Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg started skipping school every Friday to protest climate change in front of parliament. Soon, students in more than 71 countries began following her lead.
But before she created a worldwide movement, the 16-year-old had to convince her parents climate change was important enough to miss school. She made a convincing argument with facts and documentaries.
“After a while, they started listening to what I actually said,” Thunberg told the Guardian. “That’s when I realized I could make a difference.”
Her father, an actor and author, became a vegetarian. Her mother, an opera singer, gave up air travel, to the detriment of her career.
“Over the years, I ran out of arguments,” Thunberg’s father told the Guardian. “She kept showing us documentaries, and we read books together. Before that, I really didn’t have a clue. I thought we had the climate issue sorted. She changed us and now she is changing a great many other people. There was no hint of this in her childhood. It’s unbelievable. If this can happen, anything can happen.”
The way Thunberg changed her parents’ mind is no surprise, according to new research published this week in the journal Nature Climate Change. A team of ecologists and social scientists from North Carolina University have found that children are exceptionally gifted at influencing their parents’ beliefs when it comes to climate change, according to Scientific American.
Children, unlike their parents, do not yet have entrenched political views affecting their outlook on the world. And parents may be more open to hearing their children’s thoughts on hot button topics like climate change and sexual orientation, Scientific American says. The scientists behind the research credit this openness to trust, “which doesn’t necessarily exist between two adults talking to each other,” graduate student Danielle Lawson, the paper’s lead author, tells Scientific American.
Researchers found that fathers and conservative parents shifted their attitudes the furthest after hearing their kids’ viewpoints, and that daughters were more effective than sons. They guess that girls may be better communicators as teenagers, or are perhaps more concerned about climate change to begin with.
Scientists are excited about the possibility of their work being taken seriously by those who otherwise shrug off climate change despite the facts.
“These encouraging results suggest that not only are children increasingly engaged in advocating for their future, they are also effective advocates to their parents,” climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University tells Scientific American. “ As a woman myself and someone who frequently engages with conservative Christian communities, I love that it’s the daughters who were found to be most effective at changing their hard-nosed dads’ minds.”
Nicole Holthuis, a researcher in science education at Stanford University, acknowledges that scientists and educators often believe people will understand and respect facts, but that’s not always the case given how political topics like climate change have become.
“With this study, they’re addressing a critical need to acknowledge that the sociopolitical aspects of climate change make it very difficult for people to take [the facts] in,” she says. “Maybe we can leverage these intergenerational relationships in ways that can be very productive.”
Researchers also found that stripping politics out of the conversation and keeping parents’ attention on what was happening to the climate locally was more effective than actively lecturing them about how the entire Earth has been changing. Parents were asked questions by their kids like, “How have you seen the weather change? Have you ever seen the sea-level rise?” says Lawson’s the study’s author. “We wanted to take climate change out of it just to make it more ideologically neutral.”
Now researchers are looking into how intergenerational discussions can help prove the science behind climate change in a world where conspiracy theories abound.
“This model of intergenerational learning provides a dual benefit,” Lawson, the paper’s lead author, told Scientific American. “[It prepares] kids for the future since they’re going to deal with the brunt of climate change’s impact. And it empowers them to help make a difference on the issue now by providing them a structure to have conversations with older generations to bring us together to work on climate change.”