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Are young people really denying the climate crisis?

By Ruby Stirling

There is a new type of climate denial epidemic emerging in our generation: why do people continue to deny the facts?

The Centre for Countering Digital Hate’s report last month declared that a third of UK teenagers believe climate change to be exaggerated, sparking concerns over the hardiness of climate denial to withstand another generation. Alarm bells need not ring just yet, however – the evidence is perhaps not quite as damning as it first appears.

The report describes the emergence of a “new denial” of the climate crisis, which concedes that yes, climate change is real and anthropogenic, but that no, the solutions proposed by scientists and politicians to mitigate it are neither effective nor reliable. This describes a marked acclimatisation of denial narratives in light of condemning evidence of the climate being directly impacted by human activity. Claims of these “new” narratives include clean energy not working, the harmful nature of climate policies, or that activists are untrustworthy. This is in an attempt to both promote and justify climate inaction without the stigma of being a climate conspiracist

This echoes the UK Government’s climate rhetoric: that solutions to the climate crisis yield little benefits considering their exorbitant costs, despite mainstream pragmatic economic analyses concluding otherwise. But whilst this approach is somewhat endemic to Rishi Sunak’s generation, where avoidance narratives have both fostered and prolonged inaction towards climate and housing crises, what is the alleged allure of climate denial for Gen-Z?

CCDH’s report points to social media as the primary culprit, particularly the circulation of YouTube videos that claim to discredit prominent climate activism. The 2021 crackdown on climate misinformation on the platform has curbed the proliferation of traditional climate myths, which included the outright denial of climate change. But the rise of “new denial” narratives is now reported to represent an overwhelming majority of 70% of total claims. 

It doesn’t take much to recognise the motivations behind the hands sowing these seeds of doubt. So long as platforms such as YouTube continue to allow creators to monetise these videos, they will continue to grow. This is only exacerbated by algorithms in which those circulating the most sensationalist rhetoric reap the highest rewards.

Of course, this is not a cognitive battle for millions of young people outside of the UK who are dealing with the environmental, social, and economic repercussions of over two centuries of greenhouse gas consumption in the Global North. It is a source of shame that nearly one-third of the teenagers polled failed to address this – but by no means illustrates the outright climate denial problem that some have attributed to Gen-Z.

What the 31% of 13–17-year-olds included in the poll did agree with was the statement that climate change and its effects have been purposefully exaggerated. This by no means necessitates that this faction concurs with either new or old denial narratives, and instead likely references widely circulating smears on popular climate activists. Claims that Greta Thunberg had predicted that humanity would be wiped out by 2023, for example, were proven to be a result of widespread distortion: she had in fact shared an article summarising the work of climate expert James Anderson, who had called for a ban on all fossil fuel use by 2023 in an attempt to protect polar ice.

It is likely this is the ‘purposeful exaggeration’ in question, not the consensus of scientific bodies and experts. Considering that the report also describes a decrease in the number of climate denial videos at large, the alleged denial epidemic suddenly appears a lot less concerning.

In fact, such attention to the supposed rise of climate denial is likely to do more harm than good, particularly considering the current precariousness of polarisation and the often self-fulfilling nature of labels on young people. It is both unfair and dangerous to characterise any generation in such a light, but particularly one as heterogenous and politically engaged as Gen-Z.

What we can thank the CCDH report for, nonetheless, is the reminder of the need for astute political messaging surrounding the climate crisis. It is only through this that the global energy system can address its third challenge: achieving the widespread support for net-zero that it critically needs.


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