Climate Crisis and Activism

by | May 2, 2024 | IBBYLink Spring 2024

Dr Devika Mehra


The role of contemporary climate non-fiction in the UK

The climate crisis is a critical global challenge impacting children’s and young people’s well-being. Children and young people are increasingly being found at the forefront of negotiating with the climate crisis, demanding action from the government, forming informal networks, experiencing eco-anxiety, and seeking agency to change the future. In September 2019, more than six million children and young people worldwide protested against the climate crisis, inspired by Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future movement. These movements have reframed climate change as a critical socio-political issue. Individual and collective youth activism (such as Planet for the Planet, Earth Guardians and Fridays for Future) have been tackling climate change for a long time. More and more children and young people are frequently portrayed as the leaders of the future, the ones that the public looks to overcome the effects of environmental and climate inaction (Amy Cutter-Mackenzie and David Rousell). It is essential to consider how learning more about climate change can increase awareness about environmental issues and inspire hope and action to bring about change.

According to UNESCO, education plays a crucial role in promoting climate action. It helps people understand and address the impacts of the climate crisis, empowering them with the knowledge, skills, values and attitudes needed to act as agents of change. Education is seen as a tool to promote climate action by raising awareness, fostering critical thinking and encouraging sustainable behaviours. It is believed to empower individuals to make informed decisions and take action to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Research and policy initiatives have focused on education and children’s services systems, including educational worldviews and intercultural education on climate change and youth-action partnerships. Various international and national policy initiatives such as the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals and UNESCO’s ‘Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) for 2030’ aim to focus on the power of the existing education system to empower young people and to equip them with the agency to tackle the climate crisis.

In recent years, there has been a renewed focus on youth agency and activism concerning climate change post what the media has termed ‘The Greta Effect’. Apart from the school curriculum, there is a surge in demand for fiction and non-fiction books addressing the climate crisis that further promote youth activism and shape youth consciousness to tackle climate change and sustainability. According to Nielsen Book Research data shared with The Observer, the number of new children’s books examining the climate crisis, global warming and the natural world has more than doubled over the past 12 months. Additionally, sales have doubled. (The Guardian). From offering an additional and complementary mode of educating young people to become change-makers for an environmentally sustainable world, they introduce new approaches to tackle the climate crisis through both individual and collective action. With its focus on an imagined future for a better world and its response to the climate crisis, eco-anxiety and youth activism, such varied portrayals in contemporary climate non-fiction for children in the UK continue to hold significance in reconstituting ideas of individual and collective heroism.

As Kimberley Reynolds notes, ‘children’s literature contributes to the social and aesthetic transformation of culture by, for instance, encouraging readers to approach ideas, issues, and objects from new perspectives and so prepare the way for change’ (p.1). Scholars such as Greta Gaard, Nina Goga and Sinéad Moriarty have noted that children’s environmental literature has tremendous potential for communicating eco-social justice, community empowerment and strategies for eco-defence. They might be valuable for children and young people in addressing environmental anxiety, eco-activism and climate catastrophe. Themes and representations in climate non-fiction speak to worries about climate change, a critical understanding of human influences and the belief that change can be accelerated only through collaboration. There is increasing critical and thought-provoking writing about youth activism, climate change, and imagining or challenging environmental futures in contemporary climate non-fiction. Some literary works delve into the topic of environmental justice and examine the relationship between urban and rural spaces.

Additionally, there is also a growing emphasis on books that portray natural disasters like floods, storms, droughts, migration, displacement and conflict as some of the tangible effects of global climate change with supplementary material that includes step-by-step guides facilitating actions that young readers can take to combat these effects. The literature on climate change delves into the pathways taken to get involved; Don’t Panic! We CAN Save the Planet! by James Campbell and Rob Jones (illustrator) and Plastic Sucks! You Can Make a Difference by Dougie Poynter. The outcomes of youth activism: The Extraordinary Life of Greta Thunberg by Devika Jina and Petra Braun, and Climate Rebels by Ben Lerwill. How youth understand and react to climate change: How You Can Save the Planet by Hendrikus van Hensbergen).

Such books reflect the intersections between pedagogy and critical discourse on the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, environmental concerns, climate change and children’s literature scholarship. It is interesting to note whether they foster critical engagement or increase feelings of eco-anxiety. On the one hand, they seek to amplify children’s voices and facilitate activism and civic participation among young people. On the other hand, as alternative modes of knowledge production concerning climate literacy, they become critical eco-pedagogical tools. While they offer a space for children and young people to analyse the interconnections between nature and culture, and the negotiations between humans and non-humans, they also provide new frameworks for understanding the links between youth activism, heroism and climate crisis.

