Research Summary

The Youth Leading Environmental Change project: A mixed-method longitudinal study across six countries

An environmental justice framework can be an effective way to create motivation for action and help youth better understand the complexity of global climate change and sustainability


This study investigated the effectiveness of the Youth Leading Environmental Change (YLEC) program in engaging young people in environmental action over the course of a year. YLEC is an 11-unit workshop series designed for youth ages 16 - 26, with a focus on environmental justice and on building action competence.

Four active components provide the framework of the series: (1) fostering systems thinking, (2) encouraging personal reflection, (3) building action competence, and (4) providing role modeling and support. Workshop activities include a presentation by someone who has personally been impacted by environmental injustice; a live video exchange between students from an economically developing country dealing with the negative impacts of global climate change and students from a wealthier country experiencing fewer current impacts of climate change; a reflection journal; a variety of interactive lectures and discussions; and an action project. Implementation of the series was peer facilitated by two young, local environmental leaders under the guidance of a university professor from each country.

In this quasi-experimental design, 365 university students from Bangladesh, Canada, Germany, India, Uganda, and the United States participated in either the workshop (N=131) or comparison group (N=234). All participants completed a baseline (pre-test) survey and a follow-up six and 12 months after completion of the workshop. The workshop group also completed the survey at a three-month follow-up, and 63 students from the workshop group participated in semi-structured interviews at the 3-month follow-up. All six countries were represented in the group of interviewees. In addition to background information about the participants, survey items and interview questions also collected information about participants’ general interest in environmental issues, intrinsic motivation to act for the environment, engagement in environmental actions, and belief in one’s own skills and abilities needed to effectively engage in community action.

Results indicated that most workshop participants experienced a significant personal transformation in how they relate to environmental issues and how they perceive themselves as agents of change. The action project was identified most consistently as being an especially impactful experience. This was followed in significance by the environmental justice speaker and the international exchange. Although there was an increase in environmental action in the month following the workshop series, rates of environmental action reverted close to baseline levels at the 12-month follow-up for many participants.

From the interviews, three major shifts in perspective were identified: (1) from a mostly cognitive connection to environmental issues toward a deeper emotional connection, (2) from environmental issues being somewhat abstract to being very concrete and real, and (3) from viewing environmental issues in a somewhat simple and one-dimensional way to seeing the multi-scalar and complex systemic nature of these issues.

The findings of this study suggest that the YLEC program is an effective approach and that an environmental justice framework can be an effective way to simultaneously create motivation for action that is fueled by compassion and empathy and promote systems thinking that helps youth more clearly understand the complexity of global climate change and sustainability. However, additional research is necessary to understand how to keep youth engaged over the long-term.