged. Even in a place that has suffered through the full array of extreme weather conditions in just the last five years. But there are signs that something is bubbling under the surface, something more than the rich reserves of coal seam gas.
For Abby*, conversations are the first step.
“That way people can have their say about what they want to do. I think we need to start talking about it before anything.”
Amplifying the voices of regional young people and supporting their discussions could still pave the way for local climate action. But young people need support from families, schools, and their communities if they are going to feel empowered to tackle what their climate- altered futures may look it.