Emerging Voices for the Planet

Given the increasing effects of climate change, growing numbers of young people are engaging in politics to call for urgent action. Inspired by the Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg, who began a 'School Strike for Climate' protest outside her country’s parliament at the age of 15, hundreds of thousands of school students have joined strikes and climate action around Australia.

A team, led out of Western Sydney University, are researching the actions and implications of Australian young people in the climate movement. "Children and young people are excluded or ignored in Australian politics. They can’t vote, yet when they take action and voice their concerns they’re regularly dismissed by politicians, the media and other adult leaders. But actually, they have been organising and campaigning for action on climate change for a long time now," says lead chief investigator and Young and Resilient Research Centre co-director, Professor Philippa Collin.

"As a society we have a lot to gain from better understanding how students are organising, communicating and taking action for climate justice."

Need to know

  • Australia’s young people are finding creative and strategic ways to call for urgent climate action.
  • A team of researchers are collaborating with young people to understand, support and explain the implications of their activism.
  • The research will help governments, educators and community listen to young people and recognise that they can meaningfully contribute to the climate and democratic crises in Australia


"Children and young people are an untapped resource for Australian democracy," says Collin, who has spent 15 years studying youth political participation. "In longitudinal research we find that they are knowledgeable and passionate about many topics and are doing a wide range of work to make a better society."

The significance of this is not lost on others. "Young people get talked down to a lot, because of ageism. But they are very switched on, strategic and are doing incredible work to help make a better future for everyone," says Dr Jenna Condie, who co-leads the Blue Mountains chapter of the Australian Parents for Climate Action (AP4CA) and collaborates with youth organisations through her transdisciplinary curriculum work at Western.

Young people are organising and attending strikes and protests, creating strategic communication, engaging with politicians, taking legal action and building alliances with other groups and networks. It is mainly young women leading these movements — something the project team aims to understand and explain.

Researchers from Western’s Young and Resilient Research Centre have joined forces with the Australian National University, the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) and the University of Sydney to glean what can be learned from the movement to address climate change and strengthen democracy.

Building on foundational work from 2019 - 2022, the three-year, ARC-funded project will use digital ethnography, surveys, in-depth interviews, and visual analysis to explain how young people express their political commitments.

"We would like to create an evidence base of their actions, which demonstrates how these actions can support broader social, cultural and political outcomes," says Western’s Dr Michelle Catanzaro, who will be focusing on the visual and creative aspects of the research.


The multi-disciplinary research team are using a participatory approach to work with young people. "We are not doing research 'on' young people, we are researching with young people," explains Catanzaro. The project has been shaped by students and the team will work with student interns and a student collaborator group as well as employ young people as peer researchers to advise, generate data, analyse and communicate the research.

"As a young person, this research is important as it raises questions about youth activism and Australian democracy that have not been discussed or researched. Young people are taking action for climate change, which will disproportionately affect us," says Anhaar Karim, 15, who has been working with the team. "We see governments dismiss both young people and our concerns. This research will open doors to understanding the insights of young people and what we contribute to politics, leadership and the democracy of Australia."

"This research will open doors to understanding the insights of young people and what we contribute to politics, leadership and the democracy of Australia."


To honour young people’s calls to be heard, the team will co-create actionable insights that can have immediate impact. They have already published several articles and used preliminary findings to contribute to podcasts and a Parliamentary submission to lower the voting age to 16. The submission was led by one of the project’s chief investigators, Professor Judith Bessant, from RMIT.

Bessant argues that ageism has contributed to the dismissal of young voices in politics. "There is a modern, western, historically unique idea of 'the child' or 'the adolescent', whereby young people are infantilised and considered not to have political capacity. However, research shows that young people at 16 do have the cognitive capacity to make political judgements. At 16 in Australia, you are allowed to work, pay tax, enlist in the military and drive a car. You should also be able to vote."

There needs to be an understanding that young people comprehend what is going on in the world and that their messages have equal value to those of adults, Besant says. "They can introduce new understandings and practices to help us mitigate the intersecting climate and democratic crises."

Many of the project’s outputs will be centred around supporting and amplifying the voices of young people. This includes creating an online gallery of visual language used at protests, infographics of survey findings and visualisations of media analysis. "This will be a living archive of youth climate action that young people and their organisations can use, add to, and shape," says Catanzaro.


As an offshoot of the project, Western, the Powerhouse Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Ultimo, Sydney, and student voices from multiple universities have collaborated to showcase the youth debates and messages commonly seen on the streets of the climate strikes. "We are interested in the nexus between protest, art and design and the role visual communication plays in delivering impactful messages," says Catanzaro "this event will explore how formal institutions, such as museums and universities, can support and amplify the voices of young people outside of a protest environment."

"Children and young people in their millions are telling us we must do more now."

The team has faced politicisation of the research when an initial recommendation to fund the research in 2021 was blocked by the Coalition government. The decision was viewed by many as inappropriate political intervention, impeding academic freedom.

This did not deter the team, who are parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents. Catanzaro, who has two young children, says that "although I’ve always been environmentally conscious, becoming a parent really increased the urgency of climate action for me".

The team argue that while young people are doing vital work, climate justice requires community-wide action. "Everyone has a responsibility to recognise the existential threat that we all face and do something," says Bessant. Collin adds: "Children and young people in their millions are telling us we must do more now."

Read more about the project here.


Future-Makers is published for Western Sydney University by Nature Research Custom Media, part of Springer Nature.

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