Collective responsibility and the role of the community add to the personal growth framework and incorporate collective youth activism with more general inquiries about mitigating the effects of climate change. For instance, in many non-fiction books, such as Climate Rebels by Ben Lerwill and How You Can Save the Planet by Hendrikus van Hensbergen, approaches to the climate crisis are combined with the need to shape young people’s consciousness and promote climate literacy while introducing the importance of collective responsibility and power. Furthermore, it is essential to note the shift in trajectory towards the ‘community as hero’ portrayal instead of the individual as a hero working alone to bring about transformation. Climate Rebels by Ben Lerwill gives an overview of local and global efforts with short biographical notes focusing on individual actions taken by famous and emerging youth activists in their fight to tackle the climate crisis. How You Can Save the Planet by Hendrikus van Hensbergen consists of accounts of youth activists charting their journey from their initial efforts that eventually culminated in a broader community engagement to address climate change. It includes action steps and a message from the youth activist. Their focus is on tracing how small, individual steps have the potential to inspire a broader transformative movement.

The introduction in Hendrikus van Hensbergen’s How You Can Save the Planet overviews the book, foregrounding a connection between children and young people within the book and the outside world.

Here you will find step-by-step guides to things you can do to help save the planet and stories about young people, just like you, who are taking action. These change-makers and their actions are inventive, creative, fun and ambitious. Some are quiet, and some are loud. But above all, they are hopeful. (van Hensbergen, p.x)

The tone is inspirational, yet the responsibility does not lie alone with children and young people. The foreword of Lerwill’s Climate Rebels foregrounds this as well. This book tells the stories of ordinary people who have been inspired to stand up and make a real difference in the future of our world. These stories bring us hope, but they also show us something vital: ‘no matter where we live or how old we are, we too can make a difference’ (Lerwill, p.3). This shift in focus from the individual to the community can more effectively invite critical engagement with the climate crisis.

As Sinéad Moriarty discusses in Modeling Environmental Heroes in Literature for Children: Stories of Youth Climate Activist Greta Thunberg, the ‘community as hero’ idea put forth by Roni Natov is a more effective model for environmental narratives for kids because it gets around the traditional hero narrative’s individualism (p.1). According to Hourihan, conventional hero narratives focus on the individual hero’s journey, trials and tribulations, and eventual success (p.68). However, when one re-engages with books emphasising the community as a hero, a space is created for placing the responsibility on the community and the world. The hero narrative’s individualism is combined with a group’s commitment to bring about transformation. While it offers agency to children and young people to take action to tackle the climate crisis, it does not necessarily shift the total responsibility on them instead of adults. They provide modes of empowerment while not overburdening or increasing debilitating feelings of eco-anxiety or guilt.

Not only is there a focus on the agency of any individual, be it children and young people or adults, but there is an underlying stress on hope and hopeful accounts that will inspire positive change, alleviating the ongoing feelings of eco-anxiety. Often, a foreword or afterword would have inspirational and reassuring quotes to encourage young people while easing their fears. The intention is to make children, and young people feel that several others like them care about the environment. While they start with individual action, they can gain more strength by being part of a local, regional or global group. They form a broad corpus of varied books that can together fulfil the need to promote activism and agency. In resistance to placing the sole responsibility on individual children and young people, they can offer a far more adequate space for fostering discussions on climate change and ways to combat it from the micro- to the macro-levels; contemporary climate non-fiction mixes facts with creative and simple steps that have the potential to engage and inspire young readers.

Works cited

Campbell, James (illus. Rob Jones) (2024) Don’t Panic! We CAN Save the Planet. London: Bloomsbury Children’s Books.

Jina, Devika (illus. Petra Braun) (2020) The Extraordinary Life of Greta Thunberg. Extraordinary Lives no.16. London: Puffin.

van Hensbergen, Hendrikus (2021) How You Can Save the Planet. London: Puffin.

Lerwill, Ben (2020) Climate Rebels. London: Puffin.

Moriarty, Sinéad (2021) Modeling Environmental Heroes in Literature for Children: Stories of Youth Climate Activist Greta Thunberg. The Lion and the Unicorn, 45(2), pp.192–210.

Poynter, Dougie (2017) Plastic Sucks! You Can Make a Difference. London: Macmillan.

Reynolds, Kimberley (2007) Radical Children’s Literature Future Visions and Aesthetic: Transformations in Juvenile Fiction. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Dr Devika Mehra is an Early Career Fellow based at the School of English Literature, Language, and Linguistics at Newcastle University. She is the current recipient of the Vivian Yenika-Agbaw International Scholarship Grant (Children’s Literature Association) and the 2022 Inclusion, Participation, and Engagement fellowship grant (School of Advanced Study, University of London) for a research project investigating the role of children’s literature archives, children’s archive centres and libraries in promoting diversity. She has worked as a postdoctoral research associate on the British Academy-funded project team at Newcastle University that combined two interconnected strands: exploring the importance of Black British children’s literature archives and the role of young people’s voices in increasing representation in children’s prize culture. Her areas of interest include twentieth-century and contemporary children’s fiction in global contexts, Indian and global children’s cinema, children’s publishing in India, children’s literature archives and digital humanities methods, and digital texts for children